I want more ECTS…

…credit points. This is a usual request from students, in particular in connection with the “Konstruktionsübungen”, i.e. the practical parts of our courses.

Actually, what these students usually mean is the following: They argue that the ECTS credits they got for a particular course were too few for the workload they have done.

Could well be.

ECTS credit points for a course state the average workload for successfully passing the course. If one thinks of a Gaussian normal distribution of the real workload over a larger set of students, one clearly sees that maybe half of the students in this set need to work more than what is stated with credit points. Some of them might even need to work a lot more. In capital letters: A LOT MORE.


The “European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System” (ECTS) states that a student should have a workload of 60 ECTS credit points per academic year. This amounts to 1500 to 1800 working hours, each hour consisting of 60 minutes.

In Austria, we have decided that this amounts to approximately 1500 hours.


Here, I already get a big smile. According to this, we must be a lot smarter in Austria than the rest around. To be precise: We think that we are 10% smarter than all others.

Let me summarize: If a single student feels that a course required more workload than it yielded in ECTS credit points, it does not say anything. Assuming a normal distribution, almost half of the students need to have these feelings if the ECTS credit points are set correctly for this particular course.

It is hardly ever the case that a student states that the workload for a course was less than it yielded in terms of ECTS credit points. Therefore, we typically have no basis for discussing the issue at all.

How could we solve this?

First of all, we would need to start measuring. This would require students to record their workload. This is something which most employed people are used to do on daily basis. This is why I am asking students to record working time in all of my courses. I also explicitly state why I want  them to do this: I need to collect sufficiently many workloads in order to get a fair picture of how much work the requirements of a particular course produces.

I must say that many students kind of refuse to do this measuring. They think that it is not my business to know about their workload. Can you see the principle problem with this attitude? If too many students refuse to tell me about their workload, I need to guess. We teachers are usually not good in guessing. 🙂 Sorry guys: Start recording your workload. Report your workload to the teachers. Publish your workloads. Then we can start talking in real about not getting enough ECTS credits for a particular course.

Then we would also start talking about those other courses where you get ECTS credits virtually “for free”.

Here comes the bullet:

In case you are “an average European student” according to ECTS,  you need to work 1650 times 60 minutes per academic year. At an Austrian university, an academic year consists of 2 semesters, each lasting for 15 weeks. Let’s assume that our “average European student” works only for these 30 weeks in an academic year. Under this assumption, our “average European student” needs to work for 1650/30 hours per week. This amounts to 55 working hours per week.  9 hours per day, 6 days a week.

Life is cruel, isn’t it? Even for an “average European student”. Assuming a normal distribution, half of the European students are slower than average. Guess, how much more they would need to work per week in order to finish in time?

Other European universities have more like 40 weeks of contact time per academic year. Thus, they can divide the 1650 average hours of work by 40. With this, they are getting 41,25 working
hours per week. Why don’t we go for more weeks per semester? Wouldn’t this be a smart move. Check out KTH Stockholm as an example for good practice.

A final note:

To my mind, it is wise to consider the workload for a lecture always together with the workload for the corresponding practical. Only togetherness makes sense here. Even if you find “Vorlesung” and “Konstruktionsübung” separated in the curriculum, think of them as “one thing”. If you do not think of these two as one thing, you create a distorted picture.

Apropos “picture”: The first one who is able to tell me details about where I took the photo on the top of this posting from gets a box of chocolates from me. This offer lasts until end of April, 2014, only.

21 thoughts on “I want more ECTS…

  1. Rene

    > Assuming a normal distribution, almost half of the students need to have these feelings if the ECTS credit points are set correctly for this particular course.

    Not necessarily. That depends on the standard deviation. With a high standard deviation, this is true. If the standard deviation is low, though, it means that a lot of students are actually very close to the mean value. I’d assume that students that actually complain (students that can “feel” that they work more than the ECTS they get) must work significantly more, or else they wouldn’t notice. I doubt anyone would complain about working slightly more. So if half of the students complain, it means that half of the students work _significantly_ more than expected.

    > First of all, we would need to start measuring. This would require students to record their workload.

    This sounds great. I log my work time for RNA, simply because it’s in the exercise instructions, and I found it to be quite nice. It’s feedback for myself too.

    Do you publish these statistics at the end of the course? I’d be really interested in those numbers, and it might work as an incentive for people to contribute as well (knowing that they’ll also get feedback).

    > Apropos “picture”: The first one who is able to tell me details about where I took the photo on the top of this posting from gets a box of chocolates from me.

    My guess would be that it was taken at the International Student Conference 2013 here in Graz. 😀

    1. kcposch Post author

      I published detailed numbers for the course Rechnerorganisation from 1993 until 2008. Then I stopped. The reason for this was that I found it more and more difficult to collect enough data from the students; and then I got a bit bored after 15 years of doing this and therefore got sloppy with these statistics. The typical result was always that the quick students were roughly 10 times faster than the slow ones. This corresponds to figures on productivity reported from the software industry.

      About your guess regarding the origin of the picture: Sorry, your guess is wrong.

    1. kcposch Post author

      Your are perfectly right with this. I could claim that I put this into the text to test how concentrated people are when they read my posts. I have meanwhile corrected this error.

  2. Christoph

    I’d suppose one of the reasons why students ‘refuse’ to log or simply fake their time reports is that they suspect that all that information would be used against them one way or another.
    Just take the typical group exercise. Students are told time and time again that people that just tag along in groups will be punished / eliminated. Combine that with the very plausible assumption of some students being vastly faster than others and you have made yourself a situation where no one will ever willingly submit time keeping records that differ from their own group members by any amount that can not be contributed to noise ….
    And hardly anyone will ever publicly admit that they did _not_ have to invest a lot of time. Just listen to what people say about the Operating Systems exercise. Anyone saying that they liked the exercise and did not have a hard time with it will get frowned upon by a lot of other students.

    Things just get worse for students with ‘mandatory’ version control systems provided for some group exercises. Some tasks of group exercises can easily be finished by sitting together as a team in front of one pc for a few hours / half a day (especially if some group members have experience in that area). Now what will “of course” happen here is that the work that was done will get mutilated into bits and pieces and committed by all group members over several days / weeks, just for fear of someone being labeled a tag a long due to only one person doing one commit into version control / vcs stats being heavily skewed.

    We have the oral exams at the end of all exercises anyway to see if every group member understood the things that were done. And really, isn’t the whole point of the exercise to teach a lesson about a specific field and not to teach a lesson about how to make sure that no one group member might look like he did less “work” than the others ….

    So, my point being, if you want to have reasonable statistics then it might be necessary to first tone down all the rhetorics against “tag alongs” / “cheaters”.
    Which, in my opinion, might be a very smart move anyway. You will never teach someone who does not want to learn, but create a stupid incentive for all the others to screw with all the possible statistics you could hope get from them.

    1. kcposch Post author

      Let me summarize your message: “Our university teaching is in a terrible shape. It seemingly cannot get worse. Students are believed to suspect teachers to be some sort of learning police happy to catch and punish wrong-doers; and teachers are believed to suspect students to be a bunch of liars and cheaters.”

      Even if we were only close to the above assumption, we would need to re-boot the whole “show” with different and hopefully better parameters. Where on earth do our students get such a distorted picture of learning? Where on earth do our teachers get such a distorted picture of teaching? Is it time for a radical change?

      1. Christoph

        Your summary leaves out a part that I perhaps did not really convey in a good way:

        Due to all the “rules” / arbitrary checks in place for stuff like group exercises students are simply incentivized to make their “group” appear as normal and typical as possible (not counting the few exceptional groups that usually pop up in most exercises). The message told to students time and time again is to “do equal work” / “spend equal time” and not to just learn what lessens should be learned and work as a team in whatever way fits you best. When (at least I believe so) most lecturers really just want to have students engage in their topic and learn something from it.
        There is some strange kind of dissonance between what lecturers state about their goals and about their rules …

        If one looks at things in an extremely cynical way, then there is simply zero incentive for a student to ever say that he did not spend a ton of time on their task. Zero.

        A student that is eager and happy to learn won’t (directly) benefit from it, he already did the lecture and will most likely not do it again.
        Even if the students that follow him could benefit by having perhaps a more challenging and engaging course then saying that he did not spend a ton of time is viewed as making the life of ones peers “harder” …
        Which is, “of course”, a bad thing …
        So this student that was bored throughout the course just shuts up and does not provide the feedback that he was bored. And that’s how one ends up with totally broken / biased statistics.

        So, yes, as a cynical person one really has to argue that it’s time for a very radical change:

        Get rid of any kind of rules regarding team work / exercises. Explicitly allow all the work to be done by just one group member. But fold the oral exams for the exercises and the typically written exams for the lecture into one big oral exam for both, perhaps at the same time. Sure some students will try to game the system. But these would try to game any system you set up…

        As a student I would have vastly preferred a system like that.

  3. Christoph

    I just want to clarify one (important) thing:
    I’m not specifically talking about any of your lectures. I have not attended one of your lectures (or exercises) in years, so I am talking about what I see happening in general.

    1. Daniel

      Hey Christoph!

      I found your perspective on exercises at our university very interesting and i would really like to talk with you about how we could improve the situation.
      Maybe if you read this and drop me an email to daniel@gruss.cc i would be thankful 😉


      1. Christoph

        Hi Daniel,

        It seems that I failed to emphasize that I was only talking about the problem of getting statistics on time spent during exercises via student feedback. And specifically about why students are disincentivized from submitting real data.

        I was happy with all the exercises I partook in. Yes, even the operating systems one 🙂

        And I also do not have any good suggestions for improving the mode of operation within the constraints that seem to be in place (budget / personnel limits) .

  4. Erich Wenger

    You took the picture on 15.12.2013 at 14:49:46 (exif info). Our christmas party was on the 14.12. at Schloss Gabelhofen in Fohnsdorf. On the 15.12. most of us were at Spa Aqualux. However, I have not seen you there… But I guess that you were somewhere in or near Fohnsdorf?!

    1. kcposch Post author

      The EXIF is perfectly right. The X-Mas Party was on the 13th, however. On Sunday, I was approximately 400 kilometers from Fohnsdorf.

  5. Ralph Ankele

    The picture was taken anywhere in or near Bologna, Italy, but I am not quite sure where exactly. My guess is at the university of Bologna. Your blog post is about ECTS, the Bologna process took place in Bologna. It also fits the 400 kilometres radius to Fohnsdorf.

  6. Teresa Klatzer

    Okay, I think I found out some details about the artwork. It is from Roman Opalka and it is part of his series 1965 / 1 – inf., where he basically wrote down numbers. One of his later contributions, because he started his lifetime art project by drawing numbers on black underground with white brush, and later moved on to lighter underground colors with black brush. I know I saw this artwork somewhere in real, but I cannot tell for sure… Could it be that you took the photo in Venice, at Punta della Dogana? There were some artworks of Opalka shown at the time the picture was taken. (Aww I hope I am correct …)

    1. kcposch Post author

      BINGO! You deserve the box of chocolates. I knew that someone out there would figure this out. The artist’s name is correct. However, I saw this artwork in the Lenbachhaus (http://www.lenbachhaus.de/) in Munich. Now we only need to arrange how you get your prize. Pick it up after Easter in my office.

      And to all the other guys out there: Thank you for participating.

      1. Teresa Klatzer

        Yeah!!! 😀 While researching the answer I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes! And what an irony, I’ve been to Lenbachhaus too, but I guess 4-5 years ago, that’s why my memories of that painting were so faint. I will come and pick up the chocolates next week in your office, thank you 🙂

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