Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Time spent working and studying in the first year:
What do students tell us?

Barbara de la Harpe
Faculty of Education

Alex Radloff and Lesley Parker
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University of Technology


University students have always engaged in paid work while studying, but in recent years worldwide trends indicate that more and more students are finding it necessary to engage in paid work while studying (Astin, 1993; Chambers, 1992; Kalsner, 1991). In Australia, these trends have been exacerbated by changes in Austudy and HECS increases. From the perspective of student learning outcomes, it is important for tertiary educators to consider the implications of this increasing trend for students to engage in paid work.

In this paper we present some research findings related to student work and study. We describe the method used to gather data on a group of first year Education students' study and work patterns, outline our results, consider reasons for the findings, discuss the educational implications, and consider the dilemmas which working students pose for tertiary teachers.

The impact of paid work on students

The impact of paid work on student learning has been well documented in a number of studies, (Astin, 1993; McInnis, 1995) which indicate that engaging in paid work may have both negative and positive implications for students.

Possible negatives include the following:

Possible positives include the following: Given the existing evidence for the impact of paid work on student learning and the apparent increase in the number of students with jobs, we wanted to know how many of our first year students were working and how much out of class time they spent working and studying.

Gathering data about paid work and study

As part of a larger study focussing on supporting student learning, information was gathered about students' study and work patterns. First year Education students (N = 111) enrolled full time in a core course in Educational Psychology completed a questionnaire about their learning. Included in the questionnaire were items about students' backgrounds, study experience, hours per week spent studying, and hours spent doing paid work. The items were:

Questionnaire items

Students' Semester Weighted Averages (SWAs) for Second Semester were also collected, and student responses to the questionnaire and their SWAs were then collated and analysed using SPSS.

Our findings

Students' ages ranged from 17 to 46 with a mean of 20.5 and a standard deviation of 5.19, and 79.3% were less than 21 years of age. The majority of students (86%) were female. Two thirds (67%) were school leavers, almost a quarter (23%) were non-school leavers with previous tertiary experience and 10% were non-school leavers with no previous tertiary experience.

More than two thirds of students (69.4%) reported that they had a part time job, and of this group, the majority came from the school leaver group (70%), followed by the non-school leaver group with previous tertiary experience (26%). Only 4% came from the non-school leaver group with no previous tertiary experience.

The number of hours students reported working each week ranged from 5 to 40, with a mean of 16.05 hours and a mode of 10 hours per week. The mean reported number of hours worked per week by the school leavers was 15.08 hours, by the non-school leavers with previous tertiary experience was 17.42 hours, and by the non-school leavers with no tertiary experience was 3.50 hours.

Students' age correlated significantly with hours spent working (r = -.192, p = .048), studying (r = .223, p = .023) and SWAs (r = .188, p = .049). Older students worked fewer hours, studied for more hours, and had higher SWAs.

Time spent working was correlated with academic achievement. The correlation between hours spent working and SWAs was statistically significant (r = -.254, p = .009), with the more hours students reported working, the lower their SWAs.

Students reported studying for Education 102 on average 2.27 hours per week, with hours of study ranging from 0 to 9. Ten percent of students reported spending no time studying for Education 102. School leavers, non-school leavers with no previous tertiary experience and non-school leavers with previous tertiary experience all reported similar amounts of study time. Similarly, no differences were found between working and non-working students in time spent studying for Education 102.

Implications for teaching and learning

The data indicates that this group of first year students, like many others in the world, engage in paid work. The majority of students with jobs came from the school leaver group. Non-school leavers without previous tertiary experience reported the least number of hours spent working. However, the latter group comprises mainly mature age women with family commitments, who are therefore assumed to be engaged in unpaid work. Thus, both younger and older students have work commitments while studying. This means that although all the students surveyed were enrolled in full time study, the majority were spending a considerable number of hours per week on activities unrelated to their study. While academics may lament this trend and long for the days when full time students were really full time, the realities of today's university classrooms are very different.

The hours which students spent studying Education 102, at just over two hours per week, amounted to less than the three hours of class contact time. This was for a core 25 credit point unit which included three short answer tests, two research project reports, and a final exam, and is often described by students as 'heavy', 'demanding', 'effortful' and 'hard'. Using the generally accepted formula of two hours of study outside class for every hour spent in class, we would expect students to be devoting about six hours a week on this unit in total. In fact, only five students reported spending at least six hours per week studying. The low number of hours which students reported studying may be explained by how they interpreted the question, with some students possibly only including hours spent learning for tests or exams and not time spent completing assignments. Even if this explanation is correct, in our estimation, students would have needed to spend about three and a half hours per week learning the material which was assessed in the tests and exam.

Despite the above situation, we found no relationship between reported hours of study and SWAs, suggesting that amount of time spent studying is not related to academic performance. Clearly, this lack of relationship may be due to how students interpreted the question and needs further investigation. Another possible explanation is in terms of students' metacognitive skills: students may have difficulty assessing how long they actually study, or reflecting on and understanding what behaviours comprise studying. Students may have developed certain study habits at school where most learning is assumed to take place in the classroom and any outside study is highly structured and teacher controlled. Finally, students may just not be interested enough or able to resist other activities which compete with study time. However, this is at their peril, as much of what students gain from their studies is a function of the amount of time they devote to class-related activities out of class time (Pace cited in Kuh, 1995, p9).

The lesson for those teaching first year students is that, if they expect or want students to spend their out of class time productively, they must make expectations very clear and provide support and guidance. As one student said,

'[Lecturers should give] a bit more guidance...I guess I wish to be indicated that this is exactly where you should be reading and this is what you need to be doing....I just find it hard to find a lot of information and then to sort out what is relevant and what is not relevant and what is needed and what I should be doing outside of campus time. How much time should be allocated for this and the certain components of the different units.'
Universities also have a role to play in encouraging students to be involved in university life, while 'Colleges cannot force students to participate in organised campus activities or perform leadership roles. They can and should be accountable for creating the conditions that promote such behaviour' (Kuh, 1995, p18).

Our dilemma

Our findings have implications for the quality of teaching and learning at university. They highlight some real dilemmas for tertiary teachers, including the three below.
What is our responsibility - ethically and practically - to students who work?

What advice should be given, especially to first year students, about work and academic achievement?

Is there anything which we can do to strike a balance between time spent working and time spent studying?


Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Chambers, E. (1992). Work-load and the quality of student learning. Studies in Higher Education, 17(2), 141-153.

Fairnie, I. & Forde, P. (1996). Pilot student and jobs survey. Paper presented at the Second Annual FYE (First Year Experience) Seminar. Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

Kalsner, L. (1991). Issues in college student retention. Higher Education Extension Service Review, 3(1), 1-10.

Kuh, G. D. (1995). The other curriculum: Out-of-class experiences associated with student learning and personal development. Journal of Higher Education, 66(2).

McInnis, C., James, R. & McNaught, C. (1995). First year on campus. A commissioned project of the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Wilkie, C. & Jones, M. (1994). Academic benefits of on-campus employment to first-year developmental education students. Journal of The Freshman Year Experience, 6(2), 37-56.

Please cite as: de la Harpe, B., Radloff, A. and Parker, L. (1997). Time spent working and studying in the first year: What do students tell us? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p73-77. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University.

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