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Our Modular Course Structure (a.k.a. ECTS Madness Explained)

Update 2013-12-04: On the heels of this blog post comes the information that 2,5 ECTS courses are indeed “verboten” and that the ministry wants to kill 7,5 ECTS courses as well. As to the survival of 7,5 ECTS courses, stay tuned…


European Universities account for study work using ECTS, the European Credit Transfer System. Students and lecturers alike easily get confused about ECTS and the older German SWS. Yet, it is important to understand how to calculate effort, because most of the course system (and some important accounting) depends on it. We have built our curriculum around a modular course structure based on ECTS-measured effort, so here we go.

Our courses all follow the same structure. At the core is a class with basic pre- and postwork for 2,5 ECTS points. Students can then take

  1. this class with homework for 5 ECTS points,
  2. this class + homework + project work for 10 ECTS points.

Class and homework is self-explanatory. “Project” is our approach to teaching: For every course, a student can take a project that runs for the whole semester. Taking a project serves to enhance the student’s learning experience by applying new-found knowledge to a real-world challenge (typically facilitated by our industry partners).

So, what does “5 ECTS points” mean?

ECTS points are a unit for measuring study work effort. They correspond to real hours. One ECTS point consists of 30 hours of study work.

In more detail: By EU consensus, students have to perform study work of 1800 hours per year, worth 60 ECTS points. In a semester system like FAU’s, students thus have to perform 30 ECTS points per semester. A semester consists of 6 months in total, including both about 3 months of lecture time and 3 months of no-lecture time (so-called “Semesterferien”, a bad misnomer). All effort calculations relate to 6 months real time, including the no-lecture time.

Cross checking, this adds up:

Required annual effort = 1800 hours = 2 semesters * 30 ECTS points / semester * 30 hours / ECTS point

as requested by the EU.

30 ECTS per semester is a lot of work, in particular if students cram it into the about 15 weeks of lecture time that a semester provides. Thus, students are typically happy if they can exactly land on 30 ECTS and not do more (or less). We created only 5 and 10 ECTS courses to make it easy to reach exactly 30 ECTS. We intended to create 2,5 ECTS courses to help out students who get locked-in by 7,5 ECTS courses, however, the ministry of education of the state of Bavaria forbids 2,5 ECTS courses. So we’ll probably have to come up with 7,5 ECTS courses as well.

The figure below depicts the breakdown of one course into the effort required of the 5 ECTS and 10 ECTS course variants:

The figure displays the desired modularity of “class + pre-/postwork” + “homework” + “project work” nicely. It equates to 2,5 ECTS class + 2,5 ECTS homework + 5 ECTS project work effort, totaling up to 10 ECTS points. As a consequence, many of our classes provide these 5 or 10 ECTS point variants. Examples are AMOS, PROD, and NYT. We deliberately design our courses this way.

The following table summarizes the work effort by course variant:

# ECTS Points Total Effort Class Presence Class Pre-/Postwork Homework Effort Project Effort
1 2,5 75 hours 4 hours/week 1 hour/week N/A N/A
2 5 150 hours 4 hours/week 1 hour/week 5 hours/week N/A
3 10 300 hours 4 hours/week 1 hour/week 5 hours/week 10 hours/week

Class presence in the table above, measured in hours per week, are so-called “semester week hours” (SWS) where “one hour” corresponds to 45 real-time minutes. Thus, a class that has an official 4 SWS in real-time will actually consume 4 * 45min = 180min = 3h during a teaching week. That’s why there sometimes is a course with 3 real-time hours straight, totaling 4 SWS. The professors, in agreement with students, take only short breaks or drop them altogether.

The hours per week in the table above are the time that a course designer allocates to the respective part of a course, be it the class and its pre- and postwork, the homework, or the project work. It all adds up :-) I’m not sure why we assume 15 weeks per-semester lecture-time, but that’s how we are being told it is calculated. Real semesters have either 13 or 14 weeks of lecture time. I guess the additional one or two weeks of exam preparation need to be counted as well.

Semester week hours may sound archaic, but that’s how the German university system calculates teaching duty. While students are being afforded actual work effort accounting, lecturers still have their teaching duties calculated using fantasy hours. One “semester-week-hour” consumes anything from 1 to 8 hours (or more in extreme cases) of real-time work, depending on how new a course is. But that’s a different story.

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