Do student’s GPA suffer when they take more classes?

One claim (given as advice) that I’ve heard ever since I was a plump, pimple-faced college freshman is that taking a heavier academic load in a given term (no matter the calendar) increases the likelihood that one’s grades will suffer.  It seems intuitive:

more classes (and thus more homework) / the same number of hours in a week =          less study time to allocate to each class and therefore potentially lower grades

At Augustana we are understandably sympathetic to this concern because of the degree to which we often try to pack an extensive amount of learning into our shortened academic terms while maintaining the comparatively higher number of hours in class that we require for a credit hour.  Many of us can weave a harrowing tale of students’ swamped by the academic requirements of a four-course term, but it would be wise to wonder whether our individual anecdotes actually represent the experiences of most students.  So a few weeks ago, we decided to empirically examine this wide-spread belief.  Since this concern is often raised by faculty and administrators when discussing the merits of potential policy changes, this hypothesis seems a compelling argument to test.

So we examined our students’ term-by-term GPAs over the last three years (nine terms from the fall of 2009 to the spring of 2012), comparing the GPAs of students who attempted between 8 and 11 credits – less than four three-credit courses – with the GPAs of students who attempted 12 or more credits – four three-credit courses or more.  Moreover, we conducted this analysis in two stages.  In the first analysis we only tested whether the number of credits attempted significantly impacted students’ end-of-term GPA.  In our second analysis, we accounted for two potentially confounding factors: (1) a student’s pre-college academic ability, and (2) a student’s year in school, to make sure that any statistically significant effect we might find wasn’t a function of another plausible explanation.

Our first set of analyses surprised us.  Because we thought we’d find one of two possible outcomes – either the reigning hypothesis would hold true or we would find no significant difference between the two groups.  So we were pretty shocked when we found that in every academic term from fall of 2009 through spring of 2012, students who attempted 12 or more credits, on average, earned a HIGHER GPA (between .05 and .12 points) than those who attempted 8-11 credits.  Huh?

In the second stage of our analyses, we held constant students’ incoming ACT score and year in school.  At this point, I was sure that we’d end up with insignificant findings.  Instead, the finding from our first analyses held throughout.  Not only do students who are taking a heavier load not suffer in terms of a lower GPA for that term, but their GPAs (no matter the year in school or their incoming academic ability) were marginally higher.  Huh.

So what does this mean?  Certainly, the obligations of a heavier credit load can adversely affect a student’s stress level or sleep patterns even if they don’t necessarily impact grades.  And unfortunately, the only data we have readily accessible is term-by-term GPA and term-by term-credits attempted.  In addition, the findings might be different if we looked at each student’s term-by-term GPAs longitudinally instead of comparing all students cross-sectionally across a given term.  However, students must pay overage fees to take more than 33 credits a year, so the chances of a substantial portion of students consistently taking 12 or more credits, earning strong grades, and compromising this finding is pretty low.  In the end it seems that a heavier credit load doesn’t impact students’ grades in the way that we might have thought.

I wonder if this finding exemplifies a disconnect between the way that we tend to think students engage college and the way that they actually manage their college experience.  For years we have lamented the difference between the amount of time we think that our students should study and the amount of time our survey data suggests that they actually study.  Yet these same students graduate with an average GPA of 3.3, an increasing number of them graduate with honors, and many of them go on to successful, challenging professional lives.  And lest some might want to resurrect the allegation that this is further evidence of the corrosive effects of grade inflation, (1) we have multiple sources of evidence that suggest our students make more than respectable gains on various learning outcomes, and (2) we tested the grade inflation claim last year and found it to be explained by increases in our students’ incoming ACT scores over the past two decades.

I wonder if this is an indication that students are more capable of prioritizing their time and effort than we might give them credit sometimes.  And while I’m not suggesting that this finding should be used to require that they take a heavier academic load every term, I wonder if we might take our feet off of the academic gas pedal a little too easily sometimes – which is easy to do in the face of a roomful of scowling students to whom you have just assigned an additional assignment.  One student experience measured in the Wabash National Study that was particularly predictive of learning gains was the degree to which students were challenged to work harder than they thought they could to meet their instructor’s expectations.  Our finding regarding grades and course load suggests a similar result.  If we push our students, they might surprise us.

Make it a good day,



2 thoughts on “Do student’s GPA suffer when they take more classes?

  1. This tells me that “full-time” students do better than “part-time” students. This doesn’t surprise me. What about the students who take more than 16 credits, compared to those who take between 12 and 16? I am looking at my own institution which uses the traditional 15 week semester; what is Augustana’s “term”? What is the minimum course load to be considered full time?

    Love this discussion

    • Hi Betsy,

      Thanks for the comment. Our analysis was limited to full time students at Augustana. As a function of being on trimesters (10 weeks terms), students’ full time load is a minimum of 8 credits. We rarely have a student take more than 16 credits in a term because our three credit courses are probably best compared to a four credit course on a semester calendar. I hope that gives you a more complete picture of our situation and the context of our analysis.


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