What the F is a SWF?

[Note: This page was updated in June, 2017.  Please report any errors or omissions to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com]

Okay, so what are SWFs? Why did the college management’s bargaining team try so hard to get rid of them for up to 20% of full-time faculty, in 2009? (They succeeded, by the way.) Why did the union’s bargaining team try so hard to get them for partial-load faculty?

This will be a long page. I’ll break it up into subheadings. If anybody can tell me how to insert HTML targets into WordPress pages, let me know. Until that time, you’ll have to scroll down through to the following topics: 1. SWF Definition, 2. SWF Obligations 3a. Assigned Hours, 3b. Course Prep, 3c. Evaluation/Feedback, 3d. Complementary Hours, 3e. “The back of the SWF”, 4. What to do when your SWF proves incorrect, 5. Partial-Load faculty, 6. The Effect of Modified Workload Agreements, and 7. Limitations of the SWF.

Without further ado…

1. SWF Definition

SWF stands for Standard Workload Formula, and it’s just that – a way of measuring workload, to get a comprehensive, detailed understanding of how many hours a faculty member actually works every week (as opposed to how many hours s/he spends in the classroom).

Article 11.01 of the Collective Agreement stipulates that a faculty member must be paid overtime if s/he is working more than 44 hours a week, and stipulates that no faculty member may work over 47 hours weekly.

But of course, in order to calculate 44 or 47 work-hours, you need to take lots of different things other than classroom hours into account: class sizes, how the students are evaluated, class prep (and therefore whether it’s a new class or a repeated one), as well as the time allocated for office hours and administrative tasks and meetings. The SWF is a formula for measuring a prof’s overall weekly workload. It takes all of those factors (listed in the Collective Agreement), plugs in the specific details, and ultimately comes up with a total number of hours assigned per week.

Now, partial-load profs don’t have SWFs (they’re paid by the Teaching Contact Hour, irrespective of their student numbers or prep needs), and neither do faculty members on Modified Workload Agreements (more on that later).

As well, the SWFs for profs in non-post-secondary programs or in continuous-intake programs have some unique features that I won’t be discussing here.

For the rest of us full-time professors, here’s how the SWF works:

2. SWF Obligations:

If you are assigned to teach classes in a semester, then your supervisor should send you a SWF outlining your proposed workload for the semester. This should happen six weeks before the semester begins, not counting vacation time (to give you time to prepare, and so that you’re not spending your vacation at work), and the Collective Agreement says that it should be delivered after your supervisor discusses your workload with you. Ideally, then, the SWF sheet that you receive would be a formalization of a previously-agreed-upon workload, including a specific calculation (with breakdown) of the number of weekly hours that you would be assigned to complete that work during the teaching period.

SWFs only cover weeks when you have classes, so the presence of a Reading Week in the middle of the semester disrupts the system. For that reason, you may find that the SWF you receive takes the form of two sheets – one covers the weeks before the Reading Week; the other covers the weeks after.

[If this is the case in your school, then as a favour to departmental administrators throughout the province, I’ll take this moment to encourage you – if you are satisfied with the work assignment as outlined and measured on the SWF forms – to please sign both sheets and return them to your supervisor, as soon as possible.]

After those forms are distributed, then any further changes to the prof’s workload ought to be accompanied by revised forms, showing the new workload and a revised calculation of assigned work-hours.

Aside from the issue of not getting preferred classes, there are two typical reasons why profs might not approve their SWFs:

  1. The SWF form fails to record parts of the prof’s assigned workload, for which the prof should be attributed time
  2. The SWF form misrepresents the actual time requirements of the work assignment that it describes

Those problems can be a valid reason to have another meeting with your supervisor concerning what’s expected of you, and how much time you’ll be allocated to meet those expectations. Alternately, conflicts or disagreements can end up at your college’s Workload Monitoring Group (which will include up to four union-appointed members).

Of course, the only way to know whether the SWF form accurately represents your actual assigned workload is to understand how the formula calculates the workload. The following five headings cover the different factors measured by the SWF, which are added together to arrive at your final Workload measurement.

3a. Assigned Hours

We could call these Teaching Contact Hours as well, although that phrase gets a bit abstract when we’re talking about online courses. Anyway, the first and most significant factor taken into account is the number of hours you are assigned to spend teaching students, where the hours are determined by a scheduler, not by yourself.

One of the reasons that these hours are so important to the formula is because they tend to act as factors by which many of the other variables are multiplied. (For example, the SWF presupposes that you spend three times as many hours evaluating students in a course that features 3 teaching hours weekly, compared to a course that features 1 teaching hour weekly.)

3b. Course Prep

Well, obviously a big part of your workload will be spent preparing your classes. And presumably, the more hours that you spend in the classroom, the more hours you’ll need to spend preparing.  But the SWF takes into account one additional factor to determine the amount of prep time you need: When you last taught the course, and if you’re teaching more than one section of it in the semester.

If it’s a New course (meaning that you’ve never taught beforeor at least not since it underwent a substantial change, like a change of curriculum or learning outcomes), then you’re credited with 1.1 prep hours for each classroom hour. If it’s one that you taught before, you’re credited with 0.85 prep hours for each teaching hour if it’s been more than three years since you’ve taught it, or 0.6 prep hours per teaching hour if you taught it more more recently than that. You only get 0.35 prep hours per teaching hours for each additional section of a course that you’re already teaching to students from the same program, or 0.45 prep hours per teaching hour for teaching an additional section to students from a different program (or from varied programs).

Note: Both parties negotiated that a distinct column marked “Additional Attributed Hours” is listed under “Preparation” on the SWF.  That means that both sides agree that the default prep factors listed in the previous  paragraph aren’t necessarily sufficient to adequately prepare every course in every circumstance.  Article 11.02 C2 lists many variables impacting workload that the Workload Monitoring Group could look at when evaluating workload, and many of those–like degree-level subjects, instructional modes, availability of current curriculum, or the number of students with special needs–relate obviously to Course Prep.

In the end, you’re best to identify the amount of time that you’re assigned weekly on average to prepare each section, according to your SWF.  If it’s not adequate to meet the actual needs of your students or the subject matter, inform your manager.  If your manager disagrees with you, explain the situation to your College’s Workload Monitoring Group.  If your College’s Workload Monitoring Group can’t resolve the matter to your satisfaction, refer the issue to a Workload Resolution Arbitrator.  If the Arbitrator sides against you, then consider the amount of time that you have been directed to spend preparing each section according to your SWF, and follow that direction to the second decimal place.

3c. Evaluation/Feedback

Much (hell, sometimes most) of a prof’s time can be spent on grading and feedback, and the SWF attempts to take into account the number of students being graded, the number of class hours (and therefore assignments to be evaluated), as well as the kind of evaluation required by each class.

  • In-process: If 100% of the grading in a course is actually completed during the classroom hours (let’s say, you’re observing their ability to perform a specific mechanical procedure in-class, or evaluating student presentations on the spot) then a prof is only credited with 0.01 hours per student, per assigned (teaching) hour, in the weekly SWF.
  • Routine: If 100% of the grading involves multiple-choice tests or evaluating short-answer questions or some other kind of grading that doesn’t require interpretation, then that the prof is attributed twice as much time for weekly grading: 0.02 hours per student, per teaching hour.
  • Essay: If 100% of the grading in a course involves evaluating longer (sentence+) written answers, and requires the prof to interpret the answers when deciding the grade, then the prof is given 0.03 hours per student per teaching hour, for grading.  This could even apply to math courses, for example, if the faculty member needs to evaluate the students’ reasoning, show where the student went wrong, and how to correctly arrive at the right answer.

Those are the three kinds of evaluation, but your SWF may show that a course can be allocated 60% Routine (i.e., multiple-choice) and 40% Essay. That means that you’re being instructed to ensure that 60% of the grading in the course is multiple-choice or short-answer, and the remaining 40% involves long-answer questions or essays.

(There are also other, “Special” evaluation factors for faculty who are evaluating student performance in a work setting, or for faculty in continuous-intake programs.)

It is worth mentioning that Chairs are increasingly under pressure to maximize efficiency by assigning less labour-intensive evaluation techniques to classes. The reasoning is simple: Professor X will be credited with the exact same number of hours for teaching a class that evaluates 40 students using essays, as opposed to teaching a class that evaluates 80 students using multiple-choice tests. Hmm. 40 students vs. 80 students, while paying the professor the same amount of money. Which evaluation method do you think the college would rather see the Chair use?  (Question for bonus marks: Which do you think the Ministry would rather see the college use, and based on what priorities?)

The other thing worth mentioning is that we, the united profs at Ontario Colleges, have consistently charged our bargaining team last year with fighting for a more collegial decision-making process for determining evaluation factors. One recent win is contract language that says that Chairs must meet with the faculty who teach a given class as a group, before determining evaluation factors for a course. If any of you experienced such a meeting, please drop me a line at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com, to let me know how it went.

Note: Both parties negotiated that a distinct column marked “Additional Attributed Hours” is listed under “Evaluation/Feedback” on the SWF.  That means that both sides agree that the default evaluation factors listed above aren’t necessarily sufficient to adequately evaluate and provide feedback to students of every course in every circumstance.  Article 11.02 C2 lists many variables impacting workload that the Workload Monitoring Group could look at when evaluating workload, and many of those–like degree-level subjects, different instructional modes, or the number of students with special needs–relate obviously to the amount of  time needed to be spent on Evaluation/Feedback.

In the end, you’re best to identify the amount of time that you’re assigned weekly on average to evaluate the students in each section, according to your SWF.  If it’s not adequate to meet the actual needs of your students or the subject matter, inform your manager.  If your manager disagrees with you, explain the situation to your College’s Workload Monitoring Group.  If your College’s Workload Monitoring Group can’t resolve the matter to your satisfaction, refer the issue to a Workload Resolution Arbitrator.  If the Arbitrator sides against you, then consider the amount of time that you have been directed to spend in evaluating the students of each course according to your SWF, and follow that direction to the second decimal place.

3d. Complementary Hours Allowance

Okay, these are hours that are assigned outside of the demands of any specific class, and that are up to the prof’s own scheduling. To wit, profs are allocated:

  • 4 hours for out-of-class contact with students (this may occur at a time decided upon by the prof, and would also include responding to students’ e-mails)
  • 2 hours for completing “normal administrative tasks” (which I understand to mean the tasks related to teaching – book orders, exam copying, trips to the Testing Centre, uploading to WebCT, etc.)

3e. Additional Complementary Hours

So far, all of the items above refer to workload has been directly or indirectly related to courses (which is why the librarians and counsellors among you might be feeling ignored). The rest of the SWF is, as I understand it, used to measure either tasks that have been assigned that are unrelated to teaching courses (e.g., a co-ordinator’s position or a course development assignment).

If I understand correctly (and again, this description may contain inaccuracies), most things that appear on the back of a SWF can be negotiated with your manager. Even if it’s a task that’s not strictly voluntary (like, for example, course development assignments during the summer, when there’s little teaching), there’s still room to negotiate the number of hours to be allocated to the task.

In addition, meeting time is generally allocated to profs. It’s not uncommon for faculty to receive 0.5 hours or 1 hour weekly on the SWF for mandatory departmental meetings. If no such time is on the SWF, then you’re probably not expected to attend meetings. An e-mail to the union members of your college’s Workload Monitoring Group might help to clarify matters – sometimes Chairs sincerely don’t realize that meeting time is to be recorded on the SWF.

4. What to Do When Your SWF Proves Incorrect

The SWF often doesn’t manage to accurately/precisely measure the precise number of hours that it will take to complete the work that you’ve assigned. For example:

  • A new textbook or software version could cause a familiar class to require an unusual amount of preparation, even in a course you recently taught
  • Advising students in a “capstone project” course could require more than the 3.6 minutes per Teaching Hour of weekly evaluation/feedback per student offered by the SWF
  • You could be asked to attend more meetings in a semester than you’re allocated time for

And this is a good place for us to recollect that the SWF exists so that we have enough time to do our job well – without short-changing students, and without burning ourselves out. For that reason, I think that our ability to do our jobs well (i.e., to provide the individual attention that each class and each student deserves) depends upon our being allocated sufficient amount of time to do those tasks, and on the SWF’s providing an accurate assessment of the time estimations. Time is finite – and if the SWF misrepresents the amount of time required by a specific task, then a different task will suffer (or, if we try to do everything, then all of the tasks will end up suffering once we get sick).

So, what to do if the time expenditure demanded by a task is misrepresented on a SWF? Well, here’s one possible plan of action:

  1.  Look at the amount of time allocated on the SWF for the task in question and multiply it by 14, to get a sense of the amount of time allocated for it over the course of the semester.
  2. Start logging the amount of time that you spend (and have spent) on the task.
  3. Let your manager know ASAP that you think that there won’t be enough allocated time to complete the task in question. The manager could start looking for ways to free up time elsewhere on your SWF, or could instruct you to complete the task within the allocated time. (If you as an educator feel that doing so is an impossibility, request specific guidance – preferably in writing – from your manager on how to accomplish this.)
  4. When you get closer to the end of the semester (say, once you’ve used up 80% of the time that the SWF allocates for the task), then contact your manager and inform him/her that you’re nearing the end of your allotted time, and request direction. At that point, your manager might want to a) start negotiating overtime, or b) instruct you to stop working at the task once you’ve used up the time allotment — s/he could hire someone else, for example, to grade the remaining assignments, or c) give you a specific directive on how to accomplish the remaining work in the remaining time available.

Remember as well that one of the tasks of your college’s Workload Monitoring Group is to ensure that SWFs accurately measure workload, so you should contact them if you have a problem with a SWF that doesn’t accurately recognize the work that you do.

5. Partial-Load Faculty

As mentioned before, partial-load faculty aren’t assigned SWFs: Their work is measured exclusively on the basis of Teaching Contact Hours, meaning that they receive no additional credit for classes that require additional prep or grading demands. As well, partial-load faculty receive no credit for the number of students they teach.

For this reason, I believe that we are seeing a trend whereby managers are giving most workload-intensive classes to partial-load faculty, whose true workload is not measured (since they are only paid for teaching hours, not total hours worked). As an instance of this, I expect that we will soon see online classes being given primarily to partial-load faculty, since online classes can feature a virtually unlimited number of students, and it would cost a college the exact same amount of money to hire a partial-load faculty member to teach 80 students in an online class, as it would to have the same faculty member teach the same course to 40 students in a classroom.

Hmm. 40 students vs. 80 students, while paying the professor the same amount of money. Which mode do you do you think the college would rather see the Chair use? (And then, how much would they save if the managers decided that the online class only counted as two Teaching Contact hours, instead of three? But I digress…)

I’m pretty sure that any conversation among partial-load faculty soon turns to the complaint that they work harder than full-time faculty, for much less money. I can’t speak to the facticity of that claim (precisely because the absence of a SWF means that partial-load workloads aren’t measured), but the fact that partial-loads aren’t SWFed can only serve to magnify the workload of partial-load faculty, without increasing their pay.

Giving SWFs to partial-load faculty will not solve their exploitation, but it could serve as a necessary first step, since they would begin to get paid for the hours they work, instead of the hours they spend in the classroom. And that’s crucial, because the gap between those two figures is getting wider and wider with the rise of specialized classes, degree-related independent research courses, and online classes.

It goes without saying that paying partial-load faculty per workload hour instead of per teaching hour would result in a) a massive increase in paid hours, and therefore b) a proportional decrease in the hourly rate paid. So introducing SWFs for Partial-load faculty probably would not, in and of itself, result in an immediate skyrocketing of their take-home pay. It might, however, lead to a fairer pay structure that means that partial-load faculty get compensated appropriately for teaching the difficult, demanding, and labour-intensive courses that, increasingly, they are being assigned.

6. The Effect of Modified Workload Agreements

The workload of faculty members in Modified Workload Agreements do not automatically need get measured – only their teaching contact hours and days do.  (This is one reason why it is so crucial that faculty entering into Modified Workload Agreements get very concrete details about the proposed workload throughout the applicable period, including class sizes, assigned courses, preparation time, evaluation factors, and non-teaching duties.)  The absence of this automatic counting of all workload details has the effect of turning the full-time profs who are in Modified Workload Agreements (and currently up to 20% of them can be) into something much closer to partial-load faculty, whose time spent preparing classes and evaluating students is no longer credited.

It’s worth remembering that the 2009 report of the appropriately-acronymed Workload Task Force did propose Modified Workload Agreements, but their proposal insisted that workload continue to be measured using the SWF’s factors, to ensure that it could not increase from year to year. Needless to say, that’s not what we got (i.e., not what we voted for). The current model of Modified Workload Agreements is little more than a means of increasing faculty workload without increasing compensation.

7. Limitations of the SWF

I think that the SWF is actually an very good way to measure workload, for the purpose of ensuring that profs don’t burn out and aren’t forced to cut corners. Nevertheless, I do think that there are some limitations to the SWF’s ability to measure workload accurately, which would benefit from correction. I’ll outline some the areas I’d like to see changed; please feel free to e-mail me at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com if you can add to the list.

i) Course Development: Article 11 automatically gives faculty 1.1 preparation hours per teaching hour, when teaching a course for the first time.  I believe that could be feasible if the course existed fully-formed before we started teaching, and that 1.1 hours could be spent familiarizing ourselves with the textbook(s) and revising existing lesson plans and overheads and assignments.  That figure, however, is totally inadequate for the task of creating a course from scratch, including textbook selection, curriculum development, and creating lesson plans (as well as writing a course outline, an addendum, selecting outside readings, etc.).   It’s for that reason that Article 11.02 C2 of the Collective Agreement authorizes the WMG to consider “resource assistance” and “availability of current curriculum” (amongst many, many other factors), when determining the true workload of a faculty member.

ii) Revision: Right now we’re given 1.1 hours of prep time (per Teaching Contact Hour) weekly for a course that we’ve never taught before (or one that’s been overhauled since the last time we taught it) and 0.6 hours (per TCH) weekly to prepare a course that we’ve taught within the last 3 years. But there’s no recognition that we might need additional time to prepare a course where the textbook or assignments have changed, although the subject matter is substantially the same. One option might be to offer 0.8 hours of prep time per TCH for courses where the means of delivering the subject matter have changed since the last time it was taught.

iii) Mixed Evaluation: Currently, evaluation factors are based upon the percentage of the course’s assignments that are essay vs. short-answer vs. graded in-class. If, say, a class has two exams (with written answers) and a research paper, then it would be considered “100% Essay”. But – and here’s the weird part – if a multiple-choice test is added to that class, then the evaluation is now marked as “75% Essay / 25% Process”, to reflect the new proportions. In other words, the faculty member would be doing more work, but would receive less time on the SWF to evaluate each student.

The solution is probably to add some kind of a caveat that stipulates that any class that has three or more significant written assignments (including exams) over the course of the semester automatically gets an evaluation factor of “100% Essay”, regardless of what else is added to it.

iv) Online Class Sizes: The first and foremost factor affecting our workload calculations is hours spent in the classroom (a.k.a. Teaching Contact Hours, or TCHs). Let’s say that I teach five 3-hour classes of International Economics in a semester, and that the classrooms at my school can accommodate about 40 students each. The outcome is that I’d teach a maximum of 200 students.

However, in online classes, there’s no fixed classroom size – online classes could be any size – including 200 students. So instead of getting credited with 44 hours of work for teaching 15 teaching contact hours and 200 students, I could be told that the 200 students are in a single 3-hour class, and I’d receive credit for less than 27 hours for teaching the exact same number of students (since I’m allegedly no longer spending the additional 12 hours “in the classroom”). If I’m full-time, I’d be assigned additional classes to make up the difference; if I’m partial-load, I’d only get paid for the “three” teaching contact hours weekly – they could put as many students as they want in the class, up to the point where I decide that I’m better off quitting my job.

There’s only one clear solution to this situation: Establishing fixed class sizes for online classes, possibly tied to the median sizes of comparable classes that are taught in classrooms.

v) Composition courses: Let’s start by saying that teaching writing is much closer to teaching piano than it is to teaching accounting: It requires a very high degree of individual attention and instruction. It’s also the only discipline where the assignments don’t simply measure students’ comprehension of the class instruction; the assignments are an integral form of that instruction.

Currently, any course – writing, politics, international tariffs – with all written assignments is given an evaluation factor of “100% Essay”, and the faculty member is credited with 3.6 minutes per Teaching Contact Hour, to provide weekly evaluation and feedback to each student. Now, in most of the classes with written assignments that’s probably adequate, but in composition classes, where the feedback is an essential, integral component of teaching, it’s not at all adequate. If an hypothetical composition instructor is given five 3-hour classes, she could be asked to teach up to 170 students before she reaches overtime.

But a single essay in a writing class requires at least 20 minutes to grade thoroughly and in a manner that might be instructive to students (i.e., featuring correction and instruction, both in the form of line editing, marginal comments, and a detailed end comment). At that rate, an instructor who has to grade 170 students’ papers probably won’t be able to assign too many papers (since assigning one essay to all the students would result in over 56 hours of grading).

Currently, then, a prof in that situation is likely to either assign fewer papers (which is counterproductive for writing courses, where students are learning to write) or to spend less time grading them (which means that feedback is more likely to be superficial, featuring vague comments like “many grammar problems” or “needs work” or “insufficient analysis of evidence”, without actually giving students the needed direction on how to improve those things in the future).

One possible solution, I think, would be to create a new, fourth evaluation factor, reserved exclusively for composition classes, which would credit profs with approximately 5 minutes of evaluation time weekly, per student, per Teaching Hour. This would have the effect of reducing the number of students that composition instructors can teach in total compared to the rest of us, ensuring that they have sufficient time to provide a level of feedback that is actually useful to the students.


“Useful to the students”. I reread that last line. 

I think that it’s a worthy principle, and one – maybe the one – that should guide our future approaches to our workload. Without a doubt, we absolutely must be able to defend our proposals according to that standard.

And by that standard, the SWF fundamentally passes the test. It is beneficial for our students’ education because it ensures that our workload is measured, and that we have sufficient time to teach effectively. Conversely, efforts to undermine the SWF fail that test. Yes, Modified Workload Agreements could get us to teach more classes; yes, the abuse of partial-load faculty could ensure that more students are ‘processed’, but neither approach will benefit the students. Instead, it will just ensure that professors have less time to devote to each class or each student. They may increase a prof’s responsibilities, but they won’t increase a prof’s net efficiency, since overall quality will be proportionally reduced.

I suppose that there exist professors who are lazy, and who deliver a lower quality of education than the subject matter, the students, and the province all deserve. Probably they do this by spending less time on teaching than they’re credited with by the SWF, perhaps by relying on publishers to produce their class materials, perhaps by grading assignments superficially.  But – and this is vital – the presence of a SWF is what prevents us all from teaching to that reduced standard. The SWF ensures that the profs who want to teach well stand at least a fighting chance of having the requisite time to do just that. And without SWFs, we’re the doctors who are given six minutes to treat each patient, or the inspectors who are given 12 minutes to inspect each truck – quality and effectiveness will be structurally, necessarily reduced, with results that are as inevitable as they are predictable.