Planning your time

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This chapter is important for both students and cohort leaders.[1]

It is important to avoid frustration and unfulfilled expectations. If students and cohort leaders do not plan the use of their time correctly, there will be a high number of students who begin and do not continue. This section is therefore most important.

Defining Cohort Leaders

Cohort leaders can be one of two kinds: professors or tutors.

  • In the VBI system, a professor is either someone with PhD qualifications (or an equivalent) on staff at VBI, or someone with a graduate degree in theology who is responsible for a cohort in a local college or ministry school, or an online class. Those in such positions may grade forum contributions, conduct the Senior Seminars or Oral examinations, and grade the Directed Learning Projects with a VBI professor. All other assignments (Diploma papers and essays) are graded by VBI personnel.
  • A tutor is someone who is responsible for a cohort and holds less than a graduate degree in theology, but has been appointed to oversee a cohort by SSU and VBI on a case-by-case basis.[2] Tutors will not conduct the Senior Seminars or Oral examinations (but they should participate in them), or grade the Directed Learning Projects (but they should read their students’ graded work).
  • A tutor should be distinguished from a mentor. A mentor is anyone who leads the various mentoring models described later in this manual. Mentors are not required to have any particular qualifications, other than the normal social and organizational skills of any small group leader. Mentors may not be cohort leaders, but may work alongside cohort leaders.

The Basis of Time Allocations

The total time allocated for completing one course is associated with the idea of "notional hours" (NH).[3] Since VBI has different levels of study, it follows that those taking courses on the Diploma Level will spend the least time engaged in study, those doing courses on the Advanced Diploma Level will spend more time in study, and those doing courses on the Degree level will spend the most time in study.

Here is a table of the total hours associated with each level, and the credits that result.

Notional Hours per Certificate
Item Degree Advanced Diploma Diploma
1 Course 120 80 36
Total hours for courses 840 (7 courses) 800 (10 courses) 360 (10 courses)
Senior Seminar or Oral 120    
Directed Learning Project 240    
Total NH per certificate 1200 800 360
Credits per certificate[4] 30 20 9

What follows is a description of the process for the Degree level.

Inevitably, some students will work far quicker than others. However, on the whole, each course should be planned on the basis of 120 notional hours. Notional hours represent how much time, in total, a course will take out of your life. For part-time students, at least eight weeks are recommended to be allocated to each course. This means a total of approximately 14 notional hours a week, or 2 notional hours per day.

Time Allocations

This time allocation is in turn broken down into various components of the dynamic cycle that makes up each course. There are five elements to the cycle:


  • Reading the course text
  • Live classes designed to guide students through the contents of the course text
  • Extra reading from a select bibliography
  • Independent research
  • Forum activity and forum submissions
  • Written assignments (multiple-choice and essays)

The process begins with the course text, then introduces the forum as a gateway of communication, then moves to extra reading, then to independent research, then to forum placements that reflect the extra reading and research, and then to the assignments, where all the previous stages are gathered together.

Course Text

The student begins by reading the course text. Exposure to its contents will then either be augmented by a live class experience, where the teacher takes works through its contents, or will be the subject of reading assignments in preparation for webinar classes. The student will have to return to the course text again and again for the later stages of the process.

VBI course texts should not be viewed as one book in a set of books on a reading list in preparation for a project (such as an essay or piece of research). These are text books that the student will have to read a number of times. In a conventional campus-based college, students listen to hours of live lectures and make their own notes. Our system uses aspects of live classes and aspects of distance education. In pure distance education, the course text takes the place of live class. Depending on which model of mentoring a cohort uses, more or less live class time is combined with an in-depth study of the course text. Whichever method is chosen, VBI students have to read the course text at least twice to be able to complete their work.

It is recommended that students make a hard copy print of the course, rather than attempt to study through their computer monitors. To succeed, students should underline or highlight the text, and write notes.

Forum Gateway

The communication gateway (between cohort leader and student, and between students) is the forum. Each cohort has its own forum area, where only the cohort leader or tutor and class members can find one another. Students are expected you to visit the forum at least three times per week, read what others are saying, see what their cohort leader or tutor has assigned, and respond. In a local church campus, students will of course have ample verbal contact with their cohort leader. For those who are part of an online cohort, the forum will be an essential communication gateway, augmented by webinars (VOIP[5] classes). For both campus-based and online students, all directives regarding reading and research should go through the forum, ensuring that they are documented and there is no cause for misunderstandings. The cohort leader will direct students in:

  • Choosing extra reading from the select bibliography. They may be directed to do all their extra reading from a single text, or from selected chapters in a number of texts. The cohort leader may direct each student in the class to read different texts or selections of chapters so that the class covers a wider range of extra reading than any single student.
  • How to do independent research.
  • How to reflect the extra reading and independent research in short placements (300-1000 words) on the forum.

Students use the forum to interact with each other by commenting on:

  • The course work content
  • Where to buy or borrow extra reading texts
  • Research
  • Class activities
  • Contributions by fellow students (peer reviews)

Extra Reading

A select bibliography is provided at the end of each course. The cohort leader will select between 300 and 450 pages from one or more of these published works.

Independent Research

The course text will focus on a particular subject. The extra reading will expand the student’s horizon on this subject. Students will be asked to find further information on the same field of study. The cohort leader may direct students to a particular source (e.g. a local library), or alternatively to internet research based on a select list of high-grade resource sites.

Forum Contributions

Students will be expected to write at least one 800-1000 word forum placement (or two 300-500 words placements) utilizing extra reading and independent research. They will then be expected to write one 800-1000 word, or two 300-500 word peer-review placements, commenting on the work of their fellow students on the forum.

The forum placement will be graded by the cohort leader and placed back on the forum. Thirty percent of the total course grade comes from forum placements, and seventy percent from paper and essay. Students cannot submit their essay without their forum placement grades.

Written Assignments

There are two assignments: a quiz or multiple-choice assignment, and a 2500-3500 word essay. The quiz is designed to test comprehension of the course text. Students are free to complete it at any stage during the course. Many students begin checking the answers from the first reading of the course text. However, the essay can only be done as the final stage of the process, as it has to reflect the forum activity that precedes it.

The Test Paper

There are two kinds of test paper. The older form, which will eventually be phased out, either consists of multiple choice questions, or short answer questions, or both. The new form is totally multiple-choice and is instantly graded online. To maintain the integrity of the assessment process, the answers to the multiple choice papers are not made available to students.

The Essay

The essay must incorporate citations from the extra reading and research, as well as a bibliography listing all sources used. The essay must dialogue between the course text and these wider resources.

Before writing their first essay, students should read the Wiki section on Writing Effective Essay Assignments. This will describe the convention of an introduction, main body, and conclusion (using clear headings for each). Students who fail to follow this pattern may be asked to resubmit their work.

It is most important to read the assignment requirement carefully and pay careful attention to the assessment criteria. VBI personnel have graded hundreds of assignments since the launch of VBI in 2000. Those who fail, or have to re-write, or who get low grades, almost always do so because they fail to read the requirements carefully. If, for example, the essay question is posed in such a way that a number of steps must be included in the answer, and the student leaves one of those out, it will lower the grade.

Where a course has two texts, one for Diploma and one for Advanced Diploma, both will need to be read. Some essays require students to work with the contents of a series of courses simultaneously. This means that they will have to do a revision read of all of them before writing the essay. As a result, students should plan to read the course text a second time, more carefully than the first time, before writing the essay. They should read it a second time having carefully examined the essay requirement.

Online Classes

Those working on a local church campus will have all their contact through their classes. For those studying online, contact takes place through:

  • The VBI course text
  • The multimedia suite
  • The Forum
  • Webinars

The other two elements have already been described. Webinars operate as follows. VOIP stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol, namely free phone calls using the internet. Such services only work through adequate broadband speeds, so students either need their own broadband connection, or access to one. There are a number of service providers. The best known and largest is Skype. Other popular services are Microsoft Messenger and Google Chat. These systems also offer webcam, but currently general broadband speeds are not adequate for voice and webcam. Classes should include 4-10 students and two cohort leaders/mentors. The cohort leader will decide on which service provider to use and assist with the practical details. Decisions on using webcams will also be made by cohort leaders.

We assume that a minimum of six hours of webinar classes will take place per course, usually divided into three 2-hour sessions.

Course Work as Part of a Journey

Seven courses have to be completed per certificate for the degree program (ten for the Diploma and Advanced Diploma programs). No course should be viewed in isolation. Each course is part of a journey. There are three ways in which this journey develops:

1. In many study "tracks" or series of courses, later courses assume earlier ones.

2. For those studying towards the Degree, completion of the course work you will lead to participation in a Senior Seminar (or Oral examination).[6] The whole point of the Senior Seminar is to develop the "big picture" through integrating the subject matter of all seven courses. Students are required to contribute both a written and oral presentation, giving their thoughts on the journey so far. Has a "thread" or key idea begun to emerge? Is there a particular aspect that has caught the student’s attention? Is there a particular aspect the student would like to explore further? They will come away from the Senior Seminar equipped with all of their fellow students’ contributions, and will be required to write a peer review reflecting on those contributions. All of this will add to the journey.

3. The final step in the Certificate is the Directed Learning Project.[7] This is designed to take the journey to its end. In dialogue with the cohort leader, the student will select four published works, not yet covered in previous courses, in the same general field of study. This will combine with more independent research and become the basis of a 10,000 word project paper. Here, the student will use the seven courses completed and all the essays they have written as their foundation. They will then add the experience of the Senior Seminar, the four extra published works, and further research to write the project paper as their personal contribution to the whole field of study or ministry. They will develop their own vision or narrative of the subject.

Knowing that the student will have these two final steps in the journey will raise this question: "How am I going to retain knowledge of the contents of this course in such a way that I can complete my Senior Seminar presentations and discuss the ’big picture’ of all seven courses, integrating the relationship between the various courses, some months from now?" If they do too little work early in the journey, they will have to do considerable revision at the end. This is not in the student’s interest! It will be better if the last stages are a quick revision rather than a re-learning of forgotten content.

Students should be continually asking questions like:

  • Is there a link between this course and a previous one? How do such links provide a basis for the "big picture", and how am I going to integrate all of this later on?
  • My reading of the extra sources indicated that the writer of this course seems to be influenced by particular writers/books/sources. Will any of these be crucial for my project? Is there a particular well-published writer whose works I should begin to gather? Is there a scholarly debate revolving around my subject, leading me to conclude that I should read various conflicting view points?
  • The writer of this course seems to be drawing on information from a certain website. Should I visit that website now, and either make notes of what I find there, or download some material so that I can begin to build my research now?
  • As I read course after course, is there a key idea forming in my mind regarding the subject of my project? Am I developing a special interest in a particular area of the "big picture" of the certificate? If so, should I create a folder in my computer, or other central storage point, where I can place ideas, files, and resources towards this goal? This may be of great benefit later on.

  1. For the definition of a cohort, refer to the section entitled “A Cohort” under “Mentoring Models”.
  2. For instance, someone with a degree in education, or a recognized leader with years of experience and credible theological years of study may be deemed to be suitably qualified.
  3. Credits are arrived at by working out how many “notional hours” a student should engage in to achieve competence in the knowledge and skills expected of him/her. This is not simply “time-learning”, but an indication of how learning was planned and managed. A notional hour, then, should include contact or “seat” time, independent learning time (e.g. preparing for presentations and lectures, library reading time, etc.), assessment, and any other task included in the course (e.g. research activities, group-work outside the contact hours, professional/occupational practice on which reflection would be based, and so on). If, for example, a short course is offered that includes two days of contact sessions (8 hours per day), plus an exercise to be completed overnight (an additional 2 hours), plus an assignment based on application in the work place of learning occurring over the two days (40 hours), then the total notional hours for this course would be 50 hours.
  4. Credits are calculated by dividing the total hours by 40.
  5. This acronym is explained in the section entitled “Webinars.”
  6. Another Wiki section is dedicated to describing this step.
  7. Another Wiki section is dedicated to describing this step.
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