contact hours

Contact Hours Should Be About Quality As Well As Quantity

How much importance should contact hours be given? What do these hours mean to each student? Hours vary between subjects and also between institutions. Do we search for a sweet spot, try for as many hours as possible, or look beyond contact time completely?

Nicola Dandrige, CEO of Universities UK, says that contact hours have changed over time and, as a result, represent too narrow a focus in isolation:

“What we are hearing is the importance of teaching and learning and universities are responding to that in more imaginative ways than just contact hours.” [Source]

From this viewpoint, hours will vary considerably as institutions adopt different approaches to their teaching methods.

But students have become accustomed to viewing contact hours as a good way of working out value for money. A QAA report on student expectations found that contact time was considered the most important, if not the only, cost relating to tuition fees.

HEPI found that “those with least contact were least satisfied“, while NUS research found that some students look to contact hours as representing value for money. One student argued:

“If I am only in for three hours a week, why should I pay so much money? You want to tbe at uni and interacting with lecturers.”

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks - CC BY 2.0)

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks – CC BY 2.0)

Comparisons between students is easy. Even when there is good reason for a contrast in contact time between students, an imbalance does not make for a happy reaction. Take one such reply in the 2013 Student Academic Survey by Which? and HEPI:

“I’m a third year history student and only get three hours a week contact time. And yet I pay the same price as someone who has 12 hours per week.”

Nevertheless, the Which? report states that “contact hours have risen by just 20 minutes per week since 2006”. And while student expectations are understandably on the up, needs and expectations are two very different things.

The 2012 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey found:

“…for those with fewer than 10 hours of lectures a week, 21% felt the debt was too high while the figure was just 10% for those who spent over 21 hours in lectures.”

But is it all about spending longer in lectures?

I have previously argued that not all contact hours are equal and that the term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation. It might be easy to break down the number of hours you spend each week into a monetary value, but it counts for nothing if the contact isn’t helpful.

Thankfully, students do appear to seek quality contact far more than lengthier contact. The number of hours may or may not be enough, but the most important factor on the minds of students has little to do with time. Take this year’s HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey:

“…two thirds of contact experienced by students was in class sizes of 16 students or more. There is a striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases.”

The report goes on to say that while a third of students wished for more contact hours, “…the findings here suggest that increasing the quality of contact (which is more probable in smaller classes) is likely to be more effective in improving the student learning experience than simply increasing contact hours”.

QAA reported similar findings:

“…we found [students] wanted more ‘close support’, through contact time in small seminars and tutorials, and definitely not more lecture hours.”

The Student Room asked students how much 1 to 1 time they expected to have with a tutor each week. More than half of the prospective students surveyed expected between one and five hours. The reality is, on average, more like half an hour.

But it seems that the more personal time given to students, the better. Gibbs reported:

“What seems to matter is the nature of the class contact. ‘Close contact’ that involves at least some interaction between teachers and students on a personal basis is associated with greater educational gains (Pascarella, 1980) independently of the total number of class contact hours (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005).”

So the number of hours given to contact are important, but only when also assessing the relative value to learning.

And as one HE friend put it to me this week, some students want to be taught via lectures and increased seminar allocation, while others prefer to be left in a room with wi-fi so they can research and learn for themselves. Needs are not all the same. A big increase in contact time for a student who identifies strongly with independent learning could work against them.

Rather than compare hours between institutions and courses, how about comparing the number of hours for the same course at the same institution over different years?

If there is a marked change in contact hours over those years, what other changes have been made as a consequence? Is there more 1 to 1 time given, for instance? If so, the reduced time may still provide equal or greater value. However, if little change has been made, the consequences of shorter contact time may be negative.

An hour of personal engagement with a tutor can be worth many hours of listening to the same lecture as the other hundred people in a room. Don’t just look at how many hours you get each week, but look at what’s happening within those hours. You’ll get much better peace of mind in the process.

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby - CC BY 2.0)

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby – CC BY 2.0)

Not All Contact Hours Are Equal

“Contact hours don’t mean anything unless they are high quality, and you have a real relationship with your tutors.”

This comment is from Rachel Wenstone, National Union of Students (NUS) Vice-President for higher education. She makes an important point.

A piece in today’s Guardian newspaper says that the National Union of Students (NUS) is striving for better relationships between tutors and students. To make this work, universities need to focus on more than merely the number of contact hours given.

Some comments on the Guardian website complain that students shouldn’t have their hands held and should learn to be more independent rather than rely on academics to organise their every move.

photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

However, NUS isn’t looking for students to be wrapped up in cotton wool. The drive is to make contact hours count in a way that goes beyond numbers:

“The union is calling for greater transparency about the number and size of seminars and tutorials, and assurances that students’ predominant experience of higher education won’t be sitting among a sea of faces passively taking notes in a lecture theatre. It wants universities to provide much more detail about what students should expect when they arrive.” [Source]

This is a sensible next step, for these reasons:

The term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation, which is unhelpful

It doesn’t matter how many hours of contact time you get. The number is irrelevant.

Far more important is what takes place in that time to ensure nothing is lacking. Five hours may be adequate in some cases, twenty hours in others. Daily contact may be required for some, while once a week may be enough for others.

You need context to make sense of the situation.

Independent learning doesn’t mean a student works alone

Yes, a lot of independent work is done by the individual. But to be independent means finding your own direction, taking charge of what you do, planning ahead, asking for help when you need it rather than waiting to be told, and so on.

Independent learning is a difficult concept to define. But it isn’t about learning by yourself. The Higher Education Academy goes into depth about the term, showing that it can mean different things to different people.

I also recommend you read James Michie and a number of commenters discussing what they think independent learning is.

The word ‘relationship’ is important

Do you follow any celebrities on Twitter? Does that make you best friends with them? Of course not.

That’s why simply having contact time with a tutor is not enough, even if it’s precious one-to-one time. You need to build a strong connection over time. The more two-way understanding you can get from the experience, the more the tutor can help you and the more you can help the tutor. Both students and tutors need to be constructive in their efforts in order to make the most of that contact time. This is part of independent learning in action.

Learning requires conversation, communication, and discussion

Bringing the above points together, it’s clear that not all contact hours are equal. At least, not in terms of the raw figures. Passive contact time and active contact time are different. Both are necessary. Listening is important, and so is participating. What’s your own contact time split?

Learning–and many of the factors surrounding it–cannot be truly measured. Contact time, however it is dished out, is not a guarantee of better learning.

And with greater numbers of people going to university, personal contact time isn’t always easily organised. Large groups often take precidence due to financial, logistical, and time considerations.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, VC of Robert Gordon University, explains the importance of exercising caution before making any bold reaction:

“Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside for now until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliché, it’s just a box-ticking exercise.”

It’s understandable that contact hours are under so much discussion. With all the importance given to things like ‘value for money’ and ‘getting the best education’, contact hours are a convenient starting point. However, the focus must go further than the number of hours and, indeed, ticking boxes.

How do you view independent learning? (photo by striatic)

How do you view independent learning? (photo by striatic)