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)

The Stickiness of Reputation

Reputation brings baggage with it. Baggage is unavoidable. A once prestigious university would have to experience a high-profile disaster before it took down the generally high opinion of it amongst the public and/or anyone previously associated with the institution. By high-profile, I’m talking stratospheric.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that reputation is still seen as important from many perspectives, despite it meaning little in reality when it comes to teaching quality.

“Reputation measures are largely invalid as indicators of educational quality. Institutions with an existing high reputation may have a vested interest in resisting the introduction of more valid indicators of educational quality.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.13]

From an admissions point of view, parents and prospective students will be interested to find out which places have historical positive benefits attached to it, since both employers and alumni will see the subsequent benefit of the graduates emerging from the university each year. This may have little bearing on reality, but it’s where baggage comes into play.

Baggage (photo by striatic) CC BY 2.0

Taking it all with you. (photo by striatic)

No matter how hard you try, this mystical reputation is hard to shift. Reputation isn’t generally altered on a year by year basis either. For sake of ease, let’s take Oxford. You’re unlikely to find a situation where an employer quibbles over whether a job candidate graduated in 2010 or 2011.

That type of reputation consideration would be nonsense, unless a scandal was discovered on a grand scale in a particular year. It would also have to be the type of scandal impacting upon everyone attending. Or at least all members of a certain course. This is highly unlikely. The context would have to be pretty good and the employer would have to be pretty bothered about it to make those distinctions.

“It is uncertain whether the use of more valid indicators of educational quality will gradually change perceptions of what reputation is about, and turn it into a more useful guide to student choice.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.8]

So we’re stuck with reputation for now. Like it or not, it makes a difference. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Either way, you won’t find out on which occasions it swayed decisions, so much of it happens covertly.

Will perceptions change regarding what reputation is about? I don’t see it around the corner any time soon, because perceptions run deeper than more detailed information and statistical analysis. In addition, reputations go deeper than institution level. And each institution can have all sorts of reputational perspectives that mean different things to different people.

The reputational baggage may be from hundreds of years in the past or all about last year’s results from a particular course. Undergraduate success may rest indirectly in past research findings or it may be down to a recent mutual partnership. One person may ride with the baggage positively, while another person gets thrown to the sharks.

“An increasing number of institutions are using data to track progress in emphasising the ‘institutional USP’. They are marketing themselves as distinctive in relation to a particular indicator, such as employability, and emphasising that variable in programme-level learning outcomes and in institution-wide quality enhancement efforts, and then collecting better data than are currently available in order to monitor progress.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.10]

An institutional USP [Unique Selling Point] is useful to sell the university and course, but can it act as a reputational selling point? Can the ideal of what makes an institution tick be captured in the essence of a brief USP? It may cement opinions that are already held, but how quickly could it sway opinions more favourably?

While I believe universities have an increasing need to specialise, I’m not sure reputation will change that easily for the vast majority. Over time–dependent on too many variables to allow predictions other than complete guesswork–the situation may improve (or, indeed, falter) due to priorities based on USP. Still, nothing is clear.

For now, reputation seems to fall very roughly into two camps. The historical and the recent. Some universities have the reputation in place due to age and the sheer amount of past baggage. Other universities have the reputation in place due to more recent events that caused a reaction that was often beyond their own planning or expectation. Historical narratives are more likely to hold their place in the long run, because that baggage just doesn’t disappear. In other words, baggage is helpful for those who are already helped by it.

As the HEA report discusses, more/better/greater data can assist staff to an extent, but reputation is never a given. That’s why I call it mystical. Good or bad, when perceptions are firmly in place, they are hard to change. And when there’s a blank (or indifferent) slate, change is unlikely to arrive overnight unless through unintended fluke. For the sake of the university, hopefully a positive fluke!