james michie

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)

EduLinks – 26 August 2011

“If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.


“The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.”