student experience

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)

How Will Students Live and Learn in the Future? #HEFutures

Last week, I attended the launch of “Living and Learning in 2034” [PDF] about the future of higher education. I was part of the project team, so I didn’t want to miss the event!

The report looks at how the student experience could change in coming years and considers the future wants and needs of students under a number of scenarios.

Visions of the future. Not quite like this... (photo by seemann)

Visions of the future. Not quite like this… (photo by seemann)

There was loads of great discussion on the night, including a great question and answer session that you can see highlights from below.

Student Living

Mark Allan, Chief Executive of UNITE Group, kicked off the evening by explaining why student living is at the heart of HE. Why not simply the student, as the government’s 2011 White Paper suggested? Because the experience is broad and all-embracing. Allan said that it’s important to try to understand and interpret future student interests, especially since students are not all the same.

While there is a current trend of seeing university as a necessity for employability and future success, that doesn’t mean everyone looks to higher education in this way. It also doesn’t mean the future will play out this way. However, this document does recognise current trends coming into play and uses them as a base (ten key trends are described in the report).

Study Patterns and Ethos

Paul Harris, Group Strategy and Commercial Director at UNITE, then talked about the prospect of new stakeholders making a huge impact on the higher education sector in coming years. It is not clear where that will take matters, he explained, because there are already fundamental uncertainties that will make an impact on HE futures.

He also questioned whether shorter and more intensive study patterns were on the horizon. Three year degrees may be the norm now, but shifting needs may speed development of 18-month and two-year courses.

Harris concluded with a strong point on ethos. While general attitudes within society are not always the most obvious consideration, they are a key issue that can make a huge impact, both nationally and globally.

We respond to each other and are aware of opinions that are forming. As such, a local economy could be booming or busting, but the final say on how that is perceived could be down to how the public react and respond to the circumstances. Even a bleak economic outlook can be played positively, so it would be wrong to ignore the ethos in society.

Ruled by Technology

One highlight from the event was one student’s dystopian vision of what could occur if technology pushed our minds (and our time) further away from our control. Does technology drive people or do people drive technology?

An abridged version of the student story can be found in the report. I told Cameron, the author, that I found his portrayal vivid and amusing. However, I continued, I’d stop laughing if his story became a reality.

Continue the Discussion

The end of the evening saw some brilliant questions from the floor. It helped the idea that the document is very much a living discussion. Among the questions and subsequent answers on the night were:

Might students in the future want to study in more than one place in the world?
Climate change may force people to stay closer to home in the future, forcing the hand on this one. But if travel continues to happen as it is, some students may prefer to get a range of experiences nationally and even around the globe. What we see as modular today may expand to single modules in several different institutions, but all part of a particular qualification.

Which scenario is currently most likely to play out?
We have no reliable crystal ball. Even as the report was being researched, opinions on the most likely scenario seemed to be changing. In addition, there’s nothing to say that different parts of the country could see different scenarios based on local circumstances.

These scenarios each impact attitudes to education and lifelong learning. Will universities plot out possibilities based on each scenario?
The hope is that the conversation will continue and expand. We must be prepared for many outcomes and it would not be sensible to assume a single course, no matter how obvious it appears to someone. Ignoring possible risks is a risk in itself.

Students discussing accommodation on TheStudentRoom focus very much on value for money and location. How will this change in the future, if at all?
If environment can bring more success, value will be drawn out and noticed. Success means different things and that can be drawn out from a person’s environment. That hasn’t been cracked yet in this country and there are many opportunities.
With £9k fees, students are now looking much more closely at what type of experience they want. Is it employer based, international, lifelong and learning focused, or something deliberately unique to a person? Universities in the United States are focusing on the student experience a great deal at the moment and some pointers could be taken from there. However, with spiralling costs, it is important to also be careful.

Your Thoughts?

A blog has been set up for the report, which will feature more ideas and content, over at hefutures.wordpress.com. There is already a graphic showcasing four of the possible students of the future.

What is your vision of the future? Leave a comment here or tweet your thoughts with the hashtag #HEFutures.

Is University Worth £9,000 a Year?

The Telegraph recently asked students if their first year was worth £9,000.

This type of question is hard to answer at such an early stage. Wait until the end of the degree and answers won’t be much clearer then.

Value doesn’t conclude at the end of an academic year. Nor does it conclude when you finish studying.

In the nature of ‘students as consumers’, imagine buying a brand new car. After you’ve traveled on your first petrol tank worth of fuel, could you say if the car was worth the price? What about after one year of driving it?

The questions seem confused. How do you know if the car is worth it? Value doesn’t conclude until the car is run into the ground, you sell it, or it’s written off. Only when you put all the factors together can you get a reasonable assessment of value.

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

For a degree, value is even harder to assess. No wonder there’s so much discussion around it!

The Telegraph states, “58.4 per cent felt their first year wasn’t worth the £9000”. The problem is in understanding why. The answer is based on a general feeling. Some students will be offended paying a penny for their pursuit of education, while others will sense value in the long haul, whatever the cost.

Neither are necessarily right or wrong. Limited knowledge of what’s to come in their future (and in the wider world) prevents anyone from giving an accurate account of value. Motivation drives how you feel about many things, including value. But motivation is a complicated issue. There is no easy answer.

One opinion for poor value for money in the first year is that it doesn’t count academically.

This ‘first year doesn’t count’ argument is a false trail. Fresher year counts beyond grades. If nothing else, it acts to strengthen your academic work, which should help grades in later years. A direct correlation between fees and grades is jarring. Understandable, yes, but still jarring.

Contact time is another false trail. A joint study by HEPI and Which?, reports on student experiences, including contact time and the differences between institutions, even for the same subject. But there are many reasons why contact time isn’t just about hours. And neither should that be the only factor when looking at value.

It’s easy to boil the university experience down to this: a path toward a degree.

But the reality is complicated, just like motivation. You (hopefully) end up with a degree at the end of your time, but is that the only value worth attaching to the fee? If so, what price are you willing to pay for a degree and why?

There are arguments against buying into a university experience altogether. Despite those reasons, some will still find great value in HE. My motivation is not yours. Your motivation is not anyone else’s.

Is £9k worth it each year? Can you give a reasonable answer?

A simple question of value is far from simple to answer amid all the confusion. It makes little sense to view university within the confines of market competition.

Is your university experience disappointing?

After a year at uni, Amy McMullen says she is disappointed.

“…university comes with a whole set of issues that leaves many students thinking that it was never really worth it in the first place.”

photo by Kalexanderson

photo by Kalexanderson

Not everyone enjoys their uni experience. There are loads of possible reasons why this happens. Some may have a bad time while they’re there. Others will not have expected their time to be the way it turned out.

Amy explains that she and her friends believe that “if we had known what university was like before we applied, we would definitely think again and consider if it was worth it”.

She suggests that things could be different if she had taken an internship or some work experience for a year.

I hope things get better for Amy and that she feels more enthused as she moves through her degree. I wanted to make a few points and offer some advice in the hope that you can feel happy about your choices now and in the future.

I’ll start each point by referring to one of Amy’s comments in her piece.

“I pay the same tuition fees as someone who does a science subject, yet I have less than half the contact hours.”

Contact hours are not important.

Seriously.

At least, not important in the context of making university (and its cost) worthwhile. Contact hours aren’t a measure of worth or a measure of quality. What matters is ensuring you have enough contact time with academics.

If you don’t think you’re getting reasonable access to your tutors, have a friendly chat with them at first and see what you can all get out of it. Failing that, speak to your course rep or Students’ Union about your issue. If a large group of people on your course agree that you’re not getting enough contact time, work together on solving the problem rather than simply complaining amongst yourselves.

“Even more disheartening is realising that I could have learnt most of the syllabus content by spending a few days in the library and using a good search engine online.”

This is where ‘self-learning’ comes into play. My last post looked at taking a 4-year degree in a single year. Some of the top unis put entire courses online for the public to devour. You really could learn most of the syllabus content in a short time. And with library access, you can go deeper. Much, much deeper.

And that’s the point. I like to think of lectures and reading lists as starting points. Taking the analogy one step further, you’re given sign posts in these lectures so you don’t get hopelessly lost. Amy talks about agonising over another essay (yes, we’ve all been there), so learning the syllabus content is not the whole picture.

Everything you need is out there. A formal setting isn’t necessary for learning. A drive to find out more is necessary. If the basics only take a few days in the library and a bit of Googling, imagine where you can go from there.

photo by hatalmas

photo by hatalmas

“I often wonder if it would have been a better idea to get some hands on experience via internships or work experience full time this year.”

You still can. If you already know what career path(s) you’d like to pursue, that’s brilliant. You can find relevant part-time work while you study, use a different part-time role to develop transferable skills, or get involved online in your spare time. Get blogging, connect with people in the field, and join professional networks.

If you aren’t sure about future plans, work on what you enjoy. Many university experiences are useful long after graduation. And they don’t need to be related to the degree itself.

For instance, Amy has written her piece for The National Student. And she had written several articles before that. I’m guessing it won’t be her last.

I don’t know what Amy’s plans are, but getting her writing out is a great start. Even if she finds disappointment in some aspects of uni life, writing for student papers and getting involved in various extra-curricular activities can equal great experience.

The fact that Amy has done this in her first year is awesomeness. That gives at least a couple more years to achieve more. Much more. Stuff that won’t gain extra marks or improve the degree award, but stuff that will benefit in other ways. Better ways, even.

“Obviously my first year at university has been a learning curve in learning to live independently, meeting new people and discovering myself. It’s easy to forget the real reason we applied here – to get a degree.”

It’s funny, because independent living, self-study, networking, and discovering yourself are all possibly more important than getting that degree. Again, looking back at my previous post, the degree is less important than you. You have so much on offer to help you to develop, to explore, to learn, to challenge yourself, to network, to ask questions, to engage, to enjoy…

Loads of this stuff can be done outside the confines of university. Academic study isn’t the only option. But it’s still a great option. With so much available around you (physically and mentally), like-minded people (hopefully), and time on your hands (occasionally), a lot is convenient at the very least! I still hope the experience goes beyond mere convenience though.

Comparisons are easy. But you end up comparing an ideal scenario with your current reality. That’s not reasonable. Life isn’t like that and the grass always looks greener.

Make the most of your time at uni. Getting a degree is just the start of it!

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photo by Chi King

photo by Chi King