Which?

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)

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.