What do students want? The dangers of oversimplification…

There’s a story doing the rounds this morning about student-staff contact hours at universities.

“Survey shows university teaching hours have barely increased as fees rise by £8,000″… says the Guardian.

I can see this has already produced a few reactions – I just thought I’d add my tuppence worth (given that it’s all about value for money). It’s just scratching the surface of a big issue, of course, but I still want to say it. I won’t waste much of my (and my students’) valuable time over this – but there are some real dangers in oversimplification of this issue. My biggest concern is about the overall idea: that ‘contact hours’ is the key measure of value for money, of the value of the course, and of what students might or even should want to get from their courses, and from their lecturers. The more this message is pushed – and I’m very disappointed by the Guardian and others for pushing it – the more the students and their parents are likely to believe it. The question is, are contact hours the real key? If they are, and if contact hours are increased, then other things are squeezed, and real, important and valuable things are lost.

Students want well prepared lectures and seminars

That should be a given – and preparing lectures takes time! It really does. Planning time, researching time, updating time, making slides (because students also, quite rightly, like to have good slides not just for the lectures but for their notes and revision), preparing reading lists and so on. Lectures also need to be up to date – for some subjects more than others, of course, but it’s relevant to an extent for almost all subjects. In some of my areas, like internet and privacy law, things are changing almost day by day. Students need up-to-date information – and well informed lecturers!

Students want their work to be assessed well

Today, as soon as I’ve finished this blog, I’ll be embarking on a day of marking exams. Marking exams takes time – and should take time. It matters to the students, and that means that lecturers need to take enough time to properly assess the work. In a qualitative subject that means much, much more than ticking off boxes, and it’s something that can’t be automated – unless we decide to turn our exams into multiple choice exercises or their equivalent, which in many subjects is not only close to impossible be entirely inappropriate.

Students want lecturers who know their stuff

…and that means that they need lecturers to have the time to do their research, to do their thinking, to do their writing. They need their lecturers to go to conferences and present and listen to research. It may seem like a gravy-train or a bit indulgent, and sometimes it can end up that way to an extent, but it’s also the life-blood of a lot of our work.

Students want lecturers who are happy and confident

…because happy and confident lecturers are more likely to make their learning an enjoyable – and productive experience. They’re going to be better at answering questions – and happier to do so. This ties in very closely with their being up to date – if you know your stuff, or rather know enough of your stuff, you’re going to be a better teacher and more helpful in almost every way. How do you get happy and confident lecturers? Well, you need to be able to recruit good people and keep them interested – so give them enough space and time to do the stuff they’re interested in, which often means research…

Students want to have a good time

This point is really crucial, even if it goes against the grain for a government that seems intent on turning the entire education system into a production line to make effective workers come out the other end. Students need to be able to enjoy themselves – not just because everyone should be able to enjoy themselves, but because a happy (in a balanced way) student is generally a better learner. Obsess about results, obsess about ‘contact hours’ and worry about ‘value for money’ and you’re less likely to get to grips with your subject, to explore the possibilities, to be inspired for the future.

Measurement and ‘accountability’ is not always right

I don’t think what I’ve written is true only of universities: rather, it reflects a much deeper malaise with the way we try to run our society, our institutions, our businesses and our government. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that measurement, targets and ‘accountability’ are the key to solving all our ‘problems’. It’s had (and is still having) a huge impact on our health services, our education system, our police services – indeed, our whole justice system. It’s a mindset that needs challenging.

That’s not to deny that measurement matters – or indeed, in this particular context, to suggest that student contact hours don’t matter. They do. Very much so. But they need to be seen in context, and as part of a much, much, bigger picture. Putting the entire focus on the simple, measurable figure can, in the end, hinder rather than help. If university lecturers have less time to prepare, less time to research, less time to keep up to date, less time to think, in the end, the students will be the losers.

UPDATED: Note, this is all entirely anecdotal and qualitative… there’s no empirical back-up to it at all!

23 thoughts on “What do students want? The dangers of oversimplification…

  1. such measures tend not to take into account computer/network, library, pastoral support, careers service, campus life. Nor do they take into account that life and employers are best suited by students who are heavily taught, rather than given the skills and expertise to be proactive learners throughout life

      1. I don’t agree with the fee situation, by the way. But in any case, education is to some extent unbundled – online course for example tend to be cheaper, as they don’t factor in campus costs in the same way. I might also add that in some cases, contact hours are not wisely used – some students have poor attendance records, however well-delivered the lecture is.

  2. What is most valuable to students in terms of their learning high quality constructive feedback they receive from their teachers about their work, regardless of the teaching method. I am hesitating to write the words ‘research has shown..’ but it has. We need a more sophisticated student feedback system than the current national one in order to capture this – in the USA the National Survey of Student Engagement fits this bill and universities would benefit from using something like it – it would give the a broader picture of student response – especially those elements in the survey which address the issue of feedback.

    1. Yes, it’s a crucial point, and I should have made it more clearly – as I’m in ‘marking mode’ at the moment, I understand all too well the need for good feedback. We’ve been working very hard on improving our feedback – but good quality feedback takes time, and time that doesn’t count in the ‘contact hours’ measurement.

      1. Incidentally, the work that has been done (and there’s not much) on the number of hours per week students spend on their university work – in lectures, in seminars, in the library, working at home, both alone or with others (common in my experience at Sydney), is quite surprising in relation to the different workloads on courses over the three years of the standard degree (and often to their teacher’s expectations!). Most university lecturers think their students spend more time on their studies than they, reality, do. Student academic work-related activities tend to increase around the module, semester and final assessments of courses. Why not get your students to compile an hourly diary of their ‘academic activities’ for a week or two each semester and engage in a discussion with them about it when they’ve done so? Class reps can be used to tabulate and ‘anonymise’ the results and to present them to the group in a feedback session.

  3. Paul,

    agree with all of that but it will still be argued that this was being done – or should have been done – in the “old” fees regime i.e. there’s been a trebling of funding, so where’s money going? The fact that the increase in fees ultimately paid by students has been met with a massive reduction in direct spend by the state needs to be put – universities simply do not have an extra £6000 or so to spend. This is a point that never seems to come across – it’s just assumed that HEIs are now quids in, rather than there simply having been a transfer in who bears the cost.

    1. Quite right, and a point that, as you say, is almost always missed. Central funding was removed, student fees added: the university is ultimately if anything worse off….

  4. It isn’t really surprising that the ‘arrogant Mr Gove’ is quantifying the argument on a simplistic equation like fees/contact time = value for money. It is the same arithmetical noose that has been used to strangle all the joy out of 4 to 19 education being tightened around the next neck.
    Ultimately, they want to erode’ art for art’s sake’ (and your money, for God’s sake..10 cc?) subjects, until only the most wealthy will be able to access them.

  5. Nice to see a reference to 10CC Swannyvonne. I am suprised that a Govt that believes in market forces making decisions seems to think that Govt measures of teaching time etc is a way forward. Surely their plan behind students bearing all the fees was that market forces alone would decide which courses were best and that their consumer choices would replace any other form of measurement. After all you don’t get restaurants being required to account for how much time they spend on preparation of a meal.

  6. Contact hours are a phantom when it comes to learning. Many responded, when this first was proposed as a measure, that learning happens in many different ways – and some of the most effective do not depend on a certain amount of face to face (contact) time. Enquiry based learning, problem based learning, group and peer learning, reading and reflection time have little to do with teacher in front of students time. The perverse outcome is likely to be less experienced and research active teachers being put in front of students to make up contact hours.

  7. Timetabled contact hours are, of course, only one of many ways in which we support our students’ learning. A significant amount of the support I provide is via email, web forums, social media and ad hoc face-to-face meetings with individuals or small groups. This is on-demand and difficult to quantify. Of course, it peaks in the run up to coursework deadlines or examinations, as noted above – but I tend to find that, on average, these support channels are underutilised by my students. This leads me to believe that contact time is something of a red herring.

  8. Thank you for a very concise summing up of what students should get – including enjoyment, which, in the world of work as well as at college, is conducive to productivity, positive relationships, better client retention, increased profitability and other good things too numerous to mention. I think you mean that your piece IS empirical, though, since it is based on experience…

    1. Thanks – and yes, you’re right that to an extent it’s empirical, though I was challenged (by someone with their tongue a little in their cheek, I suspect) for evidence that students want their lecturers to be happy!

  9. “We have fooled ourselves into thinking that measurement, targets and ‘accountability’ are the key to solving all our ‘problems’. It’s had (and is still having) a huge impact on our health services, our education system, our police services – indeed, our whole justice system. It’s a mindset that needs challenging.”

    Beautifully put, and entirely agreed.

  10. Couldn’t agree more and with many of the comments here – students need to know their own learning and understanding of any subject cannot rely on contact hours alone and this is something I think HE and HE marketing departments need to make clear on open days. There is a worrying attitude that anyone standing at the front of the class pressing the slides button is better than nothing, this doesn’t respect the work that should go into preparing lectures or the time it takes to do this properly. An additional issue I have seen with a minority of students is to not attend lectures and then demand one to one contact time to help them understand what they have missed – personally, I no longer give in to this demand. It sometimes comes as a surprise to parents to hear about low attendance for their children who are complaining about how difficult they are finding the course! That said, I still love what I do and I really really really want it to remain that way!

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