Meeting students face to face – but how?

About a year ago when I took part in a discussion about higher education reform one non-university participant kept asking us about ‘contact hours’. How many of these would a student experience, and what preparations would be needed. It’s one of those questions that you cannot answer satisfactorily, because there is no single answer. It depends on the discipline, and on the lecturer, and on the learning technologies now being developed. But in the end I offered the information that, when I still taught, on average I had eight or so class contact hours per week. Overall a student might have anything between eight and sixteen weekly contact hours in my subject area.

My friend was shocked, truly shocked. What did the students do the rest of the time? Did they feel cheated? Was the taxpayer being cheated? What should be done, and quickly? I suggested to him that he was looking at universities as if they were just slightly more advanced secondary schools. Yes, he said, ‘what’s wrong with that?’

Of course one of the key objectives of higher education is to stimulate independent learning, and it is expected that a lot of this goes on outside of the formal teaching sessions. But what was shocking my friend was that, if this was so, we seemed to be detaching ourselves from the students and their direct needs. I explained to him that this was going to change further, dramatically, and that it might not involve more contact hours. Demographics and technology, I suggested, would require very different teaching methods.

I think my friend was thoroughly unconvinced. But in the course of the conversation it struck me how little he knew about higher education and how it really worked. Is it time for the universities to open up a bit more and to explain what we are and what we do, and what benefits the citizens derive? We must explain that the very negative views sometimes expressed about higher education are not reasonable. We must set out a public vision of universities and so begin to change the nature of the debate.

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13 Comments on “Meeting students face to face – but how?”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    Technology doesn’t “require” anything. Changing any aspect of what we do to meet the putative “requirements” imposed by technology is almost the definition of the tail wagging the dog.

  2. Al Says:

    It is a reasonable question to ask if it is more that the average student today isn’t ready for an independent learning environment than Uni having to explain anything.

  3. Jo McCafferty Says:

    I think it would be a good idea to offer more clarity and not just to those outside university life – even students themselves often seem unprepared for learning in higher education, even at MSc level.

    Our jobs as educators is as much about providing the ideal conditions in which to learn as it is to teach what we know.

    Contact is vitally important, but it’s the type of contact that we may need to address in future.

    Students still require support and pastoral care, (and sometimes a swift boot up the bottom) and we shouldn’t detach ourselves from this in order to save money.

    As more and more students are coming through the system and into university as digital natives, there will be a need for a change of attitude towards technologies for learning.

    At the same time, however, technology for learning must be fit for purpose and not a sticking plaster to cope with large student numbers.

    It should certainly not be used to detach ourselves from students, but used as an aid to allow us continued contact with students.

  4. CathyBy Says:

    Yes, I think people do need to know how universities work, if only for the sake of undergraduates. I know personally individuals do were very successful in secondary who found themselves adrift in university and took some time to find their bearings.

    I also agree that university is not just advanced secondary. Reading around the topic, writing assignments – these are tasks where you really get to grips with your subject. You gave some leeway to focus on what you are interested in – a leeway you generally don’t get in secondary.

    And yet. It’s wonderful to explore but you need a guide. I find the notion that contact time is set to decrease disconcerting. I’m doing a course through distance learning – technology is not an adequate replacement for asking a tutor face-to-face about something that’s confusing you. My experience of moodle and the like is that they are massively underused. They are cheaper of course, but I think a long hard look at the value they provide is necessary.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Whatever else about distance education courses, Moodle &c, in my experience they are not that much cheaper – if at all – to provide.

  5. jfryar Says:

    I think the problem will only be solved when some TV producer decides to do a fly-on-the-wall documentary of university life and packages it in 12 minute segments between 3 mins of ads, with the obligatory 2 mins of recap at the start of each segment in case you’d forgotten what had happened.

  6. Jacco Says:

    It’s not just the “outside world” that needs to be better informed by us; it’s the students themselves as well. In my experience they tend to look at university education (especially in 1st year) as an extension of preparing for A levels and, as a consequence, interpret “learning”, “feedback”, “understanding”, etc. in exactly those terms. And I’ve found it’s rather complicated to steer students away from that, especially in the large groups that I tend to teach.

  7. Ciarán Says:

    Your friend also ought to recognise that the guidance we provide nowadays takes place very often either through email converstations or face to face in our offices. I encourage students to go and read and to discuss their reading and writing with me outside class. I encourage it and proactive students can significantly add to their contact hours this way. Even if they don’t recognise the reading and the interaction as part of the tuition that they paid for.

  8. Roger Mullin Says:

    OK, but it is strange, don’t you think, that many universities are not evidence based in their approach to teaching and learning? Thus the use of formats such as lectures, traditional essays and such like may not be the best teaching and assessment approaches, as research can often show. So, for me the issue is not about contact hours, nor even about teaching, but rather about what learning styles and experiences are most appropriate.


  9. Understanding what learning in university is all about seems to be one of the things in our society that is based on ‘psychic transmission’ of assumed information. We seem to expect that students come with a nuanced understanding of what higher study is about. That doesn’t seem to be a very reasonable expectation – particularly given the scale and diversity of the student population.

    I took three years, pretty much independently, to get the hang of academic life – but I was a AAA student with a big passion for my subject and for reading.

    Its going to get ever more important to set student expectations and clearly explain why we teach the way we do, and what we expect the student to contribute to the process.

  10. Steve B Says:

    I am involved at MSc level and many students are clearly ill prepared for so called independent study. Having worked the majority of my working life in the rough and tumble of the oil industry where you are held personally accountable for just things you often have no control over, I ponder some general questions.
    I feel that for too long Universities have got away with very little public scrutiny and too quick to raise the academic freedom card when they are questioned about their practices or standards.
    With the rise of the £9,000/year tuition fees are students getting value for money?
    Are individual institutions spending both the students and tax payer’s money wisely?
    Do we need to drop the Blair’s 50% going to University doctrine?
    Are there simply too many universities?
    Are they too many useless courses?
    Are institutions’ management totally out of touch with not only their staff but with the wider population and some would say reality itself?

  11. cormac Says:

    There is something of a two cultures divide here – students studying science, engineering, architecture or medicine etc have contact hours of about 30-40 hours per week,because of practicals.
    In fact ‘pure’ humanities are the exception rather than the rule nowadays.
    I always felt it was far too much contact, and too little reflection, but it’s hard to see what can be dropped


  12. In my experience, what attracts most commentary about higher education and the waste of taxpayers money isn’t that we don’t spend enough face time with students during the semester—it’s the assumption that we have 26 weeks of paid holidays a year because we don’t do anything the rest of the time.

    There’s no reason anyone external to universities should magically understand the rest of it. But often we don’t let even our students know much about what we do in the other realms of our working lives. There’s strong evidence that suggests that their learning is enhanced if we’re also talking to them about the ups and downs of our research; but perhaps we need to have start talking to them much more frankly about the governance of their universities, and the everyday administration of their degrees.


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