What should universities do with ‘contact hours’?

For the past few years a big search has been on to find the most useful key performance indicators with which to judge the performance of universities. So the view has been expressed by politicians and in the media that there must be some metrics which most accurately reveal the productivity of the academy. One that is getting much more attention is the concept of ‘contact hours’. This is an indicator that discloses the number of hours per week during which students experience formal teaching or tutorial support.

This is not an entirely pointless exercise. When I was President of Dublin City University we were able to establish a pretty unambiguous link between student attendance at classes and examination performance. But attendance at what, exactly? There are growing doubts in some circles about the usefulness of large lectures, in part because as a medium for transmitting knowledge it has been overtaken by the internet and other freely available sources, and in part because lectures are seen as too passive a learning method. On the other hand, small group tutorials and seminars are seen as being much more effective tools, not least because they are more participative and allow greater monitoring of individual student performance.

But then again, as higher education funding dips, large group classes are much more economical and may allow the idea to be sustained that students are enjoying a sufficient number of ‘contact hours’, even if the pedagogical value of the exercise may be more debatable.

All this is part of the growing uncertainty as to what universities should actually be doing to allow students to have the best possible educational experience. As all the accumulated assumptions and traditions of higher education crumble, and as the academy faces serious scepticism from its stakeholders, it has become more and more difficult to develop a confident and well judged pedagogical framework. 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.

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25 Comments on “What should universities do with ‘contact hours’?”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Of course students demand more attention for their money (what’s the average student debt on course completion ?), and the parents that are paying will be more demanding, like they are at school. Internet efficiencies are now expected from the HE/FE sector since knowledge is effectively free and there simply are not that many superstar celebrity Lecturers who can get more money doing TV anyway.

    I am more optimistic about the University role in new Europe. I am the first in my family who has not had too worry about jackboots on the backstep. As Tom Hanks says in his address at the Yale Commencement last year (available on YouTube) fear is cheap, education should be about helping our young overcome fear (and such as drugs) when there would appear to be little hope for the future for many.

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    With the ubiquitous access to knowledge/facts brought about by global information systems perhaps we are witnessing the demise, or the crumbling that Ferdinand refers to, is there a place at all for universities in their present form? Maybe the university should just be an examining body only, setting curricula and examinations, and awarding degrees. Students would self-study, pay to sit for exams in some centarl hall, and receive their certificates in the post. The age of venerable academics, inhabitating ivory towers in old buildings, with security of tenure and little accontability, are a thing of the past. In centuries past, the security and reputation of an academy was predicated on its access to knowledge – now we all have that access and little need for centralised, expensive, out-moded forms of power over the masses.

  3. brianmmulligan Says:

    This is a measurement problem. I’ve worked with engineers over the years in measurement and quality assurance and when you look at the attempts at these two important issues in education it really is a pitiful sight. It is just because we are so poor at measuring outcomes (learning) that we instead try to control the inputs (time spent in front of students) and this totally inhibits innovation.

    Bologna is based on the erroneous idea that we actually know how to quantifiably measure learning both in terms of level and of volume. However, when you look at the results you see levels defined in terms of vague aspirations and volume going back to using “typical contact hours” (with no allowance made for the varying capacity of students in different institutions or the different efficiencies of lecturers – there, I said it).

    A colleague worked under a significantly better system in a mixed-mode (distance and campus) university in Australia that measured by student credits. (put 40 through the course and you get twice the credit for putting 20 through). However, this does not take advantage of the clear economies of scale, and also does not necessarily allow us to exploit other improvements in efficiency).

    Having said all that, I don’t know how to measure learning either. But at least I don’t pretend that I can.

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      Perhaps the only outcome to be measured is the students’ performances at examinations? pass or fail? what’s simpler than that in terms of measuring outcomes (learning)? But, and here’s the crux, each student sitting exams would be first approved by the teaching academic as having a reasonable chance of passing the exam. This filtering process is in operation in all of the recognised traditional professions (med, law,church, military) and can be an expensive investment in the teaching/learning process. But, that’s the point: how much do we want to invest in ensuring that society gets the best out of the teaching/learning process? If students fail at their exams (particularly finals) then it’s the teacher(s) who are to blame, so move them on…


      • Despite its shortcomings, “testing out” does seem to be a way to move things forward. Professional associations like ACCA or the Institution of Civil Engineers do this already. It may come to the point where accreditation is separated from teaching (like secondary school) – you can take your free course from Stanford via Coursera, or even learn it yourself on the Internet (or at work) and get a university to examine you. University of Wisconsin has already announced this: http://libbydowdallblog.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/connecting-the-dots-in-online-learning/

        • Vince Says:

          More of that sort of stuff is precisely what not needed. You want more of the rubbish of the universities providing courses with a vote from the exchequer and then the professional bodies establishing choke point further along the line. What’s needed is the uni’s and colleges sending out market ready grads. And legally stated as such. Then the professional bodies would be exposed for what they are, unions.

  4. Vince Says:

    Yes, there are things that can be measured and valued. But how do you measure the interaction between an audience and it’s performer.
    You view this at all times from the position of the stage or even from the wings, never from the stalls. And while you -the uni establishment- continue to do this you are missing a major point. The one that polishes a performance of all that dross and extraneous flibbertigibbets.
    To put it another way. You can spend all the money in the world on a film. Drawing the very best of the talents and end up with shit. Yes, you lessen the possibility by having Greats make your film. In the university situation, you have utterly useless lecturers where the fewer in the theater the less the damage. And then you’ve Seanchaí that could read to a stadium.
    This is a horses for courses issue. There simply cannot be a metric. You cannot have it because you cannot test it. It would be far better if the university sent their baby lecturers to stage school for a term where if nothing else they might learn to read an audience.

    • Vince Says:

      Oh, in case you missed it. Maeve Binchy died yesterday.

      • MunchkinMan Says:

        Yes, so sad. In the context of this blog, I wonder if UCD made any significant and telling contribution to her education or character formation, or would she have achieved what she did anyway?

  5. cormac Says:

    Ahem. The term ‘contact hours’ is also used to describe the number of contact hours of the *lecturer*. Here we see a dramatic difference between different sorts of thirld level institutions. One reason the IoTs in Ireland have managed to keep reasonably small class sizes is because lecturers have 18 contact hours a week, about double the teaching allocation of most universities.
    This is fine if you are not expected to do research, but not so fine if one expects third level teaching to be informed by research…and that’s quite a dilemma if society decides it wants degrees not diplomas


    • That’s the issue in so many places: contact hours are both the most readily measurable unit of work, zealously watched over by institution and academic union alike, and the most readily measurable unit of teaching input in order to reassure students that there’s quantifiable bang for buck. So they’re not trivial at all — real work-life balance on the one hand, and real lifelong debt on the other.

      And then working online makes it all blurry. How do you measure the time taken to develop and support the sophisticated rich media resources that you can deliver online? How do you measure the backchannel work that academics engage in as students make their way through this kind of content? If students are engaging in online discussion at 2am and academics are reading their posts later, and the two take different amounts of time, which do you measure? The time taken to speak and to listen are disarticulated, and the whole assumption of time-synchronised copresence falls to pieces.

      In one way it’s hugely entertaining to watch complex organisations try to QA all this, but it’s actually very sad that we are so consistently subordinating our capacity for creative thinking as we do.

      Shifting the focus to measuring and valuing outputs over inputs would help tremendously.


      • I agree with everything you said above, Music, and it makes me wonder that if universities concentrated on figuring out how to really measure learning well they could reduce their teaching to a pure guidance role (This is what you gotta learn and you should consider this way of doing it). This would then stimulate a torrent of innovation in teaching and learning methods.

  6. mikecosgrave Says:

    If one was to be cynical, I could suggest that the link between lecture attendance and exam success has as much to do with getting out of bed and into college as with the quality of the lecture. I have often heard it said that for employers, it is not so much the subject of the degree that matters as much as evidence of ability to complete a degree with a decent mark. And many of my former students spend a lot of their first six months at work learning how to do the job “the company way” anyway.

    I’ve never been a believer in the value of lecture contact hours – I’ve managed to get away from lecturing, even with classes as large as 80 or 90, and while it is harder than just talking at them, I think it is worth it.


  7. […] This got me thinking about how deluded are a lot of discussions on education. The reality of third level education is that an awful lot of 19-23 year are severely lacking in motivation, at least when it comes to learning. It is a deep-rooted cultural issue and theoretical discussions about independent and self-directed learning are usually just that – theoretical. […]

  8. iainmacl Says:

    Not too cynical Mike, some earlier research on student attendance and attainment did indeed show that the correlation was not with perceived ‘quality’ of the lectures but rather with the commitment of the students to attend regularly and keep up with the course in general.

    The other issues that are pertinent here, and that come up in some of the discussion also include the classic danger of equating content delivery with teaching and accumulating information with learning. There’s been a lot of discussion of this again recently with the hype around MOOCs and things like the Khan Academy, where the more substantive debate about the distinction between real learning and ‘psuedolearning’, where the latter is the perception that you’ve learned something by virtue of having watched a nicely crafted online video, or whether you just think you have!

    Instead of online content of course this might apply to a well delivered lecture since much of the original research underpinning much of this was based around conceptual understanding in Physics and how students might remember the factual content and indeed even be able to successfully complete assessments up to a certain level.

    It ties in also with work on ‘threshold concepts’ and how there are distinct key concepts/ideas within academic subject disciplines that are difficult for any learner to grasp and which involve struggle and effort, but once understood change the learner’s perspective on the subject and afford a completely transformed way of looking at the topic, often finding connections with ideas previously considered unconnected, etc.

    All of this is important in painting an accurate picture of what a ‘higher education’ is about, rather than knowledge reproduction or completion of basic procedural tasks for standardised testing.

    The Bologna thing isn’t necessarily at odds with this at all, since it at least makes it clear that there is a minimum amount of conscious targetted effort and practice that is necessary for students to achieve the learning outcomes set in their courses. It is most definitely not about contact hours, but more in alignment with the old 10,000 hours rule which comes up time and again…the danger potentially lies in ill considered disaggregation of subjects into disconnected modules and the challenge of building both conceptual depth and intellectual coherence in part-time programmes undertaken without sufficient carving out of time necessary to constantly revisit ideas, to bang the head off the brick wall, to start again, to ask for help, to practice and get feedback, to refine and for it finally to click. All of this is the domain of high quality teaching and support and time and again when new media, new technologies come on stream in education, the lesson is learned anew. We should be heartened by it. Argued well it makes the case for the renaissance of the role of the teacher and for the active engagement of the student as a metacognitively aware learner.


    • Share those research references please Iain!

      Lecture as content delivery or recital of facts is, IMNSHO, useless but I’ve come to the view that what is useful is “lecture” as storytelling, because people make sense of experience by folding it into narrative. This is where the lecture as recounting the research process works.

      The problem is that we’re not all great storytellers, so we feel obliged to fill “24 x 1 hour lectures” with reciting facts.

      My problem with Bologna is twofold – the guidelines of 100-150 hours of work for a 5 ECTs module is hideously above what the OECD figures for a working year would give, and the emphasis on Learning Outcomes which are often behaviorist and therefore weak in the affective domain, which Bloom never really finished in as much detail but which is clearly very important for constructivist learning.

      • iainmacl Says:

        will try and dig out refs when back at work, Mike. though a bit of googling might find some. The study by the team at Glamorgan a good few years back now which looked at students (who had been signed in electronically in their classes) and their performance is an interesting one with a fair bit of stats behind it. The other research, originally from physics ed, is from the work of Hake et al on conceptual understanding, followed up by Eric Mazur, of course, and others…you might search on ‘psuedo-learning’ for more recent updated links, esp to the critique’s of Khan et al, which in many cases are similar to those of earlier online learning, video materials, TV, etc, more substantially made in work by Diana Laurillard in the past about the importance of feedback and interactive engagement….also the Threshold concepts work by Ray Land and colleagues and the ELT website at edinburgh university has a pile of stuff there….from large project funded by ESRC.

        • iainmacl Says:

          by the way, the ‘ in critique’s is outrageous and goes to show that my android text correction has a good few glitches in it…not surprised given the relative size of thumbs to screen…apols for such horrors (or should that be horror’s ! haha!)

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      I think you’ve hit it on the head when you identified ‘…ill considered disaggregation of subjects into disconnected modules…’ and so forth. This practice is widespread in many university u/grad programmes where there is little joined up thinking by the faculties that put together some bizarre combinations to suit the proclivities of those students mentioned by the above correspondent PhDs, Repeats, Research Ethics…etc. The practice smacks of desperation by 2nd/3rd rate universities (that don’t quite know what they’re supposed to do or how to teach) to attract students who themselves don’t quite know what to study – a Lose/Lose situation, if you will. It would be better to learn from those universities that keep their u/grad programme degrees relatively simple, by offering focussed and tight combinations of subjects that are academically and conceptually compatible; this allows the student to integrate those study (transferable) skills that are so desired by prospective employers. Add to that the cherry on the teaching cake, that of small class tutorials with engaging and inspirational teachers, and you produce students (by and large) that are rogorous thinkers and questioners, active doers, willing to push forward the frontiers of their subject, challenge conventional wisdom and so contribute to the learning and teaching process as well as to society.

      • iainmacl Says:

        on this particular aspect, I think Leicester’s relatively new Integrated Science course looks like a potentially really valuable contribution to curricular design and will be keen to see how it pans out in the longer term. So many students complain at registration in many institutions that actually they don’t want the huge range of options on offer, they want someone to help them provide a coherent, worthwhile programme. Sadly, the known educational advantages over choice have been diverted towards choice of modules rather than something more complex but valuable, such as choice of forms of assessment which demonstrate attainment of specified outcomes/goals.

  9. James Fryar Says:

    I have no real issue with the idea of ‘performance metrics’ for entire institutions or the academic staff within those. The reality is that any worthwhile ‘metric’ is not going to be simple – it will be some complicated algorithm that folds in various parameters and generates an output. And, I hasten to add, I would expect that the data presented on the basis of that system would be held to the same academic standards as academics themselves. For example, what are the errors in the measurements, how do those propagate through the algorithm, what is the significance of the output, etc? That might not suit our mathematically-challenged politicans (or the Irish public for that matter) but anyone who honestly believes you can judge the performance of an academic on the basis of some nice, simple, single metric (like contact hours) either doesn’t understand what academics do, or doesn’t care. And it’s that last bit that worries me.

    As a physicist, I’ve been trained to reach a conclusion, not on the basis of what I think, but where the evidence leads. What we are doing in relation to universities is the complete antithesis of that process. An assumption is being made (there is a problem, somewhere) and the chosen metrics are designed to reinforce that initial conclusion. The choice of ‘contact hours’ exactly fits the bill – oh look, such and such an academic is earning such and such amount BUT only does this number of hours of teaching … aren’t you outraged by that? Of course one could argue that since more first class degrees are being awarded, we’re exceeding previous preformance indicators (the number of students graduating with firsts) and therefore deserve a pay increase! No one likes that ‘metric’ because it doesn’t reinforce the preconception that something is wrong.

    So I have exactly zero time for this sort of nonsense indicator. Fold ‘contact hours’ in with ‘hours spent on research’, ‘papers published’, ‘number of citations’, ‘research income’, ‘number of masters and doctorate students supervised’, ‘hours spent developing course material’, ‘hours spent on board meetings’, ‘hours involved in outreach activities’, ‘hours spent preparing for conferences’ etc and then, and only then, will I believe you have a performance indicator I recognise as being vaguely useful.

  10. Al Says:

    Fantastic thread
    Tip of the hat for all


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