Learning isn’t a contact sport

Here in the UK, we increasingly worry about contact with our students, about the simple question of how much time do we spend with them in class or supervision.

The driver of this has been the introduction by the government of Key Information Sets (KIS) which provides basic metrics for each and every programme offering in England and Wales: here’s a typical one for a programme that I’ve randomly picked out of nowhere.

As you’ll see, it has a worthy aim at heart: to provide benchmarks for what a student can expect, in terms of costs, teaching delivery and career prospects. Equally obviously, I am going to question the utility of this data.

Firstly, it assumes that aggregated performance of previous cohorts holds some resemblance to the individual performance of future students. Spending, as I do, a lot of time with individual students and their specific learning requirements, I am dubious about the proposition, especially when I consider how the demographics of our current intake looks very different to the students we recruited three or four years ago (who data you now see).

Secondly, it mixes programme-, School- and University-level data, in ways that are not immediately apparent and which again do not give an applicant a meaningful understanding of what things are like. That’s why we invite all our applicants for a day on campus, so that they can make up their own minds.

But it is the third issue that I would like to develop.  One of the metrics is the percentage of ‘time spent in lectures, seminars or similar’, as compared to independent study.  The discourse around this (across the HE sector, I should point out) is that more contact time is A Good Thing.

Certainly, for subjects where lab work is an essential element, it’s easy to see the logic behind this. But for social sciences, much of what we are doing is developing students’ abilities to be self-reflective and critical thinkers, who are able to articulate their own views. In part, this requires opportunities to do that articulation (be it through discussion, or coursework), but it also requires time for students to pursue self-study, in order to begin to know their own mind.

If we want to build students’ self-reliance, then surely we also want to be giving them space to self-organise. This might seem a forlorn hope at times, but over-structuring of time can be counter-productive to initiative.

Ultimately, there is an irony that while observers and league tables might value more contact time, students actually on the programme often don’t treat it as such: despite offering a time-efficient way to get into issues and debate, there are always students who see it either as a distraction or as an irrelevance. Perhaps if we can understand that better, then we might be able to make the most of however much contact time we have.

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