Saturday, 24 November 2012

Contact Time - how important is it?

Higher fees
Tuition fees in Higher Education have risen 100 – 200% recently. The six to seven hours a week, 22-24 weeks a year, students spent in direct contact with lecturers – i.e. lectures, seminars and other classes - have seemed even with lower fees not to be good value for money. Of course, there is other contact – emails, meetings and one-to-one tutorials for example. We also alert them to all sorts of opportunities and we direct their reading. For the 168 hours they spend in our company students are expected to spend about another 1000 on self-directed study.
If to become a writer, as many say, you need to practise your skill for 10,000 hours, by the time our students leave us they are about a third of the way there.  Except: some of their work is literature based. And oddly, a significant proportion of them are published before they leave us. Is this because latent talent is being exercised or because we’re teaching well? Hopefully it’s a mixture of the two.
Increase in contact time
We’ve increased our contact time by just over 30%.
This has its own repercussions:
More constraint on the timetable, so more early starts and late finishes, and less chances of finding suitable rooms for every session  
Staff are less likely to be able to take a research day.
Students are less able to fit in part-time work – and may have to drop out because of financial reasons.
Student attendance
Where I work we have hesitated about insisting on attendance, except in those interactive classes that only work with a good number of students there – e.g. creative writing workshops. We do, however, rigorously chase up non-attendees because we want to know that they are still with us and still on track. More often than not good attendance is reflected in good results but there are some who rarely attend who do well. Academic freedom after all? There is a deeply-seated conviction that we should allow our students to work according to their own learning style and some students – actually particularly creative writing ones – prefer to work alone.
Teaching quality
We have another conviction that if we insist on attendance we have to offer excellent teaching matched to individual learning styles. This is actually impossible – many a school teacher has burnt out trying to achieve this – you just cannot be all things to all people. Blended teaching styles are a partial answer. The research-active university lecturer is all about a pool of knowledge that is to be passed on and most students regardless of the fees involved will recognise the responsibility they have in making the most of what happens.  That does not always translate into attending class. We’re some way away, however, from what existed fifty years ago and before that: dusty old professors reading out dry old texts from which students were supposed glean the magic themselves. With fees the way they are we’re expected to provide the magic directly.     
It seems surprising then, that the very same students who have made noises about wanting extra contact time do not turn up to class when it is offered. We might worry that what we have to offer is not enticing enough. Or maybe life and work happen to the students. Probably it’s a mixture of all three.
Prompted to some extent by a remark from one student in one of my classes I sent out a quite an assertive letter to my final year students this week. I had been a little disappointed the week before by their attendace – 40% i.e. four out of ten. It was assignment week. More normally I get 70%% to 90%.  I expected them in class unless they were on death’s door and I expected them to contribute to the workshop. Six pieces of work were submitted; I was expecting three. We had an intense workshop but I nevertheless asked myself how much they were getting from it. Could they manage without me? Possibly. They were pretty clued up.  Was the insistence on attendance necessary?
How to recognise a good teacher
Recently we had a colleague who had had a teaching award talk to us. He didn’t use PowerPoint, nor any other visual aid and he gave out no hand-outs yet he held out attention. He made the point that one good lesson is better that ten mediocre ones. We need to inspire our students to want to go and find out more for themselves, not just fill them with information. Why was his talk successful? Because of his sincerity and his professionalism in telling us exactly what we need to know. He was interacting effectively with the people in front of him.  
I try to make my classes content-rich and question-rich. I hope I’m managing it.