Teaching intelligence: Contact hours and student engagement

In the second of a series surveying research evidence about teaching and learning, Graham Gibbs concludes that the best learning is done in small classes involving personal interaction with teachers

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Class time v face time: studies show that simply increasing class contact time, on its own, is unlikely to benefit student learning

It’s unusual these days for a week to go by without a letter reaching a national newspaper from an undergraduate - or more likely from his or her parents - complaining about the pitiful number of lectures and seminars at a (usually research-intensive) university. “Contact hours” are also a constant reference point for politicians keen to castigate universities for not providing “value for money”.

As higher education has become more of a market, and students have found their voice as customers, so demands for more teaching in return for fees have intensified. This demand is made flesh in the Key Information Set, which includes a “performance indicator” about the proportion of students’ time spent in class. But is the National Union of Students right to demand more class contact, and if students got it, would it improve their learning?

If students are right, then one would expect the universities that sit at the top of the National Student Survey rankings to be those that offer the most class contact. Instead, the opposite is the case, with The Open University - ranked top for student satisfaction in 2012 - having the least class contact of any institution and, on many courses, no face-to- face contact at all.

In fact, the number of class contact hours has little to do with educational quality, irrespective of what happens in those hours and what the pedagogical model is. It is independent study hours that predict learning gains, not class contact hours.

Research in the Netherlands showed that study hours, to a large extent, have an inverse relationship with class contact hours: if there is less teaching, students tend to study more and vice versa, making up similar weekly totals regardless of the ratio of teaching to study hours.

Up close and personal

However, some pedagogic systems use class contact in ways that are much more effective than others at generating effective independent study hours.

A review of data from US studies found that students in higher education institutions spent an average of only 0.7 hours of studying outside class for every hour they spent in class. These institutions are often pressured, by state funding regimes or by their fee-paying students, to offer a significant amount of class contact.

In contrast, each hour of an intensive tutorial at the University of Oxford generates on average 11 hours of independent study, and Oxford’s students have been found to put in the greatest overall weekly effort in the UK despite having comparatively few class contact hours.

What seems to matter is the nature of the class contact. “Close contact” that involves at least some interaction between teachers and students on a personal basis is associated with greater educational gains independently of the total number of class contact hours.

As an illustration of the lack of relationship between class contact hours and outcomes, medical education worldwide has migrated from traditional didactic pedagogies, characterised by a lot of large-class lectures, towards problem-based pedagogies, characterised by a much smaller number of small interactive classes, usually using the same amount of resources. This change has been accompanied by a substantial increase in independent learning hours and evidence of greater pedagogical effectiveness measured in a variety of ways.

This is not the same as arguing that you can cut class contact hours from an existing unchanged pedagogy without making any difference to student learning, or that increasing hours will make no difference. If students read primarily in order to discuss what they have read in a seminar, and the seminar is taken away, then they will probably read a good deal less and learn less as a consequence.

Very little class contact may lead to student uncertainty about what they should be studying, a lack of a conceptual framework within which subsequent study can be framed, a lack of engagement with the subject, a lack of oral feedback on their understanding, and so on. It depends what role the class contact is performing.

Rules of engagement

What matters is the quantity and quality of engagement generated by the particular uses to which class contact is put. A student complaining about a lack of contact would have a point if the teaching she received failed to engage her, or failed to brief her adequately for the independent study that she should have undertaken, or if poor access to learning resources meant that she had to rely on lectures for the course content.

And what happens if class contact hours are increased? At Liverpool Hope University all under-graduates now get an additional weekly tutorial, and it is likely to benefit them in all kinds of ways. But at most universities no additional resources have been allocated to teaching, and so increasing class contact hours usually means replacing a small number of small classes, such as seminars or problem classes, with a larger number of larger classes, usually lectures.

Quite apart from the pedagogic weaknesses of lectures as a teaching method, increasing class sizes and reducing close contact will have predictable negative consequences for student engagement and learning gains. This is probably not what students were hoping for.

There is a good deal of interest in the US at the moment about “flipped” courses, where the focus of attention is on well-designed and supported independent study, with class contact used to brief and de-brief that study, avoiding using precious class time to provide students with subject content, and concentrating teachers’ efforts on process. Thirty years ago, such methods were used in geography teaching at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), avoiding the negative effects of large class sizes as a consequence.

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