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Monday, 29 April 2013

Contact Hours: An Explanation

[Because of the Daily Heil article published today which specifically mentions my department and complains about 'scandalous' low amounts of teaching, I thought I'd move this (originally from 25/06/12) back to the top of the page.

The management of Poppleton University managed to score a spectacular own goal in any case.  All universities have guidelines about not over-running, about finishing before the hour is up to allow students to leave before the next class is due to arrive, and about not starting bang on the hour to allow students with classes some way away to arrive.  Poppleton made the mistake of being honest about this and owning up to the fact that its lecture hour starts at 20 past and ends at 10 past.  Thus, immediately all our hours are reduced by 10 minutes compared with less honest institutions.  Students on my 2nd-year course on 'The end of the Roman World' course receive 17 lectures and 8 1-hour discussion groups, 25 hours in all.  They do 2 such courses a term.  However, thanks to the management's foul-up, these 50 timetabled hours are slashed down to 41 hours and 40 minutes.  Students with the same tuition at, say, UCL, will be classed as receiving 8 hours & 20 minutes (20%) more, although in fact they'll be getting the same.  This, alas, is how the system works...

See also here.]

For students, who like to parrot their parents, who like to parrot journalists, who don't know what they're talking about but who do know how to arrange numbers into a sequence from low to high.  And let's face it it makes good copy; you can always get some rent-a-mouth to make some comment damning humanities 'dons' as lazy - and any defence of the situation can be derided as elitist.

The reason why science students get several times as many contact hours as humanities students is because their degree requires them to be taught different things in different ways.  Let me explain...

If I were to model my teaching on science teaching, it would go like this.  I would give one or two hours of lectures about why a particular book was written, what question it had set out to confront, what conclusions it had come up with and why that mattered, and then telling the students in detail how to read the book.  The student would then get five more hours sitting in a room reading the same book, being supervised by a post-graduate or post-doctoral tutor whilst s/he did so, to see if s/he came up with the same answer as I did.  

This, as you can see, is not really what anyone (outside the intellectual drill-régimes of the public schools) would expect of a humanities education.  The science student requires to be taught particular (different) things in ways that require (for intellectual as well as basic health and safety* reasons) different teaching methods and a certain level of supervision, and the aim of the 'experiment' is rather different (at least at this sort of level).  The point of a humanities course is that the student does his/her 'experiments' on his/her own from a range of texts (not necessarily all the same ones) in the library or in his/her room, both before getting the lecturer's thoughts on the overall field and again (and principally) before the seminar where the topics are discussed.  And the point is not necessarily to get the same sort of result as the lecturer.  It is about how to think, not what you need to learn.  Such unsupervised 'experiment' ought - if the student is conscientious - amount to about the same time as the science student spends in labs and doing his/her background reading.

Clarification: Just to avoid any tedious exchanges of e-mails or comments let me make it clear that I am not in any way saying that science is somehow easier, or that it's all just about learning stuff and getting right answers.  What I am saying - and I'm not a scientist so I may be a bit off the mark - is that as I understand it a certain control and supervision of the experimental process and the correctness of procedure is rather more important (or at least important in a different way) in sciences than it is in the Humanities.  I hope you see my general point, whatever its minor infelicities. I have nothing but respect for scientists ... except when they start dabbling in History and standing on their doctoral credentials when they do so, that is.  That, I admit, annoys me.

A related point.  Each contact hour is not the same.  One hour in a lecture with 100 students is not the same as one hour in a group of sixteen students in a seminar, which is not the same as four 15-minute one-to-one sessions.  So totals of hours in league-table format are entirely misleading.  Furthermore, institutions can manipulate these figures.  Our two most prestigious institutions offer huge numbers of lectures a week, each of which they add into the figure for 'contact hours'.  But they are voluntary and only a fraction of students attend.  Their only compulsory hours are the two or three hours (if that) of tutorials.

The whole contact hours issue is a graphic example of how the mantra of 'choice' leads, through the production of league tables, to a lowering of standards.  As I have argued before, the obsession with league tables leads not to a raising of quality but to the generation of more of the sorts of output that, numerically, affect league-table positions.  For instance, 10 hours per week of lectures with 100-200 other students in the lecture theatre is not 'better' than six hours of small group teaching, or three hours of one-to-one teaching (leaving aside the facts that no one gets that any more and my own reservations about the 'inherent quality of tutorials).  But - oh dear - only 6 (or 3) hours a week!  That's not going to look good in the tables.  It won't do, say the university suits when they see that the University of Just Down the Road offers 10 hours (8 hours of lectures and 2 of seminars) a week.  Down comes the directive to increase hours - but how to do so in a way that teaches effectively (students - as above - have to work to prepare for seminars and they only have so many hours in the week) without overloading students or teaching staff?  'We don't want more work, we want more hours', a Poppleton University English student is reported to have said...  The solution: more lectures!  Now - I like lectures (they're what I'm best at) and I don't think they are as useless as many people think, but I'm not going to say they are better for teaching than seminars.

Oh yes.  While we're on the subject of comparison, the reason that science students get more resources than arts/humanities students for their fees is because their tuition costs more.  Before the current government's crazed schemes, the government paid universities three times the subsidy it paid for an arts/humanities student for each science student.  Because they cost more to teach.  That funding difference no longer applies but it is, as it was, wrong to charge students different fees for different subjects (or you'd kill off the sciences for one thing - although for me it matters more that you would simply be penalising students for being interested in one subject rather than another).  And £9k is not very much more than cost price, by the way, once everything is factored in.

Thank you for reading.

* For instance, if I set a student to go and read (presumably in her student room) a chapter or two of, say, Chris Wickham's Framing of the Early Middle Ages as part of her preparation for a seminar I can do so safe in the knowledge that the odds of her blowing up the Saint Frithfroth's Street Halls of Residence as a result of misunderstanding one of Wickham's foot-notes range from slim to zero.  This might not be the case with many a chemistry or physics assignment.  I suppose the student might drop Wickham's 990-page tome on her (or someone else's) foot, or head, and suffer consequent injury, but my point is - well you see my point.


  1. In many instances even calling the Oxbridge lectures 'voluntary' is being generous. During my time at one those schools (full disclosure: I was a master's student not an undergraduate so I did not attend these lectures either) not only were the lectures voluntary but often the students were urged by the Director of Studies not to attend because it would interfere with their individual study time.

  2. True, Jason, but that also comes very much down to the subject: History is a large subject and stories like that abound (though I should say I urge my Paper 13 students to attend their lectures and try to quiz them on content covered therein). In a smaller subject, such as I studied at undergrad level (ASNC), lectures were conidered compulsory and one could expect to hear from one's Director of Studies if one was not attending.

  3. Well ... the regular reader of this blog knows that I'm not a big fan of Oxbridge (especially Ox) - or indeed vice versa - but my mentioning them was not to attack them in particular but to show how the current climate works to change people's perspectives. Back in the day Oxbridge argued that its teaching was better because of the inherent superiorities of the Tutorial System. Now, you could, like me, regard that old argument as largely specious and playing in its own way on people's ignorance of HE realities, as well as on good old-fashioned elitism. BUT - and this is the point - at least it made its stand on issues of QUALITY. The league table culture has now compelled a shift towards an argument based upon QUANTITY. I don't see that as a good thing. I should also say that many another institution has followed suit and done similar bits of number-massaging...

  4. Yes, I realise we were rather going off on a tangent there. I agree with you that lectures can be useful and certainly have their place, but that working things out by the hour is simply ridiculous. Where I think lectures work best is when the same person is involved in lecturing, convening the accompanying seminars and assessing student work. It's when these end up being done by three or more people (which is often the case with larger courses at Oxbridge and, I suspect, elsewhere) that the value of lectures is reduced, particularly if those people do not communicate with regularly each other. (I should say for these purposes that my experience is primarily Cam based, but that I have been teaching at both the Univ. of Kent and Leicester this year, so have a sense for how smaller courses operate elsewhere.)

  5. As one whose experience has deeply involved both disciplines, I can only agree that absolute hours are a ridiculous comparative statistic for humanities and sciences (even though I do squirm a bit at your implication that the practical side of scientific education aims at reproducing agreed results rather than understanding the process of evaluating evidence - to my mind this is rather like saying historical education of undergraduates is principally aimed at producing essays which regurgitate major received secondary opinions simply because this is what lazy students do... Instead I would argue that the better students in both disciplines grasp the bigger methodological and pedagogical significance of the task.).

    You are also 100% right that not every contact hour is the same - and that this depends not only on format, but on the quality of teaching. Anyone who has ever been a tertiary student (or indeed a curious thinker) knows that some teachers are better than others, irrespective of how many people are in the tutorial/lecture hall; and that sometimes you can learn as much from a 5 minute conversation in the lift as you can from a two hour seminar. Also, I muse 'aloud', the higher number of contact hours in sciences means that more of the 'outcomes' (urgh!) to be assessed are achieved or achievable in class time, and presumably that students therefore complete them to a minimum level of competence without having to be as self-motivated or organized as students in the humanities must be in order to reach the same relative minimum standard. After all, nobody takes a roll in the library to see that you've turned up to research your paper on Einhard. This ought to be recognized somehow, but I've got no suggestion to offer as to how!

    In a related matter, I fear a seed of the problem of contact hours being used as a barometer is that students themselves often regard them as indicative of effort required. I seem to recall many friends who considered any hour not specifically timetabled as another potential hour in the pub, only wheeling out the number of hours of study they (supposedly) did throughout the week as a (suitably outraged) defence if challenged by someone whose own degree scheduled significantly more. I presume (I hope!) that these are not the students who went on to academic work, or to positions at the head of government/industry, but one can never be entirely sure... Perhaps the rot can be fought on one front by convincing students themselves (en masse... a difficult task!) to take the privilege of their education seriously enough actually to dedicate the time that the system (often passively) expects or assumes. This would mean somehow getting the horse to drink, and not just leading it to the water by weary repetition of policy statements about how many hours of study are *expected* (while the students surreptitiously roll their eyes). It's no small challenge; and of course, it's not clear that that would directly translate into convincing the paying parents to abandon society's general obsession with measurable quanta as the ultimate guarantor of value.


  6. Ahem. "...to see if s/he came up with the same answer as I did" does not imply an emphasis upon agreed results. Thank you for reading.

    1. Fair enough; perhaps you just hit a nerve. I think the point is generally worth articulating nevertheless.

  7. Are you a fan of Stewart Lee?

  8. The fact that you even felt it necessary to write this implies to me that, in the words of the poet, everybody knows that the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.

  9. Hmmm... A grim, hopeless rearguard action aiming at least to take a few of them with us...

  10. I did wonder about the statistic because my own experience of York was significantly more hours than the Daily Fail quoted. Makes sense now! Nice of them to take contact 'hours' so literally.


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