On contact time

Original illustration by Ying Sun, Edinburgh College of Art student

In this post, Sabine Rolle discusses how this past year has inspired her to rethink contact time and its role in the wider system of learning, teaching and assessment. Sabine is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. This post is part of May-June’s ‘Hot Topic’ series:  “Teaching and Learning during a Pandemic: Lessons and reflections from the last year”.

Contact hours have always been a thing. At every Open Day, we get asked about them; they seem to be seen as currency, the exchange rate for tuition fees: ‘why should we pay so much for so little teaching?’ This can be rather frustrating, because university study is of course so much more than just the contact time. A 20 credit course expects 200 hours of study from the student; the vast majority of this is always going to be spent on independent learning. And teaching is not just what happens in the classroom, it is all the other work that goes into the design of a course: the selection of material, the sequencing of tasks, the questions we ask in assessment etc.

But still, contact hours are important, and this year they have become an even more precious commodity, as many of us had to reduce the time spent on synchronous teaching to make more room for asynchronous activity. In fact, we’ve learned to design courses where all Learning Outcomes can be met even without contact hours, in order to accommodate students studying in different time zones. So why do most students and staff crave contact time? Is it simply due to the need for social interaction, the joy (and validation) that comes from being together with other people who are interested in the same things? What do we even mean by contact time anyway, contact with whom? Does only the time spent with an academic staff member count? How about peer support, the time spent with other students in autonomous learning groups?

Looking just at the time students spend with a teacher, the challenge is: if those contact hours are so few and precious, what are they best used for? There is no single right or wrong answer, of course, but I would probably say: anything where dialogic elements are important. A lot of knowledge acquisition doesn’t need dialogue, it can be done by the student in their own time (reading, mainly, or listening to recorded lectures). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against lectures; listening to a lecture is clearly a different experience from reading an article. There is something about being in the same room with the lecturer and other listeners that seems to change the dynamics. Quite literally so, if some kind of interaction is built in, such as opportunity to ask questions.

The courses I taught this year were all designed around seminars, however, a format that is inherently dialogic. My plan was to use the (reduced) contact time as feedback hours; after all, giving feedback is a key component of teaching. Students would work on tasks at home (often in groups), upload the outcome – answers to questions, critical analyses of articles etc. – to the asynchronous discussion board, and I would comment on this in class. Only, it didn’t quite work. Partly because very few students actually uploaded the products of their work. Asynchronous discussion boards clearly don’t work for everyone. But I think another element was missing too.

Even my written feedback tends to be quite dialogic. I often find myself writing something such as ‘I don’t quite understand what you are trying to argue here’, ultimately inviting the student to come back to me with a response (only that this never happens in the written feedback process). I’m trying to engage with and give feedback on not just the finished product but rather on the process that led to this product: ‘how did you reach this conclusion?’

In my experience, students don’t find it easy to talk about this, they are not used to reflecting on their working methods, on what they find challenging and how they tackle the problems they encounter. Invitations to discuss such things were rarely taken up in my courses and thus I could only guess which aspects of the tasks each student struggled with, probably limiting the usefulness of my feedback.

This has now made me wonder whether the best use of contact hours might be to observe this ‘process of doing’. I used to think it a waste of precious time if students sit in a class room and work quietly on something in the presence of a teacher – would it not be better to do this at home and present the finished article for discussion? But as long as students have not developed the skills to reflect on their ways of ‘doing’, on how they approach a task, this might not work. Rather, we may need contact hours as ‘lab’ hours even in humanities subjects, where the teacher can look over the student’s shoulder and say something like ‘ah, I see what you are doing here, but you may want to try it this way instead’.

This will ideally help students gain a better, more critical understanding of their own practice, their way of ‘doing’ the subject they are studying, rather than just the body of knowledge. There is a link to assessment here as well: we should place a stronger emphasis on the process that leads to the finished product (the essay/poster/presentation etc) also in our assessment design by introducing reflections and helping students develop these crucial reflective skills. But that is a topic for another blog.

photograph of the authorSabine Rolle

Sabine is Senior Lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures where she teaches courses on German language and literature, including medieval literature and discourse analysis.

photograph of the authorYing Sun

Ying Sun is an illustrator and animator from Nanjing. She is now studying an MA illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. She was a game designer until she discovered that she had a stronger interest in illustration and wanted to go more professional and devote more time to it. At the same time, the basic skills she learned about game design are incorporated into her illustrations. For instance, she likes to model her characters in 3D software or creating GIFS and animations for them. She makes e-books with game elements for some of her illustrations. She is now refining her personal style and learning how to use illustration to tell a good story. Although she is not a very humorous person, she tries to convey some sense of wit and hilarity through her work. She seeks to make her work look interesting more than sophisticated.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/abigalesun6/

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