Sarah Stevens is Head of Policy at the Russell Group.
Deciding what degree to study and where is one of the most important choices any student will make, so improved information about the quality and type of provision in different subjects at different universities is clearly highly desirable.
With this in mind, the Government is keen to focus on the amount of contact time students can expect to have with academics as well as the size of classes at university. The recently published specification for subject-level TEF pilots includes a “teaching intensity” measure comprising a provider declaration on contact hours and staff-student ratios, and a student survey on number of contact hours and self-directed study.
Research published in Fiscal Studies and reported by The Times last week on contact hours and class size has also sought to highlight variation between subjects and universities, arguing for a definition of teaching intensity as a unit of teaching equivalent to an hour of one-to-one contact with a staff member.
But to what extent could measures of teaching intensity help improve the information available to students about teaching quality?
It is important to recognise that more contact does not necessarily equate to a better experience for students. As well as the quantity, it is the quality of contact that determines the value of the educational experience.
Factors such as the talent and experience of teaching staff, the level of intellectual challenge students receive, opportunities to benefit from and engage in research, access to teaching and learning facilities, and crucially, students’ own commitment to their studies, will all impact on the quality of the student experience as well as students’ outcomes.
A good quality degree should enable students to think critically, analyse and solve complex problems. These skills are developed through a variety of methods including independent and peer-to-peer learning, not just through formal contact hours, and are unlikely to be captured by a teaching intensity metric.
Supporting students early on in their degree course should help them to develop the skills and confidence to undertake more independent study meaning they need fewer formal contact hours later in their degree. This is a good outcome for students rather than a problem to be addressed.
A teaching intensity measure which treats all types of provision equally (valuing one hour of one-to-one teaching as comparable to a hundred lectures with 99 other students) may not help to assist students in understanding what they can expect from their courses. Neither would it cast light on the pedagogical approach students can expect, whether a course will be more focused on theory or practice, for example.
All universities use a variety of modes and styles of teaching, from lectures and seminars to tutorials, practical and field work, and this range and diversity enriches the student experience. Patterns of learning in lab-based disciplines and courses where there is a substantial professional training element are also distinctive. A measure which values all contact hours as equal (when class size is accounted for) could risk introducing an incentive for institutions to invest in cheaper types of provision – an outcome which would not benefit students.
The challenge in developing measures which judge universities on teaching quality and intensity is making sure they encourage deep and active learning rather than supporting passive absorption of knowledge. A student-centred approach with active engagement is what really drives a quality experience.
Without taking account of the full range of factors which feed into an active learning experience – and crucially, the extent to which students themselves are engaged with, and committed to, their studies – it is difficult to see how a measure of teaching intensity can really improve the information available to students or help to drive more high quality learning experiences for them.
This article was edited at 10pm on 8/8/17 to state that the cited research was originally published in the journal Fiscal Studies.