The biggest problem in higher education

When I was engineering student in UCD every day was pretty much the same: lectures in the morning, labs in the afternoon. Our weekly contact time was up around the 30 hour mark. That seems like a lot – and it is – but what we had was structure. There was never a temptation to say, “feck it, I’ll just head home”, because if you did you’d miss too much.

Part of the whole modularisation and semesterisation project was to reduce content and hence to reduce contact time. This was consistent with a lot of modern thinking in education, namely that content is less important than it used to be (Google and all that) and that students need to spend more time developing “skills” like independent learning.

However, this shift to a contact-light approach has had some unanticipated consequences. With the cuts in education funding and the increase in student numbers, student timetables tend to be sub-optimal to say the least. Students often find that they have large gaps between lectures and if the next lecture is late in the afternoon, the temptation is to just head home. (For example, I have a class today at 11am and the next lecture for that class is at 4pm – on a Friday.) It is likely that the notes will be posted on Moodle or Blackboard anyway. If the gap between lectures is small, the natural inclination is to convince yourself that there isn’t enough time to do ‘proper’ study and just spend a bit of time on your smartphone instead.

A few years ago the Irish Survey of Student Engagement asked students how much independent learning they did. What was revealed was that most students did far less study than they were (technically) required to do. For me that was one of the most important findings of that study but for some reason the question has been removed from later versions of the survey.

The lack of structure in the student day is a major barrier to student engagement and in my view it is one of the biggest problems in higher education today. The only solution to this problem is more space and more staff. So it’s not going to be fixed any time soon.

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