3.1 Contact hours and conventional teaching

Anecdotally the vast majority of engineering and science programmes, across the world, are ‘delivered’ (itself a word which implies teaching rather than learning) by means of lectures, tutorials and laboratory classes. A few detailed surveys of teaching methods (in Materials, Physics and Chemistry, Goodhew et al 2008; Edmunds, 2009; Gagan, 2009) have been carried out recently. They reveal that, apart from rare periods of intense project activity, students in engineering and science typically have about 20 scheduled ‘contact hours‘ per week – time in which they are encouraged (or mandated in some institutions) to be present at a specified time and place to undertake a pre-determined activity.

In most cases ‘contact hours‘ include lectures (typically ten or more per week), laboratory classes (ranging from 5 to 10 hours per week) and tutorials (usually no more than one per week).

In most programmes these timetabled activities account for the ‘delivery’ of most of the intended learning outcomes. However the contact hours are often supplemented by activities such as industrial site visits, research projects and, increasingly, team projects such as design-build-test exercises.

Most universities indicate an expected number of hours of study for undergraduate students which typically amounts to 40 hours per week during term-time. In principle, if students take this advice, they should be devoting about 20 hours per week to private study. This is likely to include the writing of assignments (either as essays or as the solution of problems), the writing up of laboratory results as reports, reflection on the week’s learning and further study from alternative sources. There is evidence to suggest that only a few students actually study for as long as 40 hours per week, at least in Europe and the USA. For example the UK Materials Subject Profile [Goodhew et al, 2008] reveals that students claimed to be devoting an average of ten hours per week to private study during their first year. In later years the average rose to 15 and then 25 or more in their final year. These are claimed, not measured, figures and they are only partially supported by two recent reviews of the student learning experience in UK Schools of Physics and Chemistry, which reveal that students devote about 7 hours per week to non-contact study in their first year, rising to about 11 in their final year. Academic staff expected students to do about twice this amount of study! [Edmunds, 2009; Gagan, 2009]

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You might expect a student who is genuinely engaged in learning engineering to want to spend more than 40 hours per week on engineering-related activity. Think of it this way: If we schedule for a student 20 ‘contact‘ hours per week for about 30 weeks of the year, then we are committing about 10% of their waking time. If they spend another 20 hours a week on study (which the research quoted here indicates that most of them don’t), this increases to 20% of their time. It should not seem a big ask that someone who is passionate about a subject would want to spend more than 20% of their time on it!

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

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  1. Peter Goodhew

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