I heard a presentation today from Charles Blaich of Wabash College. He leads the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, an effort to determine which practices lead students to develop the skills and orientations traditionally associated with a liberal arts education.
In his presentation Blaich pointed out a fact that we all recognize--students rarely spend 2 or 3 hours studying for every hour they spend in class. At best it is 1 to 1; in many instances less.
We all have our favorite explanations for this fact. Students just aren't committed to learning, or the rigor of higher education has declined, or student's lives are more complicated so they don't have as much time to spend outside of class, etc. etc. Whatever the explanation, though, we treat this fact as something to be denied or railed against. I know of no effort in higher ed to reflect the fact of declining outside-of-class studying in the practices or curriculum of a school.
This is interesting in part because there is a healthy backlash against homework in the K-12 system. Parents and educators argue that students spend enough time in school during the day, and that for ambitious students their homework routinely stretches into the wee hours of the morning, all with little evidence for improved learning.
So if it is the case that homework does not radically improve learning in K-12, and if it is the case that students spend less time doing it in college than we expect, perhaps we ought to begin to redesign learning with that fact in mind. Such a redesign might in fact support some of the things we know lead to better student engagement and improved learning. The critical change would be to have students spend more time in class than they currently do, while expecting that they spend less time outside of class studying. (This is by the way one of the side effects of the extended school day concept at many high achieving schools.)
What would be the result of this move?
1. Students could graduate more quickly because they could enroll in a larger number of classes (or preferably in the same number of classes but which bear more credits each). If the minimum number of credits to be considered full-time shifted from 12 to 15 hours, students would complete a 120-hour degree in 8 rather than 10 semesters. Where there is quicker graduation there is less cost to the student.
2. Students and faculty would spend more time together. It is clear that student/faculty interaction is an important determinant of student learning and retention, though its impact varies across race, class, and SES. It is also clear, though, that students are less likely to engage with faculty outside of the classroom than they are inside.
3. There would be more time for facilitated learning. Many faculty turn towards lectures not because they are the best way of teaching but because they feel that lectures are the most efficient way of imparting information. More can be said in 50 minutes than can be learned, the thinking goes. So instead we move some difficult ways of learning outside of the classroom, ensuring that students have to do them on their own time. More time in the classroom means more time for time-intensive and facilitation-needy pedagogies--reflection, group projects, student peer criticism, service-learning, mentoring, etc--in the classroom.
4. Learning might improve. Time on task is a key predictor of learning. How might faculty ensure that students spend quality time on task? By having them learn in front of or with the faculty member.
5. A greater portion of faculty educational time would be spent leading learning rather than preparing to teach. Let's stipulate that a shift to more time in the classroom does not mean more hours at work for faculty (just as it does not mean more hours "doing school" than is already expected of students). Currently faculty spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for class, and grading outside of class. In a more class time model, faculty would devote more of their attention to the relationships and interactions that lead to learning, rather than in the before and after of learning.
I know it is not a panacea, but if it is a given that students will not spend the time outside of class studying in a way that leads to learning, then spending more time in the classroom is a reasonable response.
Perhaps an experiment is in order--give two groups of students the same schedule. Have one group spend 12 hours a week in the classroom and try to get them to spend an additional 18 outside of class studying. Have the second spend 18 hours a week in class and 12 outside studying. Give both groups the same test at the beginning and end of the semester. Hold the faculty constant. Which group of students will learn more? Which group is more likely to come back the next semester?