Reevaluating the way higher education uses time can help educators maximize their impact on student learning

The broken clock: How we get time wrong in education


Reevaluating the way higher education uses time can help educators maximize their impact on student learning

The education establishment seems to think that time is a tangible asset. State legislatures mete out requirements based on minutes of classroom time as a measure of accountability. In higher education, we have the holy contact hour. Amazingly, those dictating time give little attention to what fills those hours. These suppositions confuse the efficacy of quantity over quality, as if what was being made here were car parts. We are not making widgets in our classrooms. We are making human beings.

The proliferation of articles in recent weeks bemoaning the “loss” of instructional time because of the pandemic has struck me. This “loss” mythology is also what is prematurely driving unvaccinated students back into classrooms even as we wrestle with the most virulent strain of the Covid pandemic to date. It makes the risk seem worth it given the “urgency” of the deepening deficit of time.

At the higher education level, there has been a similar rush back to in-person instruction, albeit following different rationales. In higher education, most students have a choice, however, and anecdotally at least, many students are voting with their feet. Students seem to have pivoted to online options at many institutions.

However, it is in precisely these online sections that we see the anachronisms of time yet again. First, synchronous instruction is still locked into the 48 contact-hour model. As a result, I had a 5-week course this summer that expected my students to sit in a Zoom session for 150 minutes a day, four days a week, and somehow be productive. Even active learning techniques will only get you so far under those circumstances.

Think back on your own learning experiences. True learning takes place in moments, not hours. It is a rare set of experiences that collapses those hours into moments. If we’re honest with ourselves, we waste the vast majority of the time spent in synchronous interchange with our students, particularly with larger classes.

Tom Haymes