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.

The aforementioned articles are correct in one regard. We have lost a great deal of learning over the course of the pandemic. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in our logistical learning infrastructures and our inability to face those inequities had predictable outcomes for those students most at risk to begin with. However, these deficits were preventable and cannot be entirely blamed for “lost” instructional time.

However, even assuming you clear all the logistical hurdles of connecting students with teachers, what you do with that connected time is critical to the success of that effort. What remote teaching has exposed is a lot of teaching culture that has been made hostage to the clock. This leads to an overwhelming temptation to fill time rather than mold experiences. It’s no wonder students tune out.

Digital affordances change the range of tools available to us to reach students where they are. We can manipulate the time we have with our students to maximize our impact on their learning experiences. For instance, when faced with 150-minute sections this summer, I did three things. First, I split the class into two groups that met for 40 minutes each. Second, over the course of a week, I met with each student individually for 15 minutes to fill out the remaining time. Finally, I introduced layers of active learning to the group meetings. As a result, students had direct “contact” with me for 40-55 minutes a day instead of the allotted 150 minutes (although I worked the entire 150 minutes).

But was I robbing my students of instructional “time” using these strategies? The results indicated otherwise. Students did no worse than before and some did better. I flexed the time in ways that would have been far more difficult in an in-person setting. The logistics of managing a meeting space in Zoom, which was under my control, replaced the logistics of moving people around. I instituted these individual meetings with the students as part of my pandemic transition and found them to be a powerful tool.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a teacher is the power of listening. I came into the profession thinking that it was my responsibility to do all the talking. Students who refuse to talk during “normal” class/group meetings open up during the individual sessions. They are far more likely to turn on their cameras and almost all engage with at least an audio conversation. Emphasizing that this time is for them to get comfortable, express concerns, and ask questions is critical to the process.

According to a 2020 study at Temple University, “It is possible then that underrepresented students may need more significant individualized support and attention from their instructors akin to what their overrepresented peers have experienced to date.” The study concluded that a difference between these two groups was the strength of their learning networks. Strengthening my students’ learning network is the intent of my individualized activities. However, they require a lot of my time to implement and this time is not adequately reflected in “contact hours.”

This human connection is missing from “bad” online teaching. A comment on Bryan Alexander’s blog I linked to above referred to it as “roboschool.” This does not have to be the outcome of online education. Digital affordances can enhance learning if implemented creatively and effectively. It all comes down to money and equity again. Those institutions that scale online learning for equity provide teachers with options.

Class sizes are an obstacle here. Increasing class sizes makes groups more unworkable and creates barriers to the individualized instruction that are key to overcoming learning inequities. Students learning online, especially those who are at-risk, need more individualized instruction than if they are learning in a physical session. But we are hostage to a system based on broken clocks meant to approximate learning. The limiter on class sizes should not be how many students will fit. It should be at what size does the temporal space becomes unfit for learning.

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Tom Haymes
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