Independent study more useful than contact hours, study finds

Khushali Dodhia 22 November 2016

Independent study is more useful than contact hours, a UK study of over 23,000 undergraduates has found.

The Higher Education Academy’s 2016 UK Engagement Survey found that independent learning “appears to have a stronger link than taught sessions to all types of skills development”.

Students who received 11 hours or more teaching a week had a four percentage point positive growth in their writing and critical thinking skills, higher than their peers who received 10 hours or fewer.

But students who studied independently for 11 hours or longer were five percentage points ahead of their counterparts who had worked outside of class for less time.

And whilst being taught for longer led to a three percentage point advantage in developing qualities like innovation and creativity, independent study was twice as beneficial, with a six percentage point gain.

The difference was also marked for non-academic skills. In areas such as developing values and ethics, and being an informed and active citizen, increased teaching hours led to just a three point growth compared to five for independent learning.

Extracurricular activities were also compared with teaching hours and independent study, with the survey suggesting that they are similarly beneficial to independent study.

Students participating in sports teams and societies assessed a seven percentage point increase in their academic skill development.

Volunteering led to a six point growth. Independent study better than contact hours There was also a notable difference between older and newer universities, the survey found. 63% of undergraduates at pre-1992 institutions had 11 or more contact hours a week, compared to just 50% of students at post-1992 establishments. They also spent more time in independent study.

However, students at newer universities felt more engaged with their courses than those at older ones.

According to Times Higher Education, the insights from the survey could influence the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, a scheme that will assess and monitor the quality of university teaching based on criteria such as levels of student satisfaction, student retention, and, possibly, contact hours.

Universities which are rated well will be able to increase their fees in line with inflation.

The 2016 Student Academic Experience survey conducted by the Higher Education Academy and the Higher Education Policy Institute revealed that only 37% of undergraduates thought they were receiving good value for their money.

Just 8% supported the Government’s plans to allow universities with excellent teaching to raise their fees.

Dr Camille Kandiko Howson, a senior lecturer in higher education at King’s College London, however, told Times Higher Education that the results of the survey show that policymakers and students must look beyond the “very narrow” view of learning that values contact hours above independent study.

“Students still think contact hours are what they need, but this gives us evidence that students’ skill development is greater when they spend more time in independent study.”

Information for applicants on the University of Cambridge’s website shows how much teaching hours vary from subject to subject.

Medics and vets typically receive 20-25 hours of teaching each week, English students 8-9, and MML and Maths students 14.

A second-year English student at Pembroke said: “We get so few contact hours that it does make me wonder what we’re paying for. But on the other hand, I choose not to go to lectures because I don’t find them as useful as private study”