Spherical Students

This is a follow-up post to Helicopter Lecturers.

When talking about how we as lecturers spend our students’ time, or how they spend their time, it would help to consider the case of the ideal student. The ideal student is, naturally, spherical. Ideal students are identical, obey Newton’s laws of motion, and undergo elastic collisions amidst typically random motion.  Of course, ideal students no more exist than ideal gases but it helps to have a model for a thought experiment.

Our spherical student gets 8 hours sleep, giving them 16 functional hours in the day. This time is split between acts of self-care (washing, eating, relaxing), contact time, travel, social obligations and study. The spherical student typically spends 8 – 10 hours a day out of their house, travelling to and from campus, studying, attending classes and tending the never-ending stream of email.  Imagine a day:

7 am – wake up, washing, dressing, breakfast, packing bag for day.

8.15 am – leave house to get good bus to campus

8.45 am – arrive on campus for 9am class

9am  – 10am lecture, followed by 1 hour break (email, printing notes for next class, trying to find a place to sit and have a coffee, talking to friends)

11am – 1pm lecture, followed by 1 hour break (eating, brief meeting with project supervisor)

2 – 6pm project laboratory session including brief coffee break, and time spent updating laboratory diary and analysing data

6pm leave for home, prepare and eat dinner, talk to flat mates

7.30 – 9.30pm private study

9.30 – 11pm social time/relaxing before going to bed.

In this case, our spherical student has spent 9 hours on intensive activities related to their studies (4 hours lab, 3 hours lecture, 2 hours private study), a couple of hours on ‘soft’ activities such as emailing, meeting a member of staff and printing necessary materials, and 5 hours on the necessary acts of living. Not all days will be like this but it’s probably fairly accurate of a high contact time day in that 1 hour breaks in timetables are difficult things to turn into productive time on our busy campus.

The major point here are that with a reasonable schedule, there are only so many hours in the day. A 15-credit module should reflect 150 hours of effort. In a semester model of 12 teaching weeks, 1 revision week and 2 exam weeks, this works out as 10 hours per week. 4 modules per semester and you’ve got a nice 40-hour working week. Obviously the precise amount of student effort will ebb and flow a bit as deadlines exert their gravitational pull over time.

But what if deadlines are arranged in a manner as to make it mostly impossible to spend the recommended amount of time on them?

Horizontal bar chart showing weeks of semester versus % of 40 hour working week. Early weeks of semester are dominated by contact time, several later weeks go well beyond 100% (so require greater than 40 hours a week effort)

This graph shows weeks of semester on the y-axis, and the x-axis is % of a 40 hour working week. Blue is contact time including module exams. Red is time on coursework, assuming that each assignment is completed in two weeks: the week of the deadline and the week before the deadline. This fits with a common notion that students should have two weeks to do stuff in. Green is time spent preparing and enduring formative assessment such as an in-module test. Purple, omitted from here, would be the time available for independent study and study for the exam. But this is a preliminary diagram and so I haven’t included that for simplicity. It is based on 4.5 15-credit modules (the 0.5 being a project module that requires weekly attendance in the laboratory but contributes nothing to the assessment regime in this semester).

So what does this tell us? Firstly from week 10 onwards in this model, the spherical is working at far more than 40-hours a week with week 12, predictably being a deadline-fest. Secondly it shows that early weeks of semester are under-used for work towards assessment, likely because the students do not ‘know’ enough to complete work at that stage. It is also likely too early for significant revision work to take place so one has to wonder if the balance of a 40-hour week are simply lost then.  Thirdly that formative assessments are often added into module regimes without consideration for the hours spent in doing them.

So what do we take from this?

Firstly, we can do better at spreading deadlines out through the semester. This could mean changing the order of teaching, or it could mean teaching modules in shorter fatter blocks rather than 2-hours a week to allow content to be covered more rapidly for assessment. Secondly, any assessment that does not require content delivered in lectures could be moved to the early semester. There are often a couple of these assessments in a semester, things that require research such as writing an account of a specific discovery or scientific principle, assessment that is largely agnostic of module content (other than to use it as a theme on which to set the assessment). These are often skills-based assessments. Thirdly, that formative assessments should be formally declared as part of a module assessment regime and given some equivalencies such as ‘equivalent to 10% of module mark’ to indicate what level of effort is required. Now this is a little trickier because often formative assessments are designed to help with a big summative assessment that is coming up. In this case, the summative assessment hours should include the hours spent on the formative assessment. Example 1:

A module has 2 in-module tests,  1 hour long covering 1/3 module content each.  These are formative and viewed as prep for the exam.  In other modules, an in-module test is typically given 10% of the module mark when summative.  It is reasonable to assume a diligent student will review the 1/3 module content in preparation for the test and so some revision time should be allocated. This should be at the rate of 10% = 15 hours. The inclusion of these two tests could then be said to reduce the time available to revise for the module exam by 30 hours.  If the module exam is 75% of the module assessment, and therefor equal to around 112 hours of effort, the time required to revise for the exam at the end of semester is 112 – 30 (formative tests) – 24 (number of hours of lecture) = 58 hours.  If this is insufficient time for the content covered, then action should be taken.

Example 2:

In a 15-credit module, an essay worth 100% would typically be 4000 – 5000 words. A summative essay has been set that is 50% of the module and is 2000 words long (and 75 hours of effort). To prepare students for this assessment style a formative essay is set and should be 500 words long, and about 19 hours of effort. The summative essay should be reduced by 500 words to accommodate the formative work, or some other saving of hours made.

You probably get the point, but you can imagine how the formative assessment elements in these cases can increase the students workload in a way that may not be formally recorded in the same way a summative element would. We could also make a similar argument for materials dispensed in the name of flipped learning – the hours spent on them have to be saved from somewhere else. I will note (finally!) that this post is by no means an attempt to remove formative assessment from assessment regimes but rather to give food for thought on how formative assessment might be accommodated into timetables with specific thought to how students spend time.



2 Replies to “Spherical Students”

  1. You might have described a new particle: “The Studenton”. I assume next post will deal with the Dynamics of their interaction with their anti particle “The Professoron” LOL

    Great post as usual

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