How time flies

I’m drafting a presentation that I’ll give in a week or so on my Student Workload Model research. I presented it back in January at Keele’s Learning and Teaching conference and you can watch if you like: https://www.keele.ac.uk/kiite/conferences/learningandteachingconference/katherinehaxton/

A workload model is just about time, and I’ve been rather fascinated by the language we use to describe time since stumbling across this work by Panos Athanasopoulos as presented in a conversation article that I found after watching the movie Arrival and being quite enchanted by the relationship between language and time within it. Full disclosure – I haven’t read any of the academic works behind the article…yet.

The language we use to describe time and a workload model does require some consideration though. We often talk about time as a one dimensional construct – the progression of time, moving forward in time, looking backwards in time. We frame a lot of language of study around this; the student journey, progression between levels of study. We use it to shape our curriculum as well. At the same time, we talk about time as a volume with marking or teaching preparation expanding to fill all available time. Our timetables generally look like something to be filled with content, pouring ourselves and our learning outcomes into little pockets of time. Sometimes time is something that we position ourselves outside of, watching time go past. And frequently time is something we have to spend or to use: a resource akin to money. In learning and teaching we are very much making demands on students as to how they should and must spend their time.

Workload models are about ways of evaluating how time could be spent and ensuring that there is some sense and order and equity in the arrangement. They are controversial because they have to be founded on a series of assumptions: the rate at which time is spent; the volume of time required for a particular task; the intensity of effort that can reasonably be expected in a particular segment of time. There is no workload model that suits everyone because what we value as important varies, and mapping out workload isn’t about saying that we’re doing something wrong, but rather providing a starting point for a discussion about how we might better structure time to get better results overall.

In developing a student workload model, I freely admit the limitations (as far as I can see them), the compromises, the generalisations. I know where I am making assumptions and indeed a workload model is supposed to be about a set of assumptions that have some degree of validity. That’s the whole point. The interesting question is what we do with a workload model, and to answer that we have to consider why workload models matter.

A timetable is a workload model that looks at one particular dimension: when a student is supposed to show up and for what purpose. Implicit within that workload model are a series of rules and assumptions: the student (or staff member) can’t be in two places at once; four hours of back-to-back classes are sufficient; we don’t teach before X am and after Y pm; choice of room may be dictated by how busy the timetable slot is as well as how many students are occupying it. It is also a very important metric: contact time. An organisational tool turned means of judgement of the ‘value for money’ of a degree programme (discipline differences aside).

An assessment timetable looks at a different dimension: when a student is supposed to have handed stuff. But how often do we link the two together? Well, how many assessment deadlines are inadvertently set in the middle of a timetabled class for the same group of students? That doesn’t make any sense at all. When we set deadlines, our immediate priorities are to pick a time slot that is an appropriate length of time from when we introduced the assessment and when we’re confident that there has been opportunity to acquire necessary concepts to complete it. We may have sufficient knowledge to avoid having two ‘big deadlines’ on the same day/week although we’ve likely got an opinion on which of the deadlines is more important.

The language of time, and the assumptions we build into our attempts to structure our time, and that of our students, fascinates me. I’m analysing the results of a student survey on workload and one of the most striking features to me is whether, without a reference point for comparison, students can comment meaningfully on their workload. I suspect many accept it as ‘the way it is’, or compare between modules or years but without some models (or experience) of how things could be different, it’s difficult to comment.

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