Adventures in Learning

How the measurement of « contact hours » is evolving

From learning hours to contact hours

In Europe we are regulated by the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) that says that a student in Higher Education normally undertakes 60 credits in a given academic year. The ECTS encourages a paradigm shift to Student Centered learning and increase autonomy, and we’ll see why in a moment.

In school systems, a standard of student learning hours is associated with each ECTS. In most countries, programme and course design should reflect 25 to 30 hours of learning per ECTS. So this means that in ONE semester (30 ECTS) the student should be spending between 750 and 900 hours learning.

In many institutions, a ratio of 1:2 is used to define « seat time ». So, for example, 1 hour of seat time should generate 2 hours of personal or group work outside of class. So roughly 1/3 of learning hours are « contact hours ».

Applying this to the above, a 3 credit course in France would be at least 75 learning hours, and about 25 of those hours would be « contact hours » (1/3 contact; 2/3 other)

Defining Contact

So, I’m ready to go. I’m doing my 3 credit course and now I need to define what the 25 hours of contact are and what the 50 hours of other things are.

To start the 50 hours includes all assessment, preparation for the assessment, personal study time, group work, peer learning, etc. These hours add up very quickly – especially when you consider « reading a text » or « watching a video » actually should entail much more than « watching the 20 minute video ».  Watching a video to learn something or where the instructor as asked the viewer to summarize, propose questions, etc. may take multiple viewings. Reading a text may take 2 or 3 passes (with a yellow pen of course!)

Now lets look at the 25 contact hours.

Your first reflex may be – class hours (seat time).  Well yes. This is included. But what else is contact between the professor and the student?  Here’s a short list of potential items to consider:

  • Coaching hours
  • Hours spent in online forums answering questions and launching debate
  • Hours spent writing and reading emails
  • Tutorials
  • Fieldwork
  • External visits
  • Feedback
  • Office hours
  • etc.

The list is quite long. And that’s good.

This is a debatable question and many schools are currently discussing this with programme leaders and faculty deans. The University of Northampton gives a nice review of contact hours, and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK does a good job too. Their article for students is nicely done as well.

Who’s Contact Hours ?

A messy question is the « perspective » of calculated contact hours.

We can take a professor perspective and say that the professor should spend 25 hours undertaking contact with students. In a « lecture » setting, the 25 hours given would be received by each student. But what happens when we divide into groups, and the professor spends 50% of her time with one group and 50% with another?

The student perspective then looks at contact the student has with the professor. In the case above, each student would only have 12,5 hours of contact.

I’ll leave this one for the comment board.

And what about the student sleeping during lecture…or the student that didn’t come…or the student on facebook. Is contact something « proposed » but not necessarily consumed ?


As seen above, contact hours are taking on a new perspective as we start to look at Student Centered Learning and ECTS. In the USA, the debate on credit hours is also ongoing as the education system tackles the Carnegie Unit and its impact on learning.

This debate opens up the world of education to take a hard look at how learning happens and question the effectiveness of past methods as well as the impact of accounting methods on behaviors.  I expect to see continued changes as traditional ways of measuring « teaching time » and « learning time » are questioned. And in the end we may just find that the « time » is not really what matters – but it’s the competence achieved.

But that’s another post – when we look at competency based education where time is not what counts, but rather competence achievement.


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