Like advanced nations, India must delink classroom teaching from student learning

The objective is not to teach to the student, which happens through classroom contact, but to make the student learn, which can happen outside classroom contact too.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: October 27, 2016 9:12 am
edu Higher education isn’t factory production. (File)

At every discussion on education and/or innovation, there is a standard refrain. The education system makes students risk-averse and kills innovative thinking. By forcing students to conform to a standardised template, it discourages failure and thereby discourages deviation from the standardised average. Outliers are not encouraged.

The refrain is indeed true. Several ingredients result in the outcome the refrain describes, beginning with entry into the education stream at the pre-school level. Let me focus on only one element of that maze — higher education, and within that, on one small aspect. How many hours per week, on average, does a student spend in attending lectures? The answer will be a function of country, course and level of higher education.

In general, in the US and Western Europe, I suspect the answer is about 15 hours. The catch lies in the expression “attending lectures”, there being a difference between learning hours and classroom hours. The objective is not to teach to the student, which happens through classroom contact, but to make the student learn, which can happen outside classroom contact too. Indeed, the norm in those countries seems to be that for every one hour spent through didactic teaching and classroom contact, the student spends two hours on learning indirectly — 15 hours of classroom teaching thus translates into 45 hours of weekly learning.

In 2015, the UGC announced a choice-based credit system. Though this made higher education options more flexible, it was controversial because of other reasons. This new system has the following definition. “Credit: A unit by which the course work is measured. It determines the number of hours of instruction required per week. One credit is equivalent to one hour of teaching (lecture or tutorial) or two hours of practical work/field work per week.” Credits earned by a student per semester are a summation of lecture plus tutorial plus practical work.

Unless I’ve misunderstood, practical work/field work is meant for science subjects. For social sciences, student learning is still equated with contact with a teacher, albeit lectures plus tutorials. I asked some students of Delhi University about the number of hours of lectures they have per week. I was told, around 28 hours of lectures per week and around 40 hours, inclusive of tutorials and practical work. (Lectures are typically 55 minutes duration, not one hour; I’ve glossed over that minor difference). I suspect 40-45 hours will be the norm throughout much of India. This means either (a) a student has no time to learn on his/her own; or (b) the student spends 120 hours (using that additional multiple of two times) per week on learning.

Since there are only 168 hours in a week, that extreme of 120 hours is impossible. Something like 80 hours is more plausible. The Factories Act (applies to those more than 18) tells us no one should work more than 48 hours a week. Why should that principle not apply to students? Why must we turn them (those who slog for 80 hours) into zombies? The norm will be the student who does not learn on his/her own and therefore, never thinks. If it is (a), the student will invariably reproduce by rote. Therefore, my first proposition is of delinking classroom teaching from student learning, a distinction advanced countries have now accepted. Fifteen hours of classroom teaching is good enough. The second proposition is a stronger one.

What has teacher input got to do with the outcome of student learning? In other spheres, we appreciate the difference between input and outcomes. Why not for higher education? That norm of 40 hours of lectures per week emanates from indicative workloads laid down for teachers. There is a marginal difference between assistant professors, associate professors and professors. Roughly, they have to teach for 15 hours a week. Add an additional 30 hours of tutorials and we have 45 hours. Tutorials also involve physical interface with the teacher. They don’t constitute independent student learning.

Paraphrased, students have 40 (or 45) hours of lectures a week because teachers have to “teach” for 45 hours a week. In the US, credits have their origins in Carnegie Units, pioneered by Carnegie Foundation to determine retirement pensions for professors. At roughly the same time, in 1872, Morris Lyewellyn Cooke wrote a report for Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This was titled Academic and Industrial Efficiency. The intention was to standardise faculty workloads and use this as a measure of delivery of education. There are obvious parallels with factories and industrial production, a bit like Ford Motor Company using mass production to manufacture Model T cars: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

But higher education isn’t factory production, or shouldn’t be. To quote Henry Ford again, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual… But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.” Other countries (read Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area 2015) have moved away from such dysfunctional ideas. So should we.

The author is member, NITI Aayog.

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Bibek Debroy
  1. S
    Oct 27, 2016 at 1:55 am
    I am glad to know that the author is a member if NITI Ayoga. The point mentioned by his very important. Unfortunately critical reflection by people at top level of decision malong has stopped. They even think a book with ISBN brings quality, and any pa per published in a indexed journal have more value! Such educational leaders bring in wrong notion of credit value and do not know how ro differentiate between student workload and teacher-student interaction time. The Open Universities India follow the right model for credit calculation in terms if student workload that needs to be looked by NITI Ayoga.
    1. H
      Oct 27, 2016 at 5:48 pm
      Very true. And even with the umption that teacher is good. I want to Tell a true story about my days in medical college. Pharmacology lecturer used to open text book and ask all of us to do the same while naming the page no. Of text book and he used to read fro his textbook and we used to read from our own, the same line and same para. Secondly gynaecology professor used to make us write down what she is talking. After a week Infound out that I had a handwritten copy of textbook Shaw's. since then I bunked all Gynecology lectures and still did well because I had printed textbook. lt;br/gt;Not only hours of clroom should decrease but quality of clroom teaching needs a lot of improvement.
      1. S
        Sanjay Goel
        Oct 29, 2016 at 4:37 am
        Extremely sorry for some typos. Should have reviewed before posting. Here is the updated version: While the proposal by a NITI Ayog member is welcomed, I am actually surprised at the factual inaccuracies in building the argument. The Learned author has unfortunately used inaccurate data wrt the current Indian situation. His method of data collection about the current Indian situation seems to more based on impressions rather than hard data. To be specific, the following comments by the author are far from the reality: 1. "...I asked some students of Delhi University about the number of hours of lectures they have per week. I was told, around 28 hours of lectures per week and around 40 hours, inclusive of tutorials and practical work..." Whereas the fact is that No university student in India has to attend 28 hrs. of lectures per week. The number of the lectures, excluding tutorial and practicals) is normally 12-18 per week. But I agree that it should be limited to 15 hrs per week at the most. 2. "....Roughly, they have to teach for 15 hours a week. Add an additional 30 hours of tutorials and we have 45 hours...." The fact is that no university teacher has to teach for 45 hours per week. The total teaching hours including Lecture/Tut/Lab varies from 3 (few senior professors in a few elite universities) to around 25 (in many low-grade private colleges). However, surely urgent steps are required to limit it to not more than 16 for any level for those who take some lectures and 20 for those who do not take lecture and are limited go lab/tutorial only. Such factual inaccuracies by a learned expert in NITI Ayog are absolutely unexpected and surprising. Such inaccuracies may weaken the case for the much-needed reforms rightly advocated by the author.
        1. P
          Oct 29, 2016 at 5:38 pm
          Really we have to concentrate on inductive methodology.
          1. Raman Govindan
            Oct 27, 2016 at 11:14 am
            the colleges should delink the course duration from requt and attendance. . say an inter/junior college student can do it in 2 years or more say 3 or even 4 years. depending upon his social background, educated or illiterate parents, whether he has to earn the living and support himself, there should be no advantage or merit on paper for student who did in 2 years. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;most of the top colleges take in students with top marks and the faculty spends more time with them and less on average level students. and scoring marks is only emphasized. understanding is neglected.
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