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The Tyranny of Hours: Time-Based Learning Is a Disservice to Students

Professional Growth

Back when I was a student, I never understood why our clocks had a second hand. Did anything that happened in school have to be timed precisely down to the second? Maybe my 50-yard dash in Physical Education? Sure, but my teacher had a stop-watch for that. Otherwise, the second hand seemed to exist for only one reason that I could think of… to torture me.

The times I became MOST aware of this constant ticking? When I SO did not know what a test question was asking, and it was staring up at me blankly, taunting me — reminding me that I was not ON TIME with what I was supposed to learn.

Continuing on to college, the mystery of “credit hours” arose. Why, I wondered, did I as a science major/art minor earn the same number of credit hours in a semester as my friend who was an English major? She had only four two-hour courses per week, while I had four 1-hour classes, three 3-hour labs AND two 3-hour studio courses per week.

As I reflect on it, I think that if our ability had been measured in competencies rather than hours, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated.

What Does Time Actually Tell Us?

My frustration with the concept of “learning by hours” reached its peak when I became the CEO of an eLearning company. It is in the online world that the hours-to-learning translation disconnect stands out so starkly against all that we know to be true about learning.

Why, for example, do employees get “more credit” for taking a longer time to learn something than peers who may learn it faster? What incentive is there to learn quickly, or even at one’s own pace? And how many hours are “enough” learning on a topic?

Here’s an example. Many states require training on child abuse identification and reporting. Let’s say one state requires that the training be six hours long, three of which must be given in person and three that can be taken be online. How did they land on those numbers? Wouldn’t 10 hours of training be better, and possibly save more children from harm? Is any number of hours enough to make sure that children are safe?

We Need a New Measuring Stick

This puzzle is what keeps me thinking back to the taunting of that second hand in my school classrooms. I can understand why we once thought that using time as a measuring stick was useful — at least there was a measuring stick! But it is clear that we chose to mark time instead of marking learning because it’s convenient, not because it’s good for the learners.

Children move through school with others in their age group, and there are many developmental reasons for it — we can’t have 2nd graders placed in classes with 6th graders, even if their understanding of math is equivalent. But many children (if not most) experience times when a concept in school either goes “too fast” or “too slow” for them.

On top of that, children’s capacities in different subjects vary. A whiz at math and music may struggle with history or foreign languages. Learning does not bend to our system of second hands as much as we’d like it to.

So What is the Answer?

The use of time to mark learning is deeply embedded in our educational system, from kindergarten through college, and even into professional careers. Any shift would be a sea change.

For one thing, colleges and universities charge based on credit hours — you pay for the hours you consume. Online universities approximate and assign a semester’s worth of credit to an online course, then charge accordingly. Once again, learning is marked with time…and time with cost.

In the K12 space, we would have to find a way to continue to group students socially in age cohorts that make developmental sense, while allowing them to pursue competency-based learning. What further complicates things is that we cannot just let students (particularly younger students) engage in self-paced learning without guidance. Studies have shown that they still need a teacher to guide, assess and adjust their learning path based on their current levels of competencies. That means teachers must differentiate for each student — a daunting task even with the help of modern technologies.

Competency-based learning does make more sense than time-based learning, and we’re making progress in that direction. But it’s clear that the institutional change needed to truly shift our thinking about how to measure learning progress is enormous. It will require a lot of work — and a good deal of time.

Rachel Fisher

Rachel Fisher brings fifteen years of expertise in eLearning and online content development as well as over a decade of experience working exclusively with K12 including online and live curriculum development. In addition, she served in the classroom teaching 6th and 7th grade science.