Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Do we treat time and space seriously enough in teaching and learning?

Peter Radloff
Behavioural Health Science, School of Nursing
Curtin University of Technology

We need to think seriously about the occasions and the situations which provide good opportunities for learning. The current focus on what goes on inside classrooms fails to recognise that most learning actually takes place elsewhere. One fifth of a student's time is spent in class, contributing about one quarter of the total learning variance. But we have neglected the other three quarters of the variance. We have a narrow focus on in-class activity, on inputs or delivery of information and the associated assessment of students; on summative ratings of teaching in terms of criteria of delivery, rather than on whether "value adding" has occurred, or if lifelong learning has been encouraged. Improving instruction is a laudable aim, but we require a broader focus on student needs, a formative approach and a supportive institutional environment. A focus on student learning will yield only small gains unless we pay attention to the total learning environment in terms of its contribution to achieved outcomes. In this paper the dimensions of time and space are examined in the context of teaching and learning and some suggestions are made as to how we can better arrange time and space as integral components of university study.

We have moved towards a learning society, so we are told, but universities have cause to question the lessons they are being given. Dwindling state funding has accompanied increasing accountability requirements. This has pressured universities to become even more hierarchical and managerial. Increased HECS charges pressure students to work longer hours to earn more money to support themselves so they have less time for learning. There has also been an increasing internationalisation and massification of education going hand in hand with the development of technological means for the "delivery" of course materials such that time independent, and distance education is now being recognised as a way of harnessing the distant and local resources for teaching and learning to the potential advantage of both. But the focus on efficiency - or is it just lower input costs - has often led to decisions that are known to disadvantage learning. Universities have learned to curb the number of small class meetings so frequency is down and the number of students per class is up, and large lecture classes are being favoured without considering their disadvantages. For example, the rooms are certainly large but student attendance is often very low, so where is the efficiency. Also no analysis is done to discover 'drop' rates for these highly "efficient" classes. But even a slight drop in retention rate can have a very large effect on funding, on the ever important bottom line. Of direct relevance to this point is Tinto's (1998) series of analyses of student persistence which is essential reading for anyone interested in "colleges as communities". But should we not also be interested in other outcomes such as the added value provided by different forms of teaching and learning, and the differential gains in students' knowledge? After all, the West report urges, on page 6, that "the student and the quality of his or her learning experiences must come first". An editorial in Change amplifies this somewhat urging that any learning must "promote understanding, application and transfer, rather than ... encourage short-term memory and recall" (Marchese, 1997). It is worth stating that Marchese's urging goes with the situation in the United States where fewer than half of the tertiary entrants achieve a degree.

Two other areas of challenge have to be faced. The move towards the internationalisation of the education market has been accompanied by the rise of the "virtual" university. Should the response be to drive for even larger large classes, and fewer small groups? Or is it time to recognise that many students not only want, but benefit most from attending a university because there are opportunities available there not to be found in any virtual setting. Students define themselves through their talking in small discussion groups. The language of their understanding has to be constructed through its active oral and written usage. To recognise such advantages of on-campus learning could lead administrators to ally themselves with their academic colleagues and explore ways and means to promote their institution for its special and unique features. Gibbs [1997 p. 11] suggests that at Oxford Brooks they have reduced class contact as much as is advisable. "It seems that students need about 5 hours minimum class contact for them to maintain their involvement". He also points to the need students have to benefit, in cognitive and affective terms, from the social aspects of university life.

There is no doubt that, since the 1960s, advances in understanding about tertiary teaching and learning has led to a respectably large resource base for higher education professionals - high quality materials able to support any move to teach better, even if it has to be with less. The large available resource base has not had any appreciable influence on practice, however. If we remember that it is the total ecology of the university that needs attention, we will be reminded that a more coordinated strategy than merely attacking the teachers, is needed. Pressures on a university tend to fragment and divide colleagues. To achieve more than mere survival, cooperative strategies are needed. Only such an approach could hope to lead to improvement in the ecology of learning.

The ecology of learning

'Teaching better with less' is perhaps an apt summary of the last decade, although the daily reality of the phrase is to be found in the lack of support, and increased isolation of academic instructors. This may follow from the fragmentation of the academy already referred to. All the emphasis upon improved techniques, classroom assessment, group process, co-operative and collaborative learning fails to acknowledge the increased teaching load, the prevailing student culture, and above all, whether the current context (or ecology) can hope to support the learning structures being promoted. The pressure is fully on staff who are expected to produce exemplary performances, cope with IT challenges, fewer or no support staff to assist them, and the likelihood that feedback, especially on successes, is non-existent. The climate does accept that things can be improved, but should teaching and instructors be the main target? Duffy and Jones (1995) have written an engaging book in which they spell out many of the imponderables, making very clearly the point that there are so many vital, yet seemingly almost unnoticeable factors playing a role in determining a successful outcome for a course, that only eternal vigilance would have a any hope of tracking down what needs to be done, left undone, or done differently.

The assumption that teaching staff are the only important agents of student learning can be answered fairly authoritatively through the research done by Pascarella & Terenzini (1991) who report on twenty years of data, and by Astin (1993) who started accumulating data from the early sixties. Astin emphasises the importance of involvement, of activity, of joining in, since this supports academic and general development. His other specific finding is that the peer group (and its values, influence on self-concept and socioeconomic status) is the single most important contributor to a student's development. Staff research orientation, on the other hand, has a negative influence on outcomes, whereas staff student orientation has positive effects. Generally, a research orientation in a department or institution as a whole, negatively weights student outcome variables. This goes against Lowe's (1994) plea to improve teaching and learning by increasing the funding of research. Only support of both teaching and research (and in that order), valuing excellence in both spheres can lead to improvement of the overall achievement of students.

To underline this point, Terenzini & Pascarella (1994) point to one of their myths about tertiary teaching: "The good teachers are good researchers". They quote a meta-analysis by Feldman (1987) of 40 studies relating research productivity to student assessments of instructional effectiveness. The correlations ranged between 0.10 and 0.16 with an average of 0.12, so that at best, less than 2% of the variance is accounted for by research productivity, and over 98% by other factors. Volkwein & Carbone (1994), using more developed measures of research climate, student outcome, and evaluation of instruction, have taken this work further. They conclude that "research variables are not significantly correlated with the teaching variables, neither individually nor collectively" with correlations ranging between -0.22 and 0.17. This study of over 600 students thus shows that teaching and research climates are independent. This neutralises the polemicists on both sides of the research-teaching divide. We need to pay greater attention to the 98% - those other influences which do make a difference, such as the peer group, the overall climate of intellectual inquiry within a university, and thus to the ecology of the community of learners involved.

The temporal environment

A learning ecology, (or community of scholars) must have opportunities for individual, intrapersonal as well as interpersonal social, and academic discussion in and outside the classroom. This requires that timetables should not schedule all available time. And it means that attention should be given to maintaining blocks of time that are never encroached upon, so that there can be enough time between, and apart from classes, for the business of reflective activity and memory work. Forty-five minute classes are thus preferable to 50-minute ones, and two separate 45-minute periods better than a two hour lecture. This follows because the same two hours is worth much more subjective time once there are two 15 minute pauses for reflection. These are obvious changes, and would be seen as essential to anyone with the slightest understanding of learning and memory - that the real work goes on during the gaps between supposedly 'active' learning. Then there also has to be time for a community to meet for lunch or tea. This can only happen if the university recognises the importance of such social occasions. We do not know what the cost of not having such times is, at present, but it could well be considerable. If the occasions are provided through a common hour for lunch through the week, this becomes "prime time" and it becomes possible for a range of activities to be taken up by students and staff. Here again it is assumed by the user of a computer timetabling programme that having a common lunch period would mean an overload on facilities. But this is not necessarily so since many members of the community would be doing things other than lunch. And the various services available would certainly be open and available throughout the day.

But why should one go out of one's way to foster student social life, to make their time at University more enjoyable. The reason lies in the fact that at present, many students treat university as a sort of commuter destination, and would prefer to spend their time doing other things in other places. Students alienated from the institution do badly, whereas, as Collison has pointed out, students actively engaged "in out-of-class activities are better integrated into the institution" [1990, Mar 28 p. A37]. Astin's finding that involvement is one of the key variables contributing to student success reinforces the vital link between the culture of an institution, and the success of its members.

The physical environment

University expansion has meant more staff and students, but also more buildings, cars and car parks. Where a single building addition can destroy a campus's atmosphere, and depress the mood across a whole community, we are having many buildings, and seeing the gutting and refurbishment of existing facilities. An analysis of campus architectural design by Griffith (1994) emphasises that the preservation of open space is vital to the maintenance of a quality university environment. There must be space between buildings for effective functioning. It is also needed since space is an integral part of the image, mission and goals of the university. One can call for the "unstuffing of the curriculum", and there are now many joining in this important process. But there are far fewer who are proposing unstuffing university sites. The tendency is to welcome additions, and to interpret them as necessary to progress.

The increasing importance given to recreation and exercise, also reminds one that the original 'academy' supported, and may even have been designed around, peripatetic instruction. Now that we can document the value of exercise not just for relaxation, reflection, endorphin release, and the maintenance and enhancement of health and wellness, we can argue for vistas not just to add to the aesthetic enjoyment experienced on journeys through the campus, but also to encourage many and regular future journeys. Also important is the linking of the campus to the surrounding community. Walking and cycling paths need to relate the university to the suburbs, to embrace the whole community, develop neighbourliness and lead to the active promotion of good relations. In this positive sense, good design can also counter vandalism, and crimes against persons. To my knowledge environmental psychologists have not attended to the requirements of campus design. But it does seem to be essential.

What about the buildings themselves as instructional spaces? Architects and designers refer to building codes to arrive at their allocation of floor space to office and teaching areas, common areas, passage and access spaces. In following formulae they may not meet the real needs of different academic areas. And teaching spaces, designed according to historically based criteria, may no longer be suitable for their purpose. Some of these issues have been addressed by Babey (1991, March 26) and by Owu (1991) in his survey of classroom allocation and use at MIT. Owu's conclusion was that too few small teaching spaces, and too many large lecture halls (which covered 7% of course hours taught but had 31% of availability) were provided. Lecture halls also had inadequately maintained audio-visual technology. At MIT upgrading one lecture room and installing the latest technology reduced seat numbers, but increased comfort, and led to this space being in continuous high demand when it had formerly been shunned. Regular surveys, including questions included on teaching evaluation forms, would locate unsuitable teaching facilities quite easily. A staff survey of large lecture theatres was carried out at Curtin in 1994, and the results allowed a number of problems to be remedied, some design issues to be addressed and for all large lecturing spaces to be equipped with basic audio-visual and computer based teaching aids. It would be very useful, however; also to have students' views on teaching spaces, but having such information made available is even less common than requiring academic input into their design.

And some available facilities are difficult to use to improve student engagement in learning. Should one wish to use a large lecture theatre to support punctuated lectures, or even buzz and pyramid groups, an immediate problem becomes evident. Most of these spaces are designed to have sound travel one way - from the front to the furthest corners. One cannot hear anyone speaking across the space, or from the rear. Thus, it is not possible to do what higher education instructional experts are recommending. The physical space just does not support it. And the availability of large lecture theatres does not help with other accommodation needs such as those for meetings of societies or clubs.

Students have complained that facilities for meetings or discussion are not available even though these activities are very important and support their academic development. Classrooms may be overcrowded and in continuous use but "common rooms remain quite uncommon" as Palmer (1992) points out. Such spaces are often absent from university building codes, even though they may be essential to encourage activities directly relevant to student progress. Of course the provision of such spaces assumes that time is available for their use by students (and staff): this may not be the case.

Collison (1990, Mar 28) points out that many colleges and universities are now encouraging students to get involved in outside activities through service learning, and are considering out of class time as very important to enable better integration of students into the community, to enhance academic performance, and to increase retention and completion rates. But how may this be achieved so as to have students actively engaged and involved, and yet contributing also to the administrative wellbeing of the institution? Peterson (1988) finds it puzzling that organisations devoted to fostering student learning pay no attention to which components of their practices actually promote learning. Almost no research examines the relationship between organisational variables and learning outcomes treated as dependent variables. Correlations between, for example, research climates and student learning outcomes, are important, and there is evidence showing the negative relationship between these, but how about documenting what forms of administrative structures promote learning? Or whether a common room or lunch break enhances completion and continuation rates. Students are important, but what they have to say, and how the university can come to address their real needs, is also important, and could be a factor in which institutions survive in difficult times.

The Quality initiative should assign students a foundational role in setting and supporting the mission and purposes of the institution. They and the academics need to be supported to plan for the present and future health of universities. Is it possible, through appropriate organisational change, to encourage a stable and enduring influence from students. During the 1960's one was told almost continuously that students are transients, and could not really be expected to make an enduring contribution to the functioning of universities. This contention is based on a mistaken premise. We are not talking about individual ephemeral students. Through appropriate structures one can ensure continuity across student cohorts. Working groups, or committees, provided they are linked to the really important components of an institution, can guarantee continuity, and enduring influences upon the institution, and also on future student cohorts. What has to be done is to arrange for student activity to be directed towards academic, and achievement goals. More general political activity can and will still go on, to the overall benefit of students and the community, but at present there is no real continuing input from students into the academic life of universities. A possible means to promote academic input from students could tie their activity to their course work. This can be achieved through structuring Student Representative Councils, or Guilds to also address the academic aspects of university life by developing a Student (academic) Senate. This could be tied organically to the functioning of Schools or Departments so that there could be mutual benefits to students, staff and also advantages for the University and to its organisational climate. Such arrangement would also be in line with quality principles since one of the main groups in the institution would be contributing to its advancement.

We need to make changes such as those mentioned here, in order to have students experience the university in the same way staff were found by Rice and Austin (1990) to respond to high morale colleges where participative leadership, a flat administrative structure, shared authority to empower others, respect and a sense of trust exist, and where decisions are taken in open fora. As a result staff feel that the institution is theirs. So too would students if treated in a similar fashion, within a structure that supported such processes. Under such conditions where student involvement and engagement is supported, these variables have been demonstrated to be closely linked to student success. Yet, even if we attend to all of this, there will still be an unmet agenda and it is this which needs to be addressed head on. Some of the issues being dealt with here have been addressed previously (Radloff, 1995; Radloff, 1997) but there remain some four key issues that need to be mentioned. One does this in the knowledge that not much can be expected from making points, however important they may be, since the observation that the considerable body of knowledge developed by researchers in higher education. has had almost no effect on policy and practice (Altbach, 1998). The four issues are i) the failure to recruit our most neglected resource in higher education, ie. the students, to benefit all members of the institution; ii) the importance of recognising that much so called education is practically useless since it does not persist, and shows zero transfer to actual application; iii) that most assessments of learning do not take account of the very wide range of influences affecting achievement, none of which is measured; and iv) the lack of a comprehensive theory of learning which has led to the neglect of affective and psychomotor dimensions in the pursuit of a narrow cognitivism.

  1. Students as members of the learning society
  2. Good evidence exists that students who have work, are employed, within the context of the university benefit from this experience: it involves them, provides an income, and leads to improved academic and personal outcomes. Gibbs (1998) mentions a range of possible employment activities for students including "up to 50% of materials development, peer tutoring and assessment, office administration, clerical work, library work etc" and foresees that "50% of support staff work and 50% of the teaching will be done by students in 2001" (p. 13). This scenario holds that IT will contribute mostly in terms of improving access and information resources, and in terms of students developing resources to benefit one another. As communities become accustomed to involving newer technologies into their daily lives, they will also contribute to improving communication within the university system. Empowering students could be multi-faceted, but the gains would be significant.

  3. Situated and problem based learning
  4. Many education programs do not show any transfer to real world situations. Detterman (1993) has reviewed the evidence in a comprehensive way and his conclusion that transfer is zero, or close to zero in most of those studies which have examined the question requires attention. The importance of transfer, or generalisation, is well recognised in the behaviour management area, where a range of techniques are used to promote transfer. However, the complexities of teaching and learning at institutional level make the time and detailed attention to individuals, problematic. What can be done is to recognise that situated learning, and problem based learning may offer staff practical strategies to remedy the poor learning histories. Adherents of the currently popular constructivist philosophy within education would have no difficulty in recognising that students need to construct their own meaning, and cannot be expected to imbibe what is delivered, or transmitted, directly. The argument for situated learning have been put by Wilson (1993). Problem based learning is also committed to providing realistic situated experiences for students that will guarantee transfer to applied areas. It is unsurprising that it is being widely used in Medical Schools around the world

  5. What should be measured in evaluating student learning
  6. Most attention in student feedback is given to student evaluation of teaching. Recognising that in-class activities contributes probably only about 25% of the variance of achievement, (Terenzini & Pascarella, 1994) it is being recognised that more attention should be paid to the what contributes to the other 75%. There also needs to be an anchoring of results to actual outcome measures. Current preference scaled questionnaires are useful but inadequate tools for policy decisions. They also seem to assume that the cognitive mode is dominant, and that other areas, namely, psychomotor and affective modes, do not need attention.

  7. The absence of any generally accepted theory of learning adequate for use in higher education
  8. Even superficial questioning of almost any human being will lead them to agree that a theory dealing with only thinking (current cognitivistic approaches), or the psychomotor or action area (the historically interesting but insufficient behaviouristic approach), or only the affective or feeling mode (would anyone claim support for this) is insufficient. Most people realise that the age-old image of hand, heart and head; or psychomotor affective and cognitive, or my preference, actions, feelings and thoughts, have to be equally represented as a part of any theory hoping to deal with learning, with the education of individual human beings.
Bridget Murray proposes that "Faculty can help students become confident thinkers and decision-makers" in the December issue of Monitor, the Newsletter of the American Psychological Association. She shows how this model of knowledge development can help in understanding student thinking. In dealing with ways to develop reflection in students, however, one could equally consider ways whereby students could be provided with means for assessing the reflective ability of staff. This would not be a bad way of achieving the goal of addressing a student's learning needs. Taking ones position as an instructor lightly, may achieve the necessary balance between information transfer to, and the facilitative encouragement of others. One is reminded that experts in a field have difficulty explaining what steps are required to solve problems. Should they be impatient with the difficulties experienced by students when asked similar questions?


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Babey, E. R. (1991, March 26). The classroom: Physical environments that enhance teaching and learning. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Higher Education, Washington, DC.

Collison, M. N.-K. (1990, Mar 28). Many colleges begin to pay attention to the time their students spend outside the classroom. Chronicle of Higher Education, 36(28), A37.

Detterman, D. K. (1993). The case for the prosecution: Transfer as an epiphenomenon. In D. K. Detterman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Duffy, D. K., & Jones, J. W. (1995). Teaching within the rhythms of the semester. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gibbs, G. (1997). The role of IT at Brookes in 2000 - an alternative scenario. Teaching Forum, 44(Spring), 11-13.

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Lowe, I. (1994). Our universities are turning us into the 'ignorant country'. Sydney, NSW: University of New South Wales Press.

Marchese, T. (1997). A shift to learning (Editorial). Change, 29(2), 4.

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Palmer, M. (1992). Common rooms remain quite uncommon. Grok, August 19.

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Radloff, P. (1997). Encouraging students' academic 'engagement' to promote lifelong learning. Paper presented at the 5th International Improving Student Learning Symposium, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland.

Rice, R. E., & Austin, A. E. (1990). Organizational impacts on faculty morale and motivation to teach. In P. Seldin (Ed.), How administrators can improve teaching: Moving from talk to action in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Oxford.

Terenzini, P. T., & Pascarella, E. T. (1994). Living with myths: Undergraduate education in America. Change, (January/February), 28-32.

Tinto, V. (1998). Colleges as communities: Taking research on student persistence seriously. The Review of Higher Education, 21(2), 167-177.

Volkwein, J. F., & Carbone, D. A. (1994). The impact of departmental research and teaching climates on undergraduate growth and satisfaction. Journal of Higher Education, 65(2), 147-167.

Wilson, A. L. (1993). The promise of situated cognition. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, (Spring), 71-79.

Please cite as: Radloff, P. (1998). Do we treat time and space seriously enough in teaching and learning? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/radloff-p.html

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