The Slow Movement and the Problem With Required Study Hours

In July 2015, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson revealed that in surveys, students said they felt they would do better at university by investing more time in their studies. He then suggested we are not being fully stretched in our pursuit of academic endeavours, and looked to bump up the average hourly student workweek from 30.5 hours reported in the 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey.

Johnson didn't mention a figure he thought would be appropriate, but many universities have one. For example, Durham's physics department values the degree at 1200 hours a year. 30% of that is contact time, so independent study is 840 hours, roughly 40 hours a week. Not to pick on Durham, Brighton's time management webpage puts it at 35 hours a week. Oxford's Keeble College suggests 35-40, as this emulates the working week.

Universities provide recommended hours because they demonstrate the huge commitment completing a degree requires. But as an ex-undergrad and now PhD student, I have found precise numerical values on student time, neatly rounded to the nearest 10, to be decidedly unhelpful and even unhealthy. Here are three reasons why:

First, some students might hit that target, and many won't. I wonder how many student could conclusively tell you whether or not they passed that magical 840 hours/year threshold.

Second, even for the meticulous, tabulating few who could prove they surmounted the 840, did their worries simply evaporate before finals? Did it allow them to hand in their dissertations with unerring confidence?

Third, of those people who did take up the full working week model, how many of them maximised every one of those 8 hours daily? Or did they spend a large proportion of it catching Pokemon? More hours won't necessarily help either. In 2014 The Economist published an article showing there is little productivity to be gained working 70 hours as opposed to 56 hours a week.

I appreciate Johnson's sentiment, but more hours in the library might not lead to better grades. Yet there is one university that found a novel solution to this issue a while back. In 2004 then Dean of Undergraduates Harry Lewis wrote a letter to all Harvard undergraduates telling them to slow down and work less. You heard that right and can read the letter in full here. Lewis was concerned about burnout from overwork, and encouraged students to take time away from intense studying and extra-curricular activities.

Lewis honed in on a key problem with contemporary student life, which is that students are generally proactive, busy people who need to create a viable career portfolio alongside their study. We believe that busyness equals productivity, and balancing many tasks shows good time management. Lewis shattered this illusion. Erudition wasn't achieved through eliminating distractions, increasing efficiency and taking regular short breaks, but by taking huge ones, being flexible with time off, and working at a slower, deliberate pace more appropriate to the task of studying for a degree at Harvard.

Lewis' intervention was welcome relief for me, and I no longer feel guilty when playing Fallout 4. His answer is based in the philosophy of the Slow Movement that was started in Italy, by grumpy Italian journalist Carlo Petrini who was protesting the building of yet another McDonalds in Rome. In a country that is deeply proud of its cuisine, he wanted time to enjoy and digest locally grown food, the exact opposite of on-the-go, indigestion-inducing 3 minute lunches.

Upon these ideals of savouring moments and taking more time, a movement was born, and it has spread to academia. A recent book called The Slow Professor documents some strategies for slowing down and produce better research and teaching. Answering emails less, having longer lunches, and taking time to converse with colleagues and students in informal settings are just a few ideas mentioned. Efficiency and productivity are entirely absent terms from this mantra.

For academics who follow the slow movement, the ticking of the clock is something to be vaguely aware of, but not beholden to. Quality research comes from a deep, thoughtful engagement with ideas. Many of us will have experienced periods of intense concentration upon a task, a reverie of uninterrupted immersion. This wonderful phenomenon has been daubed flow by psychologists, and its called flow, and is characterised by an ignorance of how much time has passed.

The Slow Movement suggests we can't assume that increasing the hours worked equates to an increase in the time spent doing the mental work required for a degree. Concentration won't develop from simply providing those extra hours; it will emerge when a student feels they can invest more time in a task. With student anxiety rising over workloads and career prospects, and more students visiting welfare and mental health services, it doesn't seem like we are there yet.

If academics are taking advantage of the Slow Movement's message that it's okay to decelerate, then so should students. It's time we rid ourselves of the guilt that arbitrary targets induce and search for that flow that makes us better learners.