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Michael Lanford

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Michael Lanford serves as a Research Assistant for Dr. William Tierney, studying international higher education, interdisciplinary research and writing, and college readiness. He holds Master’s degrees from the University of Hong Kong, where he graduated “with distinction” in higher education, and Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a Harvey Fellow in American Studies.

Reconceptualizing the Credit Hour in Colleges and Universities

musicLately, I have been thinking a great deal about the first two years of undergraduate education, as I plan to conduct an ethnography on developmental education and college writing centers for my dissertation. Ultimately, I believe that a few institutions may try to reconceptualize the credit hour in an attempt to better capture student effort and performance.  While the credit hour system is certainly an imperfect measure, I wonder if any proposed solutions are inherently better.

For example, some have called for a credit system that is based “how many hours the average student must spend to accomplish the various tasks in a course module.”  Such a solution sounds attractive, but it potentially is just as problematic.  First, a student-centered system may work for introductory-level classes, but as a student progresses, it becomes nearly impossible to quantify their level of involvement in a given assignment, much less a specific class.  How does one quantify the hours an upper-level undergraduate student spends in a chemistry lab, working on a thesis project?  How many hours should an “average student” in a history seminar spend in an archive?  Mature students are not supposed to refer to an artificial credit system to gauge how many hours they should spend on a given task.

Others have argued that some classes should be given far more credit than others, with the assumption that an economics class, for instance, requires more work than an physical education class.  Frankly, I find such comparisons to be rather glib (and a bit insulting).  Any field of study can be difficult, if a professor chooses to introduce sophisticated content and a heavy reading/research workload.  We all know that two professors can teach the same class, yet one can be much more demanding than another.  In the past, extremely intelligent students who aspired to medical school found my music appreciation exceptionally challenging.  If a student has little experience with actively listening to music and identifying rhythms, timbres, and pitches, a music appreciation class may require as many – if not more – hours of studying than biology or chemistry.  Many would advocate the standardization of course content across a curriculum, but that infringes upon professional autonomy and academic freedom.  It would also ruin one of the wonderful, dynamic aspects of the undergraduate experience – the unique expertise that each professor can bring to the study of a subject matter that is a focus of their research.

Even common course numbering systems are prone to more problems than many would like to admit.  Students from two-year colleges are regularly denied transfer credits at four-year universities under the assumption that a class is “more demanding” at the four-year level.  Also, a common course numbering system masks serious discrepancies in the ways classes are taught.  Students regularly get credit for content they have not mastered; as a result, they frequently become lost in upper-level coursework where those prerequisites are necessary.

None of the above is meant to throw water on potential improvements to the imperfect system of the credit hour.  I just feel it is necessary to point out the pros and cons of nearly every proposed system.  One reason why education is so frustrating (for some) and exhilarating (for people like me) is this interplay between downsides and benefits… and the need for continued critical interrogation and contextualization.


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