Rethinking Credit Hours
I recently read a piece in the Chronicle on high-impact learning. Before you ask me what high-impact learning is I have to tell you — I’m not sure. At least, I’m not sure how it’s being defined in the piece cited here because I cannot locate an explicit definition. However, I found a definition elsewhere that I think will work for now:
They demand considerable time and effort, facilitate learning outside of the classroom, require meaningful interactions with faculty and students, encourage collaboration with diverse others, and provide frequent and substantive feedback. As a result, participation in these practices can be life-changing (Kuh, 2008).
Ok — works for the moment.
But as you can see from the title of this post, I’m not here to really talk about high-impact learning. I’m hear to talk bout structure and, specifically, the use of credit hours. Because it was in the Chronicle piece that I was struck by the following quote:
According to Randy Bass, who leads innovative learning initiatives at Georgetown University, we have moved into the “post-course era” at a time when the traditional credit-hour model has been called “inadequate” and even “irrational.”
The above quote struck a bell with me because I do believe that the traditional credit-hour model is very limiting and even discourages innovation by telling you how to conform in your teaching. So let’s explore that for a bit.
The Benefits of the Credit Hour
Obviously we can come up with some benefits for having credit hours. It’s not difficult. Credit hours provide a form of standardization that allows us to determine if a student should be awarded a degree, can take an advanced class, and so on. Credit hours provide a structure to how we live our lives during a semester. We know when we will meet, for how long, and how much time should be spent on one thing or another. Credit hours give us structure and bound learning. This is highly useful is you are into standardization.
I’m not into standardization.
The Limitations of the Credit Hour: What Happens If It’s Gone?
Credit hours tie us to courses which then bound us into particular structures. Those structures ultimately limit what we can do with our teaching and the kinds of experiences we can provide
for our students. I think it’s time to consider life beyond the credit hour, and doing so brought me straight back to an earlier idea on getting rid of classes altogether.
You can get rid of classes, throw out credit hours, and introduce competencies. You can, if need be, use the credit hour model as a way to consider how much work needs to be done by students (and how many competencies students need to achieve) in order to earn a particular degree. But that’s it. Use it as a basis for making sure the work required is not too much nor too little. If you started with current syllabi and worked out initial competencies, you’d probably arrive at this just fine with some slight tweaking needed.
As a result, classes — and I use that word very loosely — become fluid. With no set time to meet, and no fixed (required) structures in place instructors can set up a range of experiences for students to engage in that push them towards developing the competencies. You, as the instructor, have greater freedom to rethink what it means to teach and be a teacher. You have greater freedom to construct what learning looks like for your students because you are not bound by a traditional sit your butt in the chair for X amount of time each week approach.
Because credit hours are about contact hours which means they are about seat time.
They are not about innovation.
They are not about teaching.
They are not about learning.
Credit hours exist for standardization purposes only. They exist so we can say that because a student earned X amount that this is somehow meaningful. But in no way does that structure support innovation.
It supports the model in its current format.
It supports doing things the way they have always been done.
It supports the assumption that learning occurs because seat time took place and credits were earned.
Moving away from that — and into the structure I’ve been discussing on this blog — does not automatically make teaching and learning innovative. As an instructor, you could work diligently to push traditional practices into a nontraditional model. Getting rid of the model for something else does not automatically make things better or set us down an innovative path. However, what it does do is open the road up to give us greater opportunity to re-envision what teaching and learning can look like and to transform our practices, and students’ learning, if we so desire.