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Questioning credit hours (#1068)

Topics/tags: Teaching, rants, things I was writing anyway, really long

As many people know by now, I find myself incredibly frustrated by Grinnell’s credit-hour definition. At present, that definition suggests that a four-credit class should require 180 hours of work across the semester, or about twelve hours of work per week (in-class and out-of-class). That gives our students a curricular workload of forty-eight hours, which I find high when I combine it with their co-curriculars, their extra-curriculars, their gainful employment, their athletics, and their time to build connections and community.

We didn’t always have this definition. In fact, it’s relatively recent, from the past five years or so [1]. Before that, we that a four-credit class typically met for three or four fifty-minute blocks or two 110-minute blocks and, presumably, had two or three hours of assigned work per hour in class. But then someone got worried about what the folks at HLC would think. After all, in the traditional model, a four-credit course meets for four hours per week, or, at minimum, the equivalent of four fifty-minute blocks per week. Rather than take a stand that the amount Grinnell students learn in one of our classes is clearly more than the amount in most four-credit courses across the nation, we went with a standard definition. I guess I can understand; we already have to spend significant effort to argue that Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum achieves its goals. Why add a second difficult argument?

Beyond my concerns about the forty-eight-hour academic workload, I bristle at the lack of clarity associated with the bean counting. Amazingly enough, students differ. Some read more rapidly than others. Some compose quickly; others struggle to wrangle grammar into place. Some intuit that right approach for a mathematical or programming problem. Others must try and discard multiple other approaches. In CS, I’ve seen ratios of eight or more for the time that different highly competent students take on an assignment.

Then there’s the issue of the work required for a particular grade. I’ve had students tell me that I can do B+-level work on this assignment in two hours. Doing A-level work would require another six hours. It’s not worth the extra work; I won’t learn much more. And they are probably right. I’ve been spending the semester as a student in The Craft of Creative Nonfiction. When writing manuscripts for that course, I could spew at my normal musing rate (less than thirty minutes per page) or carefully craft my text (usually closer to two hours per page). I could write one draft or revise ruthlessly. When editing my peer’s manuscripts, I could make a few notes on each page and write a short conclusion at the end or I could strive for much deeper comments and even look for references to support some suggestions [2]. Oh, wait! We don’t get graded on those edits. So much time wasted. When reading a piece for the class, I could skim and get a high-level overview, or read repeatedly, pen in hand, notebook at my side to record. Particularly since I’m not getting a grade in the class, it shouldn’t matter.

Returning to that earlier issue, I also see that our skill at writing differs significantly. Some students seem to be able to turn phrases at will, to draw out a lyrical phrase or compelling rhythm with little effort, or at least much less effort than I spend. I read sentences that I suppose I could presumably write, but it would likely take an hour on each to hone it to the beautiful perfection my peers achieve.

So I find myself asking, 180 hours of work by whom? and for what grade? Should I be assessing the time required for my student who takes the least time, my average student, my median student, my student who takes the most time? Or should I not base it on Grinnell students at all? After all, we accept transfer credit from institutions that I know require significantly less work in a four-credit course than I request. Perhaps I should consider some mythical average American college student, who scored about 21 on the ACT [3].

Maybe it’s my discipline. The field of CS has still not reached agreement on what belongs in each course and what level of understanding is necessary, particularly at the introductory level. We teach recursion in our first course. Many institutions do not. We require students to implement the data structures they learn in our CS2 course. Many institutions do not. Some institutions require students to implement malloc in their first year. We do not.

But I don’t think it’s just CS. I know that Grinnell’s Calc II includes material that many (most?) institutions leave until Calc III. I’ve heard that our introductory Latin sequence covers more in one year than even peer institutions spread out over two years. I don’t even know how you compare the innovative Bio 150 to other introductory courses.

It frustrates me that I feel like we are paying more attention to these expectations than others. I’ve talked to colleagues at schools on our comparison list who give much less homework than we do, at least in Mathematics and CS. Why are we holding ourselves to a more extreme standard than many others?

As we deal with emergency remote learning and the broader effects of the pandemic, I find myself regularly returning to the 180-hour question. We’re told to adjust our expectations, and I agree that it’s appropriate to do so. But we’re also told to maintain the 180-hour expectation. How do I do that while also paying attention to my students’ mental states, their potential need to increase their work hours because they have a family member out of work? Can I readily assume that work will now take students longer, and give less? Can I change the model of for whom? to whoever it was before, but now facing extreme challenges? In my case, these are all hypothetical questions; I am on sabbatical this semester. They are, nonetheless, important questions.

Because I’m annoying and have the time to be annoying, I’ve been trying to ask these questions at the meetings I attend. No one has been willing to say Yes, you can cut back on the 180 hours; presumably, they worry that HLC will view the recordings of our conversations that Cisco stores in the Webex vaults. I’ve even tried to switch tactics and get a definition of 180 hours that ends up being more of an upper bound, rather than whatever it currently is. No success. I wonder if anyone even reads my comments any more.

With hopes of getting a sense as to how Grinnell’s approach relates to other institutions’, I sent a message to the SIGCSE-members mailing list. SIGCSE is the Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education. Writing to SIGCSE is one of the easiest ways I know of to reach a range of thoughtful educators, and I hoped for a wide range of responses.

Here’s what I wrote, with the grammar corrected slightly.

Dear SIGCSE Colleagues,

I am writing to ask how your institutions interpret a credit hour and how closely your institutions ask you to stay toward that interpretation. At my institution, a four-credit class is supposed to represent approximately 180 hours of work, perhaps 60 hours in class and 120 hours out of class, or 45 hours in class and 135 hours out of class. As we make plans for potentially different models of teaching or course lengths, we’ve been reminded of these 180-hour expectations.

I’ve talked to some folks at other institutions who echo the 180-hour number for a four-credit class (mostly Deans/Provosts) and some who didn’t associate a particular number of hours with a class (mostly faculty members).

I don’t think anyone (at my institution or elsewhere) has shared some context to the 180 hours: Is it for the student in the class who takes the most time, the one in the class who takes the average/median amount of time, the one who takes the least time, a mythical average American college student? And is it for A-level work, B-level work, passing work? (Or, for those who don’t like grades, is it for mastery, for basic understanding, for something in-between?)

I admit that I am particularly troubled by the for whom? question, since I see huge ranges for how long students might take on an assignment (and that seems to hold at every level of the curriculum, although the range narrows from, say, a factor of eight or more in introductory classes to a factor of four in upper-level classes).

Anyway, I am interested to hear how others approach this issue. If you would, please share your institution’s practices with me and I’ll share back with the list in a week or so. (As list moderator, I would prefer to have a week of share data with Sam and then discuss on the listserv after I share back.)

What type of institution are you at (e.g., four-year liberal arts college, R1 university, community college)?

How does your institution define a credit hour at the undergraduate level?

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

If your institution uses an hours worked definition, how does it address the For whom, and for what level of work? question? (Or perhaps, like mine, it doesn’t.)

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your own practices or the practices at your institution/department?


– SamR

Now it’s about a week later, so it’s time to summarize for my community. Here goes.

Dear SIGCSE Colleagues,

About a week ago, I wrote to the list to get feedback on how different schools (or at least different faculty members) interpreted credit hours for your classes. My concern in dealing with my own institution’s definition is that it is vague about the questions of For whom? and For what grade?. I know workload varies from students to student, particularly in CS, and that the workload required for A-level work is much greater than that required for C-level work.

I’m particularly interested in the issue as many institutions move to emergency remote instruction (or whatever folks end up calling it in the fall). Work online seems very different than work in person.

Thank you very much to all those who replied and for those who share my concerns. I’ll start with a summary of the responses, along with some commentary, and then provide the somewhat anonymized responses.

0. Many people reminded me that the credit hour definitions are there, in part, to satisfy accreditors. I knew that and should have mentioned it in my initial posting. Because the definition is to satisfy accreditors, I was also hoping to see the for whom addressed since credit hours are supposed to be transferable between institutions. How do we know they are equivalent if they are not well defined?

1. One respondent (K, below) noted that I was taking an American-centric view (I was; I appreciate the correction) and pointed me toward the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and the Bologna Process. I appreciate the opportunity to compare systems. I appreciate that the focus seems to be on learning outcomes more than hours spent. However, since I teach at a U.S. institution, my primary interest remains what people at U.S. institutions are doing.

2. There appear to be two primary mechanisms by which people define a credit hour.

One is in terms of meeting times: Each hour (or, sometimes, fifty-minute) meeting, along with about two-to-three hours of work outside of class for each hour in class, across a fourteen- or fifteen-week semester, represents one credit hour.

The other is in terms of time spent per class. Forty-five hours of work represents one credit hour. Note that these forty-five hours correspond closely to the amount of time you get with one hour in class plus two hours out of class over fifteen weeks.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison guidelines help reveal these correspondences.

There are also variants. One institution was able to argue that their classes were so carefully designed that they cover as much in 120 hours as most schools do in 180 hours. (See response H below.)

3. Many institutions treat labs differently. (I did not see a particular rationale, and I consider it inappropriate to speculate as to why.)

4. Although one respondent noted that faculty at their institution tend to think about B-level work when assessing workload, most do not seem to consider the level of work..

5. The consensus about For whom? seems to be For the average student (at the institution). At least one respondent, with experiences like mine, noted that the distribution of time worked on CS assignments may not warrant taking the average.

6. Most faculty use their own experience to assess how much time tasks take. Some rely on the Rice workload estimator, Of course, that estimator doesn’t address the kinds of assignments we most frequently give. (Rice doesn’t estimate homework assignments, and its reading assignments are almost certainly not reading assignments that involve careful study of mathematical formulae.) RIT also provides some guidance,

7. For those who want further reading, there’s a report from the Carnegie Foundation on the credit hour (or, more precisely, the Carnegie Hour, which is not quite the same). It appears that, at least in the U.S., the outcomes-oriented folks are losing.

While I am frustrated by the lack of clarity (particularly because credits transfer), I’ve come to understand it, at least for my institution. Freedom to interpret the For whom and For what level of work allows one to meet the HLC expectations while making adjustments that you consider appropriate. I still hate the bean counting.

Thank you once again for your help!

– SamR

p.s. If you send a response to this message to the SIGCSE-members mailing list, please remember to limit the amount of material you quote.

p.p.s. All formatting errors are likely my fault.

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A. A small liberal-arts college

Since [School] has 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-credit courses, we have a worksheet to determine the appropriate credit load for a course (see summary below). The worksheet does not address the question of work hours for which students or what final grades, and I don’t think it’s addressed in any other documentation.

 One FIU = ~ 12 clock hours of direct instructional time over the course of a semester  One SWU = ~ 24 clock hours of out-of-class student work time over the course of a semester * Use the General Formula: FIU’s + SWU’s = # credits for course

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B. A public 4-Year liberal arts institution

We use a definition of credit hour that I have heard traces back to Carnegie units of the early 20th century (not that I’ve checked that myself). It’s a very simple and dogmatic definition: 1 credit hour = 50 minutes per week of lecture instruction, or 100 - 150 minutes of lab activity, throughout a 15-week semester. There is an additional guideline that students should expect to spend 2 - 3 hours outside of class per week per credit hour. I suspect that most faculty here find this definition of credit hour a bit too rigid, and in some situations we simply assume that the people who develop a course know best how many credits to attach to it (e.g., I was peripherally involved in the creation of an online self-paced supplement to our first-year writing seminar, which students do as a 1-credit co-requisite to that seminar – no-one seriously tried to figure out whether anything it does is 50 minutes per week of lecture). On the other hand, the definition has also led to some rather silly decisions, such as the time a few years ago when final exam periods for 4-credit courses suddenly got 50 minutes longer because someone somewhere realized that those exam periods counted in the 50-minutes-per-week-per-credit calculation.

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C. An R1

I have used the UW Madison expectations ( as a source, along with student evaluation comments and periodic student polls on time spent on course activities, to discuss whether a course should be either a 4 credit course or focus the workload a bit more for a 3-credit course.

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D. An R1

My understanding (and I have not done any research on this, based on what was conveyed to me) is the following:

1. there is a state mandated number of contact hours or instruction hours. That seems to drive how long the semester has to be.

2. online classes (in the pre-pandemic definition) had to go through a separate approval. I have not done one so I don’t know what that entailed, but I suspect that the contact hours is seen differently for that type of course.

3. the expected amount of work outside of class, and thus the number of hours, is mostly an informed guess? I have not seen anything official as to how much work this mythical student is supposed to do.

4. The other context where this comes up is in terms of how many courses they can take per semester, and the measure of full-time. But that part starts getting to be a bit of a magical calculation.

Again, these are just approximations to what is true.

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E. An R1

The university is fairly strict about in-person credit hours: 1 credit hour equals 1 in-class hour and (ideally) 2 out-of-class hours. So the typical four credit course is 12 hours per week, and my intro course is 5 credits so 15 hours per week.

It’s not immediately clear to me (as a newish faculty member) whether this is designed to be the median or max, but I’d take it to be the max if we look at the overall full-time student workload.

My class has a mix of before-class preparation, in-class problem solving (many small problems approach), and after-class weeklong programming assignments. For the before-class prep and in-class problem solving, we release solutions very shortly after class and impress on students that, if they don’t finish all of the problems, to spend 5-10 minutes reading and thinking seriously about the problem before using the solution to make progress. The weeklong programming assignments are more of an unknown, but I’ve typically let students know to not spend more than an hour debugging (since many novices don’t necessarily have a good idea of what’s designed to be challenging).

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F. A four-year, private, predominantly undergraduate institution

Our catalogue uses the NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) standard definitions, which are likely pretty common:

Credits Awarded for Student Academic Engagement

Credits Awarded Minutes* Clock 50-minute Hour Hour 1 2,250 (37.5 hours) 45 37.5 2 4,500 (75 hours) 90 75 3 6,750 (112.5 hours) 135 112.5 4 9,000 (150 hours) 180 150 5 11,250 (187.5 hours) 225 187.5 6 13,500 (225 hours) 270 225


Guidance to Institutions and Accrediting Agencies Regarding a Credit Hour as Defined in the Final Regulations Published on October 29, 2010

An amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than:

One hour** of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution, including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.

These are Awarded Minutes of Academic Engagement, adjusted for the NEASC 50-minute hour**

** NEASC assumes a 50 minute hour

Within the engineering school we generally think about the two hours outside for every hour inside class - but that is pretty generic. When assigning homework and projects we tend to think in terms of B students. A students either take less time, or do more in the same time. C students tend to do less, etc. But tracking that is not hard and fast. What we do track is time in class. If the class is 50-minutes then each lesson should try to end between 45 and 50 minutes. Running over is also frowned upon (mainly because it imposes on the class moving into the classroom).

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G. A Comprehensive University

How does your institution define a credit hour at the undergraduate level?

I’ll just paste in our policy

Credit Hours, Semester

At [Unnamed] University, the number of credit hours awarded depends on the course workload and overall contact with the subject matter, including the amount of direct instruction and the amount of student study/preparation time. A semester course typically requires two units of student study/preparation time for every one unit of direct instruction. Credit hour minimums are the same for both the undergraduate and graduate level. Actual hours of course work may exceed these minimums to ensure students meet course student learning outcomes.

A direct instruction hour consists of 50 minutes of formalized faculty-directed instruction presented to students, either in a synchronous or asynchronous format.

A study or preparation hour consists of 50 minutes of independent work, outside-of-class study, or preparation coursework that the typical student is expected to complete. Examples include, but are not limited to, reading assignments, working out problems, preparing for exams, completing online and face-to-face group work, writing papers, and working on a project.

A semester credit hour is the amount of credit awarded for successful completion of a total of 2250 minutes of course work comprised of faculty-directed instruction and independent student work. For example, one semester credit hour of traditional face-to-face lecture courses represents 750 minutes of direct instruction supplemented by a minimum of 1500 minutes of student independent study or preparation. An equivalent amount of time and work is required for shorter semesters or course duration.

The ratio of direct instruction to independent student work may differ by modality of instruction, but all courses require a minimum of 2,250 total minutes of student work per credit hour (e.g., 750 minutes of direct instruction plus 1,500 minutes of study/preparation time). A three credit-hour course requires a minimum of 6,750 minutes of interaction with the subject matter, including both direct instruction and independent student work.

[Unnamed] University includes a week of final exams as part of the required minutes for full-term courses. A laboratory course that meets for two or three class hours weekly over the course of a full term is considered equivalent to one credit hour. Fully online courses include the same credit hour minimums as face-to-face courses. The credit hours for work in internships, practica, and student teaching vary. Class and study time may exceed these minimums to ensure students meet course student-learning outcomes.

The standard number of credit hours which each course carries is provided in the course description section of this catalog. The courses are listed in numerical order within the sections for the various academic departments.

Faculty are responsible for ensuring that overall credit-hour minimums are met for each of the courses they teach, including the make-up of any unanticipated class cancellations that occur due to weather or other extenuating circumstances. Faculty may use alternative activities or assignments to make up missed class time. It is general practice for faculty to notify their chairs when a class session is canceled.

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

I’m not sure if I understand the question. It’s a policy and we tell everyone every year – this is an accreditation issue so you shouldn’t really mess around

If your institution uses an hours worked definition, how does it address the For whom, and for what level of work? question? (Or perhaps, like mine, it doesn’t.)

I passed this question to Xavier’s HLC accreditation rep. She says, I’d say, estimate the average.

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?

It is up to us to estimate this time ourselves. (There are some tools, e.g., and

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H. Private, non-profit, 4-year. Also MS and doctoral programs.

How does your institution define a credit hour at the undergraduate level?

A credit hour is 30 hours of work, regardless of in- or out-of-class splits.

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

We attach hours to every class activity – lectures, homework assignments, labs, even reading the textbook. We often use the Rice Course Workload Estimator at We try to balance out the number of hours per week and keep a 4-credit hour course at 120 hours.

If your institution uses an hours worked definition, how does it address the For whom, and for what level of work? question? (Or perhaps, like mine, it doesn’t.)

This has never been clear to me from our best practices documents. Averages are highly susceptible to outliers and we rarely have a section of a course with a sufficient enrollment to make that number statistically meaningful anyhow.

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?

I typically don’t know. However, I have recently taken to weekly surveys that ask this question. Over 12 weeks, I had 60 responses to this question (about 2/3 of the population) with an average of 13 hours per week, a median of 10.5 and a standard deviation of 7.7. Variance is incredibly high. Still, if I went with the median, my 12 week course comes out at 126 hours and I was targeting 120 hours for a 4-credit course. So, not too bad. I can’t correlate these with grades since the surveys are anonymous.

Still, I don’t really care that much about hours because of the high variances in student ability and experience. My focus is on whether or not students are meeting the outcomes of the course and each week within the course.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your own practices or the practices at your institution/department?

We were asked once by our accrediting body about our use of 30 hours versus the Carnegie definition of 45 hours per credit hour. We use all designed courses – every course is developed by a team of at least 3 people: an instructional designer, subject-matter expert, and faculty member. By careful outcomes mappings, specific topic selection, and highly focused assessments, we believe that we can achieve the same outcomes in 2/3 the time that a traditional college course designed and delivered by a single faculty member could do. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.

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I. R2

Generally most places that I’ve been define credit hour by contact hours in the classroom - 50 minutes of class time is one credit hour. Thus, a 3 credit hour class meets for 3 50 minute sessions or 2 75 minute sessions per week. The out of class time has always been a rule of thumb - 2-3 hours of work per credit hour knowing that some students read / process / etc. more quickly than others. The only thing that is different are labs which are a 1.5 ratio - so 1 credit hour in lab is actually 1.5 contact hours.

Going hybrid or remote totally muddies the entire definition of credit hour. In general, we’re told that a 3 credit hour class (which is most of ours) should be no more than 15 hours of work per week. The reasoning is that 12 credit hours is a full load, which would be 4 classes or 60 hours of work. Of course, we know that not every week is identical in workload and some students take more than 4 courses per term.

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

Not enforced other than student evaluations have a question that ask if the workload of the class is more, same, or less than other classes of the same credits.

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?


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J. Four-year liberal arts college

How does your institution define a credit hour at the undergraduate level?

14 weeks, 150 minutes class time per week, 3 hours out of class work for every hour in class.

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

It is in the student handbook and many faculty include it in syllabi to set expectations.

If your institution uses an hours worked definition, how does it address the For whom, and for what level of work? question? (Or perhaps, like mine, it doesn’t.)

This is not addressed at all.

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?

Faculty intuition and experience, and student feedback.

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K. A European R1

Although I’m in Europe, and much of this may not help, perhaps some of it will, particularly the ECTS part (below).

What type of institution are you at (e.g., four-year liberal arts college, R1 university, community college)?

R1 (albeit, in Europe)

How does your institution define a credit hour at the undergraduate level?

We use ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System: - also worth seeing is the link there to the Bologna process). This is a standardized system for credits that is largely required in Europe. It’s not super rigid however, as like most things done at the EU level, the Bologna process is effectively an agreed standard that countries then implement (normally only to compliance, not a true standard). Thus, differing interpretations of the standard, theoretically all compliant, often differ somewhat. Nonetheless, it is A LOT more standardized than the wild-west of academic credits that is the USA.

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

The Bologna process also dictates that all modules (classes / courses)* are based on module descriptors which start with learning outcomes. So, all universities here have modules that all have module descriptors. Typically these are housed in an online system. Thus, they can be referred to by anyone, from the students to the president. Reinforcement is typically based on trust, but would follow a chain of command: module leader (typically the lecturer but not necessarily) ->.programme* director -> some school/faculty level board -> -> some college* level board -> university registry.

  • here, modules are classes/courses, stages are years, a programme is the whole degree (one’s whole course of study, e.g. BSc), schools are typically faculties, and colleges are groups of schools (say the college of science which oversees the school of CS, school of Physics, etc.).

If your institution uses an hours worked definition, how does it address the For whom, and for what level of work? question? (Or perhaps, like mine, it doesn’t.)

It’s always the student effort. Typically about 3/4 of hours are self study or something similar. Face-time with the lecturer for undergraduate modules are typically 5 ECTS which in Ireland equates to 125 or so learner hours of effort. The actual lecturing time in my university might be about 24 hours with (in CS) 12 or 24 hours of lab. The rest would be accounted to assignments, self study, etc. Graduate courses typically have much less contact time. Perhaps 12 total contact for 5 ECTS. (So by now you’ve figured out that in Ireland 1 ECTS is about 25 hours of learner effort). In other European countries it’s a little different but you’d have to look hard to find <20 or >30.

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?

We don’t.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your own practices or the practices at your institution/department?

I think I’ve covered it!

If you have questions, please ask. The Bologna/ECTS systems appear to be nebulous and enigmatic at first. But like I said, it’s streets ahead of the anarchy in the US - if you consider standardization to be a good thing. I can say this - if a student with x ECTS wants to transfer to a university in Liechtenstein, it’s super easy compared to transferring across the street in the US. From that point of view, it works.

What have I learned from all of this? It appears that I worry more than most. Perhaps that’s not surprising.

I’ve also realized that I don’t get good responses to my questions at Grinnell because we worry about the bean counters at HLC [4]. Maybe I should take written language less seriously than I do and can choose my own answers to my questions. If I’m feeling particularly aggressive, I can say,

My course requires 180 hours by students in my traditional face-to-face class who wish to earn a C in the course, assuming that these students work at a rapid pace and face no real effects from the pandemic. Those who wish higher grades, who take more time to complete work (in general or in the online offering), and who have more challenging circumstances will necessarily find that the course takes more time.

That policy is, of course, unfair. It’s also not something I would ever say [5]. If I felt aggressive in a different way, I could say,

My course requires 180 hours by the average American college student in order to earn an A, assuming that they work at about half of their normal capacity because of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, halved again because of the difficulties of working online. Those who work more quickly, who face fewer challenges, and who are willing to accept lower grades will find that they spend less time on the course.

That policy is also unfair. Students come to Grinnell to be challenged. They deserve that challenge. Perhaps I’ll find a solution that achieves that goal and keeps my students sane. That might satisfy me. Perhaps that will satisfy them.

Will I still keep pushing on this issue? Probably. Will I muse about it again? Almost certainly. Will I gain fellow travelers in my mission to address workload? I already have some. I hope to get more. Or maybe my unrestrained comments will help my more restrained colleagues be more successful in their own efforts.

Here’s hoping.

Postscript: After I sent the message out to the group, I got one more message, this time about experiences in Australia. I thought i should share it here.

At my university, and I believe at most universities in Australia, the measure of course size is not the credit hour. It has a variety of names (credits, credit points, units …), and there is absolutely no consistency is what it means. For example …

At the University of Newcastle a three-year degree consists of 240 units, with most individual courses worth 10 units each. It’s made clear that a full-time load of 40 units in a semester is intended to correspond approximately with the notional 40-hour week of full-time employment. The breakdown between in-class and out-of-class hours varies, from about 2+8 to perhaps 6+4. Most course in my area are either 4+6 or 3+7.

At Macquarie University, a three-year degree consists of 240 credit points, where Each credit point equals about three hours of work per week including class time.

At James Cook University, credit points are a basic measure of study load. Most subjects are usually worth three credit points. A normal full-time study load for one year is 24 credit points (8 subjects). So a three-year degree would consist of 72 credit points.

At the University of Western Australia, an annual total of 48 credit points is equivalent to a standard year of full time study (one EFTSL). A standard unit worth 6 credit points will be equivalent to 0.125 EFTSL (6/48). A three-year degree is thus 144 credit points.” (And a unit is what many people call a course.)

For completeness . . .

What type of institution are you at (e.g., four-year liberal arts college, R1 university, community college)?

An Australian university. R1 university is probably the closest match in your examples. We teach undergraduate degrees, we conduct lots of research, we award doctorates, and our standard undergraduate degree lasts three years, though some specialist degrees last longer.

How does your institution define a credit hour at the undergraduate level?

See answers above.

How/how often does the institution reinforce that definition?

For my own institution, most course outlines (which you might call syllabi) include some form of the message that a ten-unit course will generally correspond to approximately ten hours of work each week including timetabled classes.

If your institution uses anhours worked" definition, how does it address the For whom, and for what level of work? question? (Or perhaps, like mine, it doesn’t.)”

It doesn’t. In my programming courses I always point out that programming courses almost always take many more hours per week than many other courses.

How do you know whether your class meets whatever that definition is?

We don’t, and I doubt that we can. Although for major programming assignments I do ask students to maintain a journal that includes a log of the time they spend on that assignment.

[1] If I recall correctly, it was added during Henry Rietz’s tenure as Chair of the Faculty. I just can’t recall whether Henry was CoF before or after Elaine; I believe the answer is after. My memory is clearly going. (A quick check of my notes says after.)

[2] You can probably guess which I do.

[3] ACTs are not a particularly good proxy for grades, but I expect they provide a bit of a proxy for the speed at which students can produce a level of work.

[4] Do we worry that I keep calling them bean counters in my musings? Presumably, that falls under the guise of academic freedom, which one hopes HLC supports. And I do have my disclaimer.

[5] Even though some students may think that this represents the typical model for my classes, it does not.

Version 1.0 of 2020-05-14.