Times may be a-changin’ for credit hours

Today the Academic Faculty Assembly is scheduled to vote on whether the university should redefine the credit hour. I have been surprised that there has been no significant student engagement on this fundamental issue. You get motivated by bollards and hot water ““ but not about the central structural feature of your academic experience.

Maybe you are unaware that the credit hour has an official definition, and that there are certain expectations that come with that definition. Trinity’s definition is in the Courses of Study bulletin in the “Academic Regulations” section ““ online at http://web.trinity.edu/x28973.xml. There you will see that a credit hour is “one 50-minute period of recitation or lecture, or three such periods of laboratory work, each week for a semester of 15 weeks.” The Trinity norm is for courses to have three semester hours of credit. But here’s the kicker: “Each lecture or recitation hour presupposes an average of two hours of outside preparation on the part of the student.”

Did you know that? Faculty members expect that, for every hour you are in class, you will spend at least two hours outside of class reading, writing, studying, thinking, doing problem sets and otherwise being enthusiastically engaged in the content of your courses. So, if you are registered for 15 hours this semester, not only do we expect to see you in class 15 hours each week (three hours per course), we also expect you to be doing 30 hours of course-related work outside of class (six hours per course). That’s 45 hours of academic work per week per semester.

That means college is a full-time job. Out of 168 hours in the week, we expect you to be spending a little over one-fourth of your time on your coursework. You have 123 other hours to eat, sleep, work a job, play, worship, volunteer and participate in extra-curricular activities. Doing college well takes focus, time management, discipline and clear priorities. When a student tells me he studied three hours for an exam, or that he thinks reading a hundred pages a week for a class is too much, I know he doesn’t understand these expectations.

The Faculty Assembly vote on redefining the credit hour is motivated in part by a concern over the quality of a Trinity education. Redefinition advocates want to relax the linkage between a “semester hour” and time in the classroom. This would allow faculty to assign four credits to a course even if it meets only three hours per week, under the notion that the extra credit hour (which, you’ll recall, equates to three hours of academic work per week) would be spent doing deeper and more rigorous work in that course. With three hours per week in class, we would now expect nine hours of work outside.

If this became the new norm, you would take four 4-credit courses per semester instead of five 3-credit courses. Not being spread so thin, you could really focus on those four courses and do higher-quality work. You would be in class just 12 hours per week instead of 15, but do 36 hours of course-related work outside of class, for a total of 48 hours of academic work per week.

There are, of course, tradeoffs. By taking one less course per semester, your face-time with faculty will drop by 20 percent, from 15 hours a week to 12. However, our expectations of what you do outside of class will rise. In essence, we will require more (and better) work in fewer courses. Also, by taking four courses per semester, you will likely need only 32 courses to graduate instead of the current 41. That 20 percent drop means you sacrifice breadth of experience for depth of experience.

Opponents of this redefinition effort are unconvinced you will match fewer courses with deeper work, and they prefer the greater flexibility of the current system to do things like double major. They like the fact that you take a wider variety of courses.

Boiled down to its basic elements, this is a debate over the quality of education here. Redefinition advocates assume our pedagogical problems are structural. You are over-extended, and taking five courses per semester demands too much of you. So, if we change the structure (the credit hour), you will change. You’ll get better. Redefinition opponents argue that our problems are habitual, not structural. Poor performance has more to do with character, discipline and good habits. If this is about video games, Facebook  and texting, changing the structure misses the point.

This debate concerns the future of a Trinity education. What do you, the students, think?

David Crockett is a political science professor.