Seven years later, credit hour debate continues


Photo credit: Andrea Nebhut

Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

It’s passionate. It’s pedagogical. But, it’s not personal.

“It has probably been the most divisive issue I’ve seen on the Trinity campus,” said Aaron Delwiche, professor of communication. “Professors, we all really like each other. There are people I disagree with on this issue who I super respect. But it’s a divisive issue.”

Seven years after the Faculty Senate approved a redefinition of what constitutes a credit hour, debate over the subject continues. The redefinition allowed for the inclusion of out-of-class work towards earning a credit hour, which led to the increased proliferation of four-hour courses and discourse between departments over the benefits of the implementation thereof. The thing that’s holding it all together? Departmental freedom.

Prior to 2013, a credit hour was defined as “one 50-minute period of recitation or lecture, or three such periods of laboratory work, each week for a semester of 15 weeks.”

Currently, a credit hour is defined in the Faculty Handbook as “a minimum of three hours of student academic work per week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester, or an equivalent amount of student academic work distributed over a different time period.”

The new definition effectively decoupled the idea of the credit hour from the “contact hour,” or time students spend in class with a professor. Under the new definition, student academic work each week that contributes to the credit hour can include lectures and labs, but also out-of-class activities such as homework, reading, research and “community-engaged experiences.”

“The way [the policy] is written, it does allow a kind of flexibility. It does allow a department to design a course, for example, that would receive four credit hours, even though there are only three contact hours. It doesn’t mandate that, but instead, it makes it possible,” said Duane Coltharp, an associate vice president for Academic Affairs.

In 2010, the University Curriculum Council (UCC), a group of faculty, administrators and students that meets throughout the year to discuss topics concerning curriculum and academic policy, presented a memorandum that brought about this alteration in definition. The memorandum detailed research that benchmarked the workload of Trinity faculty and students against peer institutions, showing that Trinity faculty teach more courses per year and students enroll in more courses per semester on average.

“Most [faculty members] teach a 3–3 teaching load, which is three courses in the spring and three courses in the fall. Increasingly, with the four-credit thing, you’ll have more and more people doing a 3–2,” said Delwiche, who is a current member of the UCC.

However, this change in faculty workload is not universal over academic departments. Since the updated policy, the UCC has allowed individual departments to decide how to build their curricula around the decoupled credit hour. According to Coltharp, this system is built on trust.

“In general, the system is set up on the assumption that individual departments and programs should be trusted to know what’s best within their discipline. But there’s still a good deal of evidence that has to be presented. So when it comes to assigning the number of credit hours to a course, we actually asked departments to add up the number of expected hours that students would probably be spending on readings, on exams, on papers and so forth,” Coltharp said.

The designation of how much time out-of-class activities are assumed to take is also left to departments.

“At first glance it may seem odd to have individual departments generate their own rubrics rather than centralizing this in the UCC, but then ask yourself if doing a close reading of 10 pages of the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer would take you the same amount of time as reading 10 pages of breezy, popular prose,” wrote Joshua Schwartz, current UCC chair and professor of engineering. “We generally defer to the departmental culture, but I feel compelled to add that this approach is not universally endorsed among the faculty at large or even within the membership of the UCC.”

Business professor Jorge Colazo, the current UCC vice-chair who will become chair this fall, explained that there is a student role in ensuring that the workload is appropriate for the credit hour designation of a course.

“In the end, it is up to faculty to make sure that the credit hours are aligned with the learning load, and up to students to keep faculty honest by means of a sustained and open dialogue with the administration,” Colazo wrote in an email interview.

This means that now, some departments, such as English, contain mostly four-credit hour courses, while departments such as computer science still list mostly three-hour courses. Meanwhile the Department of Communication has adopted a more hybrid model. Coltharp pointed out that while many humanities departments may be trending four-hour courses, many STEM courses are de facto four-hour courses due to the required combination of a three-hour lecture or seminar and a one-hour lab course. According to Delwiche, this departmental and pedagogical freedom is imperative for the success of the 2013 policy.

“I feel like I can still teach classes the way I want to teach them,” Delwiche said. “I think that any attempt to impose just one solution on the entire university in either direction would probably be doomed to failure.”

Delwiche noted that by increasing the average credits per course could decrease the total breadth of a Trinity student’s education.

“And when you go from four credits to three credits, you’re effectively reducing the number of classes that students get to take as well,” Delwiche said. “When you do the math, it just works out that if you have more four-credit classes or all four-credit classes, then students would be taking significantly fewer classes over their times at Trinity.”

Delwiche also pointed out that the decoupled credit hour allows for students to spend less in-class time with faculty members per dollar spent on tuition, as a four-hour course may only meet for three hours per week. Colazo explained that this does not mean that the policy prioritizes faculty over students.

“I think it is a bit myopic to think that the only contact time between faculty and students happens during class, or at least that should not be the case. For example, there are office hours, a resource vastly underutilized in most cases, and other opportunities for dialogue and learning outside of the classroom. Students who are determined to seek guidance from faculty will still have ample opportunities to do so regardless of the number of credit hours they take,” Colazo wrote.

Though discourse surrounding the policy continues, Colazo did not disclose any plans for making any changes to the credit hour policy when he assumes the role of UCC chair next fall.

“It would be premature for me to talk about this in full representation of this body, but you can be sure that given the opportunity, I would keep open all communication channels and listen to all the stakeholders and help change course if necessary,” Colazo wrote.