Tuesday, March 09, 2010


Definition Question

Based on an offhand comment the other day, I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly (academic) readers to solve a definition question. (Wise and worldly non-academic readers, please indulge a little 'inside baseball' for today.)

How does your college or university define a credit hour? Put differently, if you propose a new course, what determines how many credit hours it gets? Does a given number of credits require a given amount of 'seat time'? If it does, what happens with online classes?

I'm particularly interested in how it defines credit hours for nontraditional formats, online delivery, etc.

40 hours of work per credit hour for any course work. With an in person class that would roughly mean 1 hour of class and 2 hours of work outside of class. For internships, hybrid, or online classes the same 40 hours apply but the work takes place in a different location.
48 hours of student work per credit hour. F2F lecture classes have 16 hours of class time, 32 hours outside of class (the usual 1:2 ratio). F2F lab classes have all 48 hours in class with an instructor. Online and hybrid have same 48 hours of work, but divided up among the different learning activities.
Fascinating question. Require? As a college, we have a fuzzy rule that allows professors to require attendance ... or not. For example, I only require attendance at exams, so last semester I had one student earn 4 credits while attending just 6 hours or so of class. That is a lower ratio than for a 3-credit on-line class with three exams and a final taken in a testing center. In a self-paced or by-exam course, those actual contact hours could be even fewer, and could all be met in a week or less of actual calendar time.

I really should go look up the rules that govern the bureaucracy, since our semester length can vary by as much as a week. If we have a minimum number of hours per credit, it would have to be below the expected norm. That said, we base it on what an average student might be expected to learn or do in 3 hours per week. It is outcomes based, just as it appeared to be when I was a student in the last century. AFAIK we don't have any classes where there isn't an f2f version to provide a point of comparison on time versus objectives.

We use the 50 minute academic "hour" in this calculation, of course.

Hard classes are generally defined as those where the average student reports doing that much (or more) per week. Labs are hated because you actually have to be physically present for much of that work time.
Basically the same as boomerprof and CCMathProf. We start with scheduled class time, so a 3 credit-hour class meets for 150 minutes per week for 15 weeks (and then there's final exam week...), or 2250 minutes of scheduled class time. So a 4 credit hour class gets scheduled for 3000 minutes. a 2 credit hour class gets scheduled for 1500 minutes and a 1 hour class for 750 minutes.

Things with labs become more difficult. We typically schedule (introductory) science classes and labs separately, so an intro chemistry class can be taken without a lab (3 hours) or with a lab (4 hours). But we treat the lab time differently, on the assumption that it to some extent substitutes for work time outside of class...a i credit hour lab meets for 2250 minutes a semester (2.5 hours a week, 15 weeks).

On-line classes are "tagged" to their F2F equivalents. So we don't use a "time" standard. We adapt the content to the online environment and assume that for students to learn it in an online setting, they have to spend as much time as they would spend in the classroom equivalent. So my MBA managerial class meets 2250 minutes per semester F2F; in its online twin, I cover the same material (differently) for the same 3 credit hours.
For face to face classes: 11 hours of contact time = 1 credit (we're on the quarter system in my state).

For labs: 22 hours of contact time = 1 credit.

I'm fascinated by the responses that define credit hours in terms of the number of hours that students work per week. How on earth is that documented or verified?
We're on the "carnegie unit" (or at least that's what we call it)--3 hours of work per week for each unit, distributed variously:

Lecture: 1 unit (per week)=1 hour class time, 2 hours "homework"

Activity: 1 unit= 2 class hours, 1 hour out of class

Lab: 1 unit - 3 class hours, no out of class work
We are on the quarter system, where 1 semester credit = 1.5 quarter credits.

Washington State has a handbook that gives guidelines for equating contact hours with credits:

10-12 lecture hours = 1 credit

20-24 lab/"applied learning" hours = 1 credit

30-36 clinical/work-site hours -= 1 credit
For the online class I'm teaching in the fall, the credit hours are the same as for the face-to-face version of the class. My plan is to cover the same material and expect the same level of mastery.

Incidentally, my undergraduate college did not use credit hours, we just used "credits". With rare exception, courses were worth one credit. The level of the class didn't matter, and it didn't matter whether or not there was a lab attached to it. On my transcript, it does have a conversion from credits to credit hours (3.3 credit hours per credit for regular courses, I think), and the conversion has some adjustment for labs (plus one credit hour, or something close to that).
Throughout our state system, one credit is supposed to entail 15 contact hours. Most courses are three credits. What this means for an online-only course is unclear. Generally, those responsible for content approval for online courses (department chairs, mostly) look at whether the learning objectives and expectations for student effort and achievement are similar to those that apply to the face-to-face course. There's no good way to translate the 15-hours-per-credit rule to online learning.
Each credit in a lecture corresponds to 50 min of class each week, with an expectation of twice that amount of effort outside of class. Each credit in a lab corresponds to 150 min of class each week. Perhaps there is an assumption that no time is required outside of class? Students writing up lab reports would find that very ironic.

I ran into a problem while devising a new course that focused on experimental methods. There was no way to fit 9 hours of lab, yet my colleagues and I felt it was important to create a 3 credit class, so the lab time was supplemented with lecture time (regarding the underlying principles) in order to fit within the university's credit structure.
Milo Minderbinder asked how outside effort is measured.

I think it is understood that the expected outside effort is based on what an average student needs to do to pass the class. We know there are students (me, back in the day) who can pass some classes by merely attending and taking notes, while others (people I knew, back in the day) spend several hours a day struggling with reading or doing problems.

I have measured that effort using a survey that I give now and then, and the results are surprisingly stable considering they show a range from 1 hour to 20 hours per week just doing homework. The mean is about 1.5 hours of homework per credit, not counting studying for exams.

YMMV, depending on the expectations set for your class.
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