The Credit Hour: A Poor Proxy for Student Learning

Blog Post
Sept. 10, 2012

While policy makers of all stripes are waking up to the college completion crisis, very little attention has been paid to the college quality crisis (that we have one, why we have one, or what we can do about it). Last week I wrote about the release of our new report, Cracking the Credit Hour, which reveals the credit hour’s curious origins and the fact that credit hours were never meant to measure, or be a proxy for, learning. In the absence of better, more consistent, and more transparent ways of measuring learning, however, credit hours have become the de facto measure. Over-reliance on time, rather than learning, is a key contributor to our quality crisis.

Study after study shows that our country’s college students are not measuring up. The National Center for Education Statistics has found that nearly 70 percent of college graduates could not correctly perform basic tasks like comparing opposing editorials. The ground-breaking Academically Adrift found shockingly low gains in students’ critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication skills over two and four years in college. These findings are echoed by employers, who say that college graduates aren't well-prepared to succeed on the job.

You might expect that the graduates measured in these studies skated through college with D’s and C’s. Not so. Today, 43 percent of college students receive A’s, compared with 15 percent in 1961. It would appear there is not a strong correlation with “time served,” and “learning achieved.”

To be clear, you cannot have learning without time. But just because you have time doesn’t mean you have learning. How much time is needed for learning varies on the individual and the subject (with the amount of time, effort, and energy I spent on just two econometrics courses in grad school, for example, my quantitative-genius of a classmate could have mastered material in ten related courses.). For the most part, we don’t know whether students are engaged in class (never mind whether professors know if students are even in class). We do know that students are spending far less time than they used to studying outside of class. According to a 2008 study by University of California researchers, two-thirds of full-time students studied at least 20 hours a week in 1961. In 2003, that number was down to 20 percent. Yet credit hours, which have evolved to capture time spent in and out of class, have not been reduced.

Credit hours can, of course, be incredibly useful, particularly for administrative functions like course scheduling and faculty assignments. They also help establish content expectations based on the breadth and depth of material to be covered. But unless time is tied to some reasonable expectation and demonstration of learning, the value in credit hours is largely relegated to administrative functions and wishful thinking about student success.  

The “simple” solution to this problem would be standardized learning outcomes and assessments. This would presuppose that we agree upon what we want students to know and have tools that accurately measure what students learn and know -- neither of which is true at this time. Lest readers think I am calling for a monolithic, national, top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to learning and assessments, let me say emphatically--I am not. I do think, however, that our students deserve better than individual professors setting their own standards and assessing students based on those criteria. That’s what we have now, and it isn’t working.

Any attempt to systematically measure learning will need buy-in from college faculty. Fortunately, the Lumina Foundation has seeded two efforts to develop shared ideas about learning outcomes with explicit leadership from faculty and scholarly groups. One such effort is the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), a framework for what students should be able to know and do with a degree, regardless of discipline. Inspired by “qualifications frameworks” developed by those in European nations looking to improve quality, consistency, and transparency in their disparate higher education systems, the DQP highlights five key areasthat should be part of any degree program. It is currently being tested in 30 states and over 100 institutions. Another such effort is Tuning USA in which faculty articulate learning outcomes at the disciplinary level.

While encouraging, these nascent efforts at creating more consistent and transparent learning outcomes are rare. Federal policy can help make these efforts more commonplace. In my next post, I will talk about three tools the U.S. Department of Education has at its disposal to help make this happen right now.