One problem with the college credit hour, for those who would like to eliminate it, is that it is not just a measure of supposed student learning, but also a gauge of faculty workload. Does that distinction make it a barrier to innovative teaching? In the opinion of policy experts Jane Wellman and Thomas Erlich, who have studied the subject, if the credit hour does not stifle innovative teaching, it may at least make it more difficult.

As explained by Jessica Shedd, a researcher at the University of Maryland, the credit hour had its origins at the turn of the last century when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching endorsed the idea of a common currency and the standardization of secondary education. The idea also took hold when Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, introduced more electives to the curriculum. The move gave students more and broader choices, but it also meant that the courses had to be quantified. However, it was not until Carnegie tied the credit hour to its faculty pension program (which later became TIAACREF) that it became the universal standard.

Because the credit hour is the basis for their compensation, faculty members are expected to teach for a certain number of hours per year. Most institutions start with a three-credit lecture course as a measure of course load. Just as it supposedly measured student input, the course that meets for three 50-minute hours counts for three credits when measuring faculty effort, explains Erlich in The Credit Hour and Faculty Instructional Workload.

That measure may have served when the 50-minute lecture course was the standard, says Erlich, a senior scholar with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and when faculty got extra credit for such activities as conducting a lab. But as Erlich notes, teachers don’t just teach. At four-year institutions, they conduct research and perform other duties (serving on committees, for example), and those functions aren’t translated into credit hours. “And these policies probably have a deeper influence on instructional delivery and innovation than counting credit hours.”

The class hour may have a greater effect on adjunct or part-time faculty members, Erlich says, “because they are explicitly paid on the basis of classes taught and not for a larger body of work.” But because the number of part-time faculty has grown, he says, that could mean that “the metric of classroom contact and credit hours is becoming a more, rather than less, influential lever of institutional policy.” As a result, he says, faculty “have no financial incentive to change their approach to teaching.” It is this mode of compensation on a per-course basis, he says, “that probably stifles innovation more than any other single factor.”

Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project and Erlich’s co-author on a study of the credit hour, says strict adherence to the credit hour curbs faculty creativity. She says some faculty members avoid team teaching and interdisciplinary courses, for instance, partly because they fear they won’t get “credit” for their work.

At two-year institutions, there tends to be a strong connection between the credits given and the time a student spends in the classroom, the authors say. But the relationship is not as strong for lecture courses accompanied by labs and discussions. Lectures seemed to account for around three hours a week “regardless of credit worth,” Erlich says. If the data are valid, Erlich says, it’s a strong indication that “the three-hour, three-day-a-week lecture class still essentially defines how teaching is delivered in institutions of higher education.”

Although there are “striking exceptions,” Erlich says the data support the researchers’ sense that “most [institutions] do not have a campus climate that encourages instructional innovation.”

Some institutions have gotten around these issues by developing weighted credit hours or teaching units. Online institutions go even further by dividing instructional workload into parts—such as course development, advising, and assessment—each done by a different person. As at institutions such as Western Governors University, the credit hour is no longer a useful measuring stick.

So does this mean the credit hour will become obsolete? Erlich doubts it. At least for now, he writes, institutions are subject to “powerful forces of inertia.”

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