Liberal Education

Is It Finally Time to Kill the Credit Hour?

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has announced that it plans to reconsider the credit hour as it is currently being used in higher education and, at least potentially, propose a new alternative unit of measure to replace it. This is a welcome development and one that AAC&U has urged for some time, both through the Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative and through our recent work on the Degree Qualifications Profile. But having worked for several years to shift the focus from credit hours to competency—that is, from simply measuring the expected amount of time students spend in class ("seat time") and out of class on course-related work to measuring what students know and are able to do as a result of their coursework—we are keenly aware of not only the need for change but also the many difficulties that lie ahead.

The adoption of the credit hour as the standard unit of measure a century ago, and the closely related decision to organize a required number of credit hours around the concepts of breadth and depth, brought needed order and some degree of common practice to what was then a highly uneven and fast-changing enterprise of higher education. However, the credit-hour system and the breadth-depth division of curricular labor built around it are both woefully inadequate to twenty-first-century needs and challenges. Recognizing this, the higher education community already is actively engaged in a broad-based effort to move away from credit hours and toward the development of more meaningful evidence about students’ competency and preparation to deal with a lifetime of complex and often unscripted problems. This ongoing effort is focused on assessing students’ ability to integrate and apply their learning—to bring breadth and depth together, so to speak—in the context of complex problems and challenges, such as those related to sustainability. The articles in this issue clearly demonstrate the potential educational power of organizing education around complex, twenty-first-century challenges.

Because it was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that first devised the credit hour and helped make it the preferred form of academic currency, the foundation’s embrace of the need for a fresh look at it has enormous symbolic significance. It is wonderful that Carnegie is now joining the historic effort to shift the focus from credit hours and seat time to students’ demonstrated accomplishment in integrating and applying their learning. At this pivotal moment, we need all hands on deck.

Yet, even as we work toward an alternative, the credit hour is gaining new currency in state policy circles and through federal actions related to accreditation. It is very worrying that states have begun to tie performance incentives to simplistic measures of productivity, using that same old credit hour as the de facto indicator of what is “produced” with the time and money invested by students and the state.

What policy leaders miss is that the credit hour was not designed to document the quality or level of student learning. Today, the notion that all courses are equal—at least, in terms of the number of credit hours—skirts the question of whether a particular course is sufficiently rigorous or what students of my generation called a “gut.” The fact is that the same number of credit hours is awarded regardless of whether students produce significant qualifying work or just perform adequately on multiple-choice exams. Students who have patched together the right number of credits in the right breadth-depth categories may, in practice, fall short when it comes to the integrative and adaptive learning that they need for work, civic participation, and life.

Clearly, we need a new system that can demonstrate whether students are gaining proficiency in applying their learning to complex, unscripted problems and new settings. So, why not just throw out the credit hour altogether? The answer is that better ways of certifying what students are actually learning are still being developed, so we are not yet ready to just pull the switch on the old system, creaky and inadequate though it is. In truth, we are not even close to ready.

AAC&U has been working intensively for many years with hundreds of colleges, universities, and community colleges on liberal learning outcomes—the most valuable competencies of all in an innovation-driven global economy—and on educationally useful ways to assess student learning. Based on this work, I want to caution that higher education is still in the design phase of developing new ways to show what students are really gaining from their studies, and of documenting what students’ actual work reveals about their ability to engage successfully in analytic inquiry, take useful action on a complex problem or project, or contribute to society as thoughtful citizens.

The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) that the Lumina Foundation is currently field-testing and that I helped draft is challenging higher education to certify that every student has actually achieved the high-quality education that the DQP outlines: broad and integrative knowledge, deep knowledge in a particular subject area, high-level intellectual skills, and demonstrated achievement in applied learning and in civic learning and engagement. AAC&U is currently working in nine states with more than twenty institutions to test the DQP as a tool for assessing student learning, specifically in the context of transfer. Through this and related DQP projects, higher education leaders all across the country are experimenting with ways to certify student accomplishment and make it visible by gathering and examining students’ own authentic work—their projects, papers, performances, internships, community-based research, and capstone projects. Many of the most promising of these efforts use the e-portfolio as the platform for gathering and assessing this work—a platform that potentially can enable students themselves to integrate their learning and make its quality visible.

But these are pilot efforts. We do not yet have anything even faintly resembling broad agreement across the different sectors of higher education on the most powerful ways to document the quality and level of student achievement using students’ own authentic work, as the DQP recommends. And we should definitely not kid ourselves that there are standardized tests already available that can do the job for us. The existing tests fall far short in their capacity to reveal the kinds of educational outcomes that employers look for and that well-educated citizens of a democracy need. Moreover, the result of a standardized test is a very weak indicator of what a student can really do to solve urgent and unscripted problems, such as arise today in the economy and in civil society.

So, we are in the midst of much-needed change. But this is not the right time to jump off the old credit-hour boat, buoyed by the assumption that new competency-based assessments are primed and ready to sail. We need to take the time and learn from the assessment experiments that are going on all over higher education. We also need to build broad and compelling agreement on what twenty-first-century markers of student accomplishment actually look like. And, soberingly, that work is still in draft form.

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