Death to the Credit Hour?

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created the credit hour in the early 1900s as part of a pension system for university faculty.  It has evolved into a universal measurement of the credit students receive for the classes they have taken.  But is it a good measure of learning? In December, the Carnegie Foundation got a grant to rethink the construct it created.

Some argue that it’s time to abandon a fiction that learning comes in measured blocks and switch to a more direct measure of competencies. A Commentary in today’s Chronicle makes this plea:

Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard. However, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. Those in higher education must roll up their sleeves and commit to the hard work of figuring out together what it is they expect students to know and how best to meaningfully assess what they have learned.

The counter-Commentary, on the other hand, relishes the value of the time students and faculty members spend together in meaningful conversation.  It takes time, he argues, to work on building good student habits, dig deeper, and let students explore people, ideas, and themselves.  This writer sees a different end game:

I believe, perhaps foolishly, that education is a process, not a destination. Education is not reducible to a set of facts or skills. Rather, it is about a way of being in the world, a set of habits, which help develop curiosity and wonder. Good teachers motivate and build relationships. Good teachers sit and talk with their students about their hopes, dreams, questions, and anxieties. An education is a beginning, not an end.

Are these positions actually incompatible? The “credit hour” debate focuses on what we choose to measure, especially when it comes to the bureaucratic world of accreditation and transfer credits.  But suppose you became the Empress of Education.  What would you choose to measure, and how would you do it?

About Beth Thornburg

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