Killing the Credit Hour? What We All Need to Know…

By: Carol Geary Schneider, President, AAC&U

Many of you probably saw the recent news about the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) launching a project to rethink—and potentially propose alternatives to—the credit hour as it is currently used in higher education.  This is a welcome development and one that AAC&U has urged for some time both through its LEAP initiative and through its recent work on the Degree Qualifications Profile.  But, having worked closely for several years on the shift from credit hours to competency—meaning a central focus on what students know and can do with their knowledge—I see pretty clearly both the need for change and all the difficulties that lie ahead.

Credit hours and the closely related decision to organize them around “breadth and depth” were put in place a century ago to bring order and some degree of common practice to a then highly uneven and fast-changing higher education enterprise.   But both the credit hour system and its sibling, the breadth/depth division of curricular labor, are creaky and woefully inadequate to 21st-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 new, complex, and unscripted problems.  These new efforts are 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.

It’s wonderful that CFAT is joining this historic effort to shift the focus from credit hours and seat time to students’ demonstrated accomplishment in integrating and applying their learning.  Because they helped launch the credit hour and have helped make it the preferred form of academic currency, their embrace of the need for a fresh look has enormous symbolic significance.  And, at this pivotal moment, we need all hands on deck.

Yet, even as we work toward an alternative, the credit hour is in fact being given new currency both in state policy and in federal actions related to accreditation.  It’s 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’s being “produced” with the time and money invested by students and the state.

That trend is worrying because the credit hour was never designed to document the quality or level of student learning.  Today, the notion that every course is equal to every other—at least in credit hours awarded—successfully disguises the question of whether a particular course was rigorous or a “gut;” whether students produced significant qualifying work, or just performed 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 demonstrates whether students are gaining proficiency in applying their learning to complex problems, unscripted questions, and new settings.  So, why not just throw out the credit hour altogether?

The answer is that we need an alternative and better way of certifying what students are actually learning.  But with the alternatives still being drafted, we’re 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 both 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 field testing and that I helped draft is challenging higher education to certify that every student has actually achieved the five-star education that the DQP outlines:  broad, integrative knowledge, deep knowledge in a particular subject area, high-level intellectual skills, and demonstrated achievement both in applied learning and in civic learning and engagement.

AAC&U is currently working in 9 states with more than 20 institutions to test the DQP as a tool for assessing student learning specifically in the context of transfer.  Through this Quality Collaboratives project, and related DQP grants, higher education leaders all across the country are experimenting  with ways to make students’ DQP accomplishment visible and certified 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 e-portfolios as the platform to gather and assess this work—and which have the potential to help students themselves integrate their learning and make its quality visible.

But, these are still pilot efforts.  We do not yet have anything even faintly resembling broad agreement across the different higher education sectors on the most powerful ways to document the quality and level of students’ achievement using students’ own authentic work, as the DQP recommends.  And we should definitely not kid ourselves that there are strong standardized tests already available that can do the job for us.  The existing standardized tests fall far short in their capacity to reveal what employers need to know and what democracy needs from a well-educated citizenry.  Standardized test results provide very weak indicators about what a student can really do to solve “unscripted” problems—the kinds of problems that are most important both in the economy and in civil society.

So, we’re in the midst of much-needed change.  But this is not the right time to jump off the old credit hour boat and assume 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 need to build broad and compelling agreement on what 21st-century markers of student accomplishment actually look like.  And, soberingly, that work is still in draft form.


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