Looking at the Credit Hour

Perspectives: In The News
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Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning. In the early 1900s, Andrew Carnegie, troubled that professors made too little to save for retirement, created a free pension system, administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In order for colleges to participate in the program, they had to adopt a standard unit for admissions, which was based on a system used at the high-school level that measured time spent on a subject. But colleges didn't stop there. Carnegie's pension system spurred them to convert their course offerings into time-based units to determine faculty workload thresholds to qualify for the free pensions. And so the credit hour, which has become the fundamental building block of courses and degree programs in higher education, was born. Unfortunately, it has also become the primary proxy for learning. The Carnegie Foundation did not intend for this to happen. It made that quite clear in its 1906 annual report, when it specified that in the counting of units, "the fundamental criterion was the amount of time spent on a subject, not the results attained." Just last month, over 100 years later, Carnegie not only reiterated this point, but announced an effort to rethink its unit completely: "The Carnegie Foundation now believes it is time to consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges, and universities." The article is in The Chronicle of Higher Education.


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