Jacob Garber: Reconsider the credit hour system

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Jacob Garber

Nineteenth century philanthropist Andrew Carnegie created a system in the early 1900s for professors to easily keep track of their pensions. The system had nothing to do with learning, but quickly evolved into a method for quantifying student work and classroom hours.

In December, the Carnegie Foundation received a $460,000 research grant to investigate how to base the credit hour system on student learning rather than the amount of time they spend in class.

The traditional model still exists across the country, including at GW, where students take five courses worth three credits each. But a switch to a four-by-four credit system, where students take four classes, would free up classroom space and allow professors more time to research.

Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman told me in an email that credit hours are not used to assess learning.

“It does not necessarily dictate the amount of class time, but is reflective of the minimum amount of student work expected,” Maltzman said.

Under the four-by-four model, students would spend the same amount of time in each class. But because students would not have a fifth class to worry about, they would have more time to work outside of the classroom and become immersed in the material.

Campus has faced increasing concerns over a space crunch, both for academic and student life purposes. The Hatchet reported in March 2012 that construction and maintenance pushed professors out of 13 classrooms.

Since the average student would take fewer courses, spaces would open up to better accommodate the 400-plus student groups that hold meetings and events.

But having students take fewer classes would benefit professors as well. They would teach fewer courses under this model, leaving time for student-faculty research, a goal the University has outlined in its 10-year strategic plan.

Plus, in theory, it would encourage professors to spend more time preparing for classroom exercises and discussions since they wouldn’t be lecturing quite as much.

This proposal isn’t new. The faculty and administration have discussed the four-by-four model at least three times.

Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg proposed the move to the faculty senate in 1992, 2003 and 2007, and wary faculty rejected it each time.

The benefits of a four-by-four credit system outweigh the drawbacks.

Critics of the plan said that the policy would increase costs even though students would be in class less. But in 2007, when Trachtenberg argued in favor of the plan, he cited a school report which claimed the four-by-four system would save the University five to 10 million dollars annually, according to a Hatchet article from February 2007.

Trachtenberg believes it was the faculty’s fear of breaking tradition that led them to reject his four by four proposal.

“The primary issue is not ‘can it be done.’ The primary issue is ‘are we capable, are we welcoming of change,’ ” he told me in an interview.

Maltzman said change is possible.

“I do not think there is anything magical sticking with the credit status quo,” he told me.

Nothing holds GW to the three-by-five credit hour system. The system is rooted only in tradition, and to leave it unchallenged is to turn a blind eye to a potentially meaningful change.

Jacob Garber, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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