The Evolution of Credit and Clock Hours

Credit hours and clock hours. You know we use these systems to track students’ progression through their certificate and degree programs, but do you know why we do that and why there are two different systems to choose from? Upon first glance, they look as though they’d represent the same unit of measurement – one hour –  just calculated differently. But that’s actually not the case. That discovery led us to explore the history of both systems and why a school might use one instead of the other. The story is quite interesting. Let’s dive in.

Credit & Clock Hours Used To Be The Same

In the 1850s students taking part in traditional higher education were trained in many of the same subjects using a fairly rigid, prescribed curriculum. But in 1869, Charles Eliot’s implementation of the elective system at Harvard during his Presidency introduced the first major break in the traditional system. His introduction of a variety of courses gave the curriculum greater breadth and flexibility and provided opportunity for individual choice. But such a change also marked the need for a quantification of the education process so that students’ progress along various paths toward a degree could be assessed. So he elected to use time spent in class as the unit of measurement. 

Expansion of Public Education

Additionally during the late 1800s, secondary and postsecondary education spread widely across the country. With an influx of students, a demand for university curricula to appeal to a broader pool of prospective students emerged. Through this demand came a proliferation of courses and curricula as well as more student mobility (students transferring to other institutions, for example), which created an even bigger need for a quantitative standard of measuring educational progress. 

With the spread of quantitative measurement, college admission boards adopted quantitative assessment techniques as a way to assess student qualification for attending college. Accrediting agencies also chose quantitative measurement as the standard for assessing program rigor. 

Problems With Clock Hours

A wide adoption of the hour as a measurement of educational accomplishment and institutional operations created a neat and rigid system for tracking progression and outcomes. Ironically, this went against Eliot’s initial intentions. He wanted to provide flexibility and opportunity for personal choice by measuring learning quantitatively, but quantitative measurements ended up creating a uniform system that stifled education.

In fact, criticisms arose that using credit hours framed the accomplishment of earning a degree for students as a collection of hours they spent in class, and not necessarily if they learned the material. A college degree, in some peoples’ view, became a symbol of status and didn’t reflect authentically educated individuals. 

The biggest criticism, however, was that the unit of time, rather than a unit of competence, did not properly represent the learning process. Time and knowledge attainment were not necessarily related. This notion was highlighted in subjects such as applied sciences, which required time in labs and clinical environments conducting experiments. In those programs, for example, credit hours did not include the time that students had to spend outside of the classroom preparing for experiments beforehand and completing lengthy written reflection afterwards. Credit hours did not convey a good expression of classroom contact hours, or student and faculty effort. The additional hours went unreported since the one hour equals one credit assumption was still maintained. 

In addition, instructor output was also misrepresented. Studies done as early as the 1930s have discovered that there is no significant relationship between the credits carried by a course and the amount of time required of an instructor in teaching it. Rations of total hours contact time to student credit hours produced ranged from 1:2.9 to 1:5.5 in one study, and from 1:2.2 to 1:7.7 in another. The correlation between contact hours and course credit was incredibly low, highlighting the flaws of the quantitative measurement.

Emergence Of Credit Units

The remedy to these issues resulted in very similar practices to what modern institutions utilize today. There was a shift to measures of competence, rather than accumulation of hours. Today, accrediting bodies evaluate programs and assign credit units to each that more accurately reflect the workload associated with them, which include examinations throughout the programs. And depending on the area of study in pursuit, each program has their own number of required credits to earn a degree. By developing units more relevant to the kinds of activities being measured, more meaningful assessments of student learning, faculty effort, program outputs, and institutional productivity are possible.

Credit Hour, Clock Hour, Or Both?

Now you know the origins of the credit and clock hour systems and how they became the standard for institutions across the country to measure student progression. It’s an interesting story that highlights the difficulty of simply and accurately monitoring the rigor of various programs colleges offer and fairly awarding degrees and certificates to students. With the backstory in mind, are you aware of which system your institution uses? 

James N. Heffernan. The Credibility of the Credit Hour: The History, Use, and Shortcomings of the Credit System.

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