As you know, the Carnegie Unit—and its collegiate equivalent, the “student hour”—are among such standards. Like it or not—and, of course, many do not like it—the “student hour” is a key measure of “attainment” in American universities and colleges.
I tried to locate a clear statement of this standard. Here’s a useful bit from an October 4, 2011, memo from the Chief Academic Officer of the CSU (Ephraim P. Smith) to CSU presidents. Responding to recent stirrings at WASC (the accreditors), the memo seeks to define the “credit hour.”
As you know, the typical course receives three credits or units. The typical full-time student takes 4 or 5 courses per semester (12 to 15 units/credits):
...Effective immediately, for all CSU degree programs and courses bearing academic credit, the “credit hour” is defined as “the amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than:I cite this, in part, because it may shed light on the notion and origins of the “50-minute hour.”
1. one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit, or ten to twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; [My emphasis] or
2. at least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution, including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.”
As in the past, a credit hour is assumed to be a 50-minute (not 60-minute) period. In courses, such as those offered online, in which “seat time” does not apply, a credit hour may be measured by an equivalent amount of work, as demonstrated by student achievement. WASC shall require its accredited institutions to comply with this definition of the credit hour; and it shall review periodically the application of this credit-hour policy across the institution, to ensure that credit hour assignments are accurate, reliable, appropriate to degree level, and that they conform to commonly accepted practices in higher education.
INCIDENTALLY, OUR SYSTEM IS FRAUDULENT. I cite this also because I want to remind readers (as I do occasionally) how deeply fraudulent our system of higher education has been allowed to become. According to the above standard, a student in, say, a typical college course should attend lecture for three hours per week and should study “a minimum of” six hours per week.
So, if a kid is taking four courses (many take five), that’s 12 hours in the classroom and at least 24 hours of homework per week—according to the official standard (supposedly assumed by WASC/ACCJC).
That’s 36 hours minimum. 45 hours minimum for students with 5 classes.
A lot of these kids are working.
And they have a social life.
Do the math.
AND YET— In America, examinations were once king. It's true! In Brief History of American Credit System, John Harris quotes John S. Brubacher and Willis Rudy, authors of Higher Education in Transition:
The principal method of testing student achievement in the early colonial college took the form of a public exhibition. On this occasion the president and tutors, together with the governing board and such gentlemen of liberal education as might be interested, constituted a sort of court or board of examiners. On one such occasion Ezra Stiles of Yale noted as many as twenty taking part. Students were called up singly and each examined orally. This display of learning made quite a public appeal and remained popular till well into the nineteenth century.At about the turn of the century, reliance on examinations was soon replaced with reliance on the Carnegie unit system, though the CUs were never intended for the purpose of measuring student attainment, something the Carnegie people are the first to acknowledge.
. . .
By the middle of the nineteenth century the public exhibition was rapidly giving way to the practice of written examinations. The obvious advantage which this form held over the oral consisted in having all examinees react to the same set of questions. The college missed the public advertisement of the exhibition, but in its place it could boast of much greater equity in the results of its testing. But even written examinations were not without their critics. The critics, however, were not so much the advocates of the public exhibition as the defenders of the recitation [i.e., daily Socratic questioning; see below]. The daily recitation with carefully recorded grades was an examination itself, they thought, and, when grades were averaged, more unerring in its results than those given only annually or even semiannually. Proponents of the written, longer term examination pointed out in reply that reliance on the daily recitation caused the student to study subjects piecemeal, thereby losing the over-all grasp of material engendered by the newer examining procedure. President Eliot had a criticism too, but his was constructive and one to be pressed frequently in the twentieth century. He thought it a mistake to join the teaching and examining function in the same person because, while such a practice might provide a measure of the learning done, it afforded no satisfactory measure of teaching. [See below for an explanation of the "recitation" method.]
No matter, that's how we measure it today. And it's ridiculous.
I do think there's an important benefit to the "college experience"—the traditional four-year course of study at an actual place with actual classrooms, instructors, and whatnot. Testing shouldn't be everything. But I also think that the (default) victory in the U.S. of the unit counters over the examiners (and recitationists, I guess) is and continues to be very unfortunate.
I think it helps explain how it can have occurred that, now, so many undereducated ignorami run around with college degrees, including "advanced" degrees.
They're in charge of accreditation, you know. And much else. They fill the ranks of administration.
Lord help us all.
THE "RECITATION" METHOD EXPLAINED. Brubacher and Rudy (p. 86) explain that, during colonial times,
• Carnegie, the Founder of the Credit-Hour, Seeks Its Makeover (Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/5/12)
• Is college too easy? As study time falls, debate rises (Washington Post, 5/21/12)
Over the past half-century, the amount of time college students actually study — read, write and otherwise prepare for class — has dwindled from 24 hours a week to about 15, survey data show.
. . .
Tradition suggests that college students should invest two hours in study for every hour of classes. The reality — that students miss that goal by half — emerged from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a research tool for colleges that examines the modern student in unprecedented detail.
. . .
The finding has led some critics to question whether college is delivering on its core mission: student learning. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa identified lax study as a key failing of academia in their 2011 report “Academically Adrift,” which found that 36 percent of students made no significant gains in critical-thinking skills in college. Arum’s own research found that students study only 12 hours a week….