Course Credit in America: Practices of a U.S. College
Gerald Siegel, Ph.D.
Professor of English, York College of Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Visiting Professor, Spring 2010, FON University, Skopje, Macedonia
The credit system at many American colleges and universities, including my home institution, York College of Pennsylvania, while it resembles in some ways the transferable credit models being developed in Europe under the Bologna Process, is longstanding and distinct from recent European developments. The system described here reflects York’s practices and represents the most common U.S. model, used by institutions with an academic year of two semesters (although many such schools also offer additional summer and special sessions). The credit system can vary for institutions using what is called a quarter system, in which students complete three terms annually with fewer courses per term. The description here applies to undergraduate courses.
The basis of the credit system is the semester hour, a measure of scheduled classroom hours. A class which meets for 3 academic hours each week of the semester (usually 13-15 weeks long) would receive 3 “semester hours” of credit—in other words, 3 credits. An academic hour at York College is 50 minutes long, and most daytime classes meet three times weekly for an hour or twice weekly for 1.5 hours.
Most classes receive 3 credits; some requiring more time, such as laboratory courses in the sciences, may receive 4 credits, while others, such as applied music lessons or physical education, get 0.5 or 1. Some specialized offerings (e.g., internships, practica, and student teaching) may be calculated on a different basis. Where a year or more of study may be needed for a particular subject, the student simply takes a series of one-semester courses which are in sequence because all but the first have prerequisites. For example, Spanish II can be taken only after one has either passed or demonstrated the abilities of Spanish I, and so on for Spanish III and IV. (In the case of foreign languages, completion of a certain number of courses in the language during secondary school is most often the reason for placement at a particular level.)
This credit system does not take into account course difficulty or the amount of time required from students outside of class. The difficulty level is usually shown by the course number, which begins with 100’s and goes up to 400’s. (Higher numbers than these usually designate graduate courses.) For example, SPN101 would designate a beginning Spanish courses, while LIT313 designates an advanced literature course (in the English Literary Studies program). In general, professors expect 2-3 hours preparation by students (usually in advance) for each hour of class; the higher the course number, the greater the amount of out-of-class work expected.
A typical student workload for a given course then might typically involve 9-12 hours per week. Actual class hours, however, tend to be lower than in a Macedonian institution, typically 5-6 courses (15-18 semester hours of credit) per week for each semester.
Graduation after completing the degree depends not upon the years spent at York, but upon the credits earned, and some of those credits may have been transferred to York from other institutions. As a minimum, York College requires 124 credits passed and a grade point average of 2.0 (on a 4-point scale) for graduation. The credits must be distributed in a certain manner, and individual departments and majors may impose their own course, distribution, and grade point average requirements, so not everyone qualifies by simply meeting those minimums.
Simply being scheduled for a course is only the start, naturally, since each student must pass the course successfully. That means different things to different professors, but in general involves both formative (in-course) and summative (course-end) assessment. While theoretically a professor could simply lecture and then give a course-end examination or require a single course-end research paper, I have never met an American professor who did this, and anyone who did would likely be advised strongly to change his or her procedures. Some will count a number activities, such as class attendance and participation, essays and/or research papers, talks, service projects, quizzes, and periodic tests; others (a decreasing minority) prefer to use simply a midterm examination and a final examination.
The assessment measures used and the weight of each item depend entirely upon the professor (although his or her chairperson may discuss those measures with the professor, especially if the evaluation method seems extreme and student evaluations of the course have raised questions). While assessment techniques would require a separate discussion, a few comments about examinations may be useful. First, there is no institutional requirement that a professor give any examination, and some don’t; there is a one-week examination period each semester, however, and professors are expected to use this time in a meaningful way. If there is an examination, it is an integral part of the course and typically determines 50% or less of the grade. Second, the assessment procedures for the course need to be made clear to the students on the syllabus at the start of the course. And finally, once the examination, if any, has been given, and the exam week has ended, there is no retaking of the examination at a later time in order to pass the course. (Students who do poorly may choose to re-take the entire course in an attempt to earn a higher grade, and the highest grade earned counts.)
Once a student has completed and received credit for a course, that course normally will be accepted by another institution. The most common reason for a student to do this is his or her having been accepted by and transferred to another institution. For example, a student from the York area may have begun his studies at a university in a different state and found that the costs of living away from home were too high to afford. If he transfers permanently to York College, most or all of his credits will transfer to York College (subject to certain conditions). A student may also decide to study at another school for a limited period of time, but to remain officially a student at her home institution. Examples include “semester abroad” programs or summer courses taken near home by a student whose family residence is away from York. In such cases, she would obtain advance permission (and perhaps even assistance) to take the course, and again the credits would transfer back to York.
In the highly decentralized American higher education system, the decision about whether to accept specific credits for transfer rests with the student’s home institution. For most credit transfers, both schools must be regionally accredited institutions: that is, approved by one of several groups that on a 10-year timetable visit schools and assess institutional quality. In addition, transfer credits are typically only accepted if the student has earned a grade of “C” (or “2” on a 4-point scale), and only the credits transfer, not the actual grade. At York, for example, the Admissions Office (sometimes in consultation with department chairs) makes the decisions about acceptance and about how those credits will be applied to the student’s academic program.
For many courses, schools have similar coverage and requirements. Thus, for example, a three-credit course in “American Literature I” usually transfers directly as our “LIT281 American Literature to 1885” and fits directly into a number of programs just as if the course were taken at York. However, we don’t teach Macedonian in our department, so a course in Macedonian language might be transferred simply as “Elective Foreign Language.” Some courses, while clearly appropriate for a school like York, might not fit any of our departments or programs; a course in “Antarctic Exploration Internship” might be transferred simply as “Free Elective.” Finally, some courses that are irrelevant to York’s goals and mission would not get transfer credit at all; a course from a 2-year technical institute in “Woodworking Shop” would be likely to fall into this category.
What about courses from Macedonia? The traditional courses of the past would probably be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and applicants might be asked to supply a course syllabus and possibly a catalog description (the same sort of requests that might be made of a U.S. student who submitted a course unfamiliar to the Admissions personnel). However, the use of transferable credits by European institutions in the coming years should help this process.
Transferred credits, whatever the source, don’t necessarily affect the specific requirements for a degree or major (academic program); those requirements must still be met, and I have served as an adviser for many transfer students who bring with them simply a number of elective credits of different sorts that are simply extras that don’t advance them in their programs. Nevertheless, in general, the use of the credit system and the transferability of those credits provide flexibility for students in the U.S.