Give students some credits

Unreasonable workloads for students are in part driven by offering fewer credits for more work.

Cassandra Sundaram

With spring semester speeding along and summer quickly approaching, many students have already begun to plan for next year’s classes. Wading through the murkiness that is the registration queue is a tricky, sticky task to say the least. When you throw in the added gooeyness of meeting credit load requirements for graduation in 4 years, the mire becomes even more mired. And the stress that registration incurs may be due to unrealistic credit loads. How often have you felt like the number of credits you take doesn’t accurately reflect the work you put in for a class?

The associate dean for the College of Science and Engineering, Paul Strykowski, admitted it was possible that credit loads for a particular class could be dropped while course material remains the same but clarified it could go both ways. Kai Takatsuka, an adviser in CSE, gave an example: “The chemistry department has been working to get its upper-level labs to go from two credits to three, four or five to more accurately reflect the amount of time spent completing the coursework.” Takatsuka did not know of any other departments where credits changed but coursework didn’t, but he thought it was possible, “especially if the program was feeling pressure to lessen the amount of credits required for students to graduate but wasn’t sure what material to give up.”

The College of Biological Sciences has also recognized specific courses in its curriculum in need of credit changes; CBS recently changed their BIOL 2002 class (a requirement for all CBS students) from five credits to six, acknowledging the hefty workload students put in outside of class. But this change came only last year, which makes me wonder what other courses are out there that require more effort than the number of credits would suggest.

Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, explained the nature of the “three hours of outside work per credit per week” policy set forth by the University — first adopted in 1922, by the way — and noted that disagreements may be present: “Our expectation in this office is that faculty will follow [the policy]. We hear anecdotally that sometimes workloads are higher — we never hear if they’re lower. In terms of the amount of work outside classes, I think the rules are pretty clear. Now, the fact that some faculty doesn’t follow them doesn’t surprise anybody … I think the vast majority of our faculty are very mindful of workloads on students.”

A workload expectations policy document given to me by Suzanne Bardouche, assistant vice provost and chief of staff for the Office of Undergraduate Education, states that “all proposals for undergraduate courses must include a student workload statement demonstrating how the course conforms to the student workload expectations. College and campus curriculum committees and other approving bodies must consider the student workload statement in reaching a decision on whether to approve a proposed course.”

The policy also makes note of exceptions to the workload standard: “Demands on the student in excess of the average three hours per credit per week are permissible with college approval and with appropriate notification to the student of the amount of work expected for the course.”

Student workload statements should be publicly accessible and available for evaluation by students who have taken the class. Instructors working in similar disciplines or in sequences of coursework could collaborate and agree upon a standard of workload requirements so that the amount of work we do for the credits we’ve chosen to take is both realistic and reasonable and is made certain to be of proper value in our higher education experience.

Takatsuka was refreshingly candid about workloads on students in science and engineering, as well as the reality of these students graduating in four years: “I generally do think that an engineering course worth three to four credits could be significantly more work than courses in other disciplines worth the same amount of credits. I do think most majors can be finished in four years, but it means lots of hard work and little room for electives. This is not in any way to discredit the work that students do in other majors, but I think the engineering majors within our college are uniquely challenging, and our students have to find ways to balance those time challenges in particular.” An adviser within CBS, Chad Ellsworth, seemed to agree with the perhaps unreasonable pressure for students in science and engineering to get out in four years: “I never say it’s easy. It’s hard.”

Advisers and college officials need to be realistic about the difficulty of fulfilling all requirements and having unique college experiences in a strict four-year time frame. For many majors within CSE and throughout the University, classes must be taken in a particular sequence; if a student gets behind in taking one class, their time to graduation is jeopardized. Study abroad, double majors and exploration of other courses or internship opportunities outside their field can make graduating in four years an impractical goal for science and engineering students, no matter how well-founded it may be.

Graduating in four years is important, but it is imperative that the learning we do here be done in a way that serves the students — not the University. Any attempt to find loopholes in providing quality education, whether it be through unrealistic credit loads or four-year plans is frankly lazy and unacceptable for one of the nation’s top research universities. The University of Minnesota is responsible for its students and should have our best interests at the top of its priorities.

 

Cassandra Sundaram welcomes comments at [email protected].