Semester Credit Hours/Contact Hours: Demystifying the Confusion in traditional face-to-face, online and blended learning

by Nuchelle L. Chance

Although there has been concern on the validity of the use of the credit hour in assessing student learning this model has been the standard of American colleges and universities since the late 19th, early 20th century. The Carnegie Classification Unit for student credit hours allows institutions of higher learning a standardized method for of assessing a student’s educational attainment. Student credit hours are essentially the currency of higher education in the US that students attain while working towards a degree or certificate at an institution of higher learning.

This system is based on student credit hours whether inside of or outside of the classroom and has been in place to ensure course and program rigor, evaluation, and accreditation success. The calculation for college course credits in U.S. higher education require that for every-one college credit earned there is 15 hours of instruction/contact hours and 2-3 additional hours of coursework.

Traditional colleges such as Fort Hays State University operate on the academic year that consists of two 16-week semesters such as the Fall and Spring that usually have a one-week break leaving 15 weeks of coursework. The university also offer Summer Sessions of 4 or 8 weeks and Intersession which is an intensive 3-week Winter term. Courses offered during the Fall, Spring or Summer can range from 1-4 credits and Intersession courses range from 1-3 credit courses. As such, the calculations for expected coursework hours per credit are detailed below. Keep in mind these are suggestions to assist faculty ensure students are getting proper instruction and an adequate learning experience allowing.

For the traditional 15-16 week course the calculation is as follows:

1 credit = 1 hour of instruction-contact/week + 2 additional hours/week = 3 hrs/credit

Traditional Fall or Spring Semester – Suggested
Course Credit Instructional-Contact Hours Additional Hours Total hourly expectation of coursework per week Total hourly expectation over 15-16-week course
1 credit course 1 Instructional-Contact hours/week 2 additional hours/week 3 hours of coursework/week

45-48

hours of coursework

2 credit course 2 Instructional-Contact hours/week 4 additional hours/week 6 hours of coursework/week

90-96

hours of coursework

3 credit course 3 Instructional-Contact hours/week 6 additional hours/week 9 hours of coursework/week 135-144 hours of coursework
4 credit course 4 Instructional-Contact hours/week 8 additional hours/week 12 hours of coursework/week 180-192 hours of coursework

In the case where the term is not a traditional 15-16-week semester the hourly expectation of coursework will change. For instance, an intersession is an expedited 3-week session; however, the rigor and coursework of a 3-week course should mirror that of a traditional course such that the student completes as close to the 135 hours of coursework as possible.

Intersession – Suggested
Course Credit Instructional-Contact Hours Additional Hours Total hourly expectation of coursework per week Total hourly expectation over 3-week course
1 credit course 5-6 Instructional-Contact hours/week 10-11 additional hours/week 15-16 hours of coursework/week

45-48

hours of coursework

2 credit course 10-11 Instructional-Contact hours/week 20-22 additional hours/week 30-32 hours of coursework/week

90-96

hours of coursework

3 credit course 15-16 Instructional-Contact hours/week 30-33 additional hours/week 45-48 hours of coursework/week 135-144 hours of coursework

The same is true of 4 or 8 week Summer Sessions.

Summer Sessions – Suggested
Course Credit Instructional-Contact Hours Additional Hours Total hourly expectation of coursework per week Total hourly expectation over 4-week course
1 credit course 3-4 Instructional-Contact hours/week 6-8 additional hours/week 11-12 hours of coursework/week

45-48

hours of coursework

2 credit course 7-8 Instructional-Contact hours/week 14-16 additional hours/week 22-24 hours of coursework/week

90-96

hours of coursework

3 credit course 10-12 Instructional-Contact hours/week 23-26 additional hours/week 33-36 hours of coursework/week 135-144 hours of coursework
4 credit course 15-16 Instructional-Contact hours/week 30-33 additional hours/week 45-48 hours of coursework/week 180-192 hours of coursework
Course Credit Instructional-Contact Hours Additional Hours Total hourly expectation of coursework per week Total hourly expectation over 8-week course
1 credit course 1-2 Instructional-Contact hours/week 4-6 additional hours/week 5-6 or hours of coursework/week

45-48

hours of coursework

2 credit course 3-4 Instructional-Contact hours/week 6-8 additional hours/week 11-12 hours of coursework/week

90-96

hours of coursework

3 credit course 5-6 Instructional-Contact hours/week 10-12 additional hours/week 16-18 hours of coursework/week 135-144 hours of coursework
4 credit course 7-8 Instructional-Contact hours/week 14-16 additional hours/week 22-24 hours of coursework/week 180-192 hours of coursework

In a traditional face-to-face class or synchronous learning session, the breakdown of Instructional-Contact hours from additional hours is easy to identify. In the Carnegie system a contact or instructional hour refers to a 50-minute class or session. For instance, a Monday/Wednesday/Friday class offered from 8:30 am-9:20 am in a Fall session would yield 45 Synchronous, instructional-contact hours over the term. Activities during this time include lectures, discussions, in-class assignments, tests and exams and so on. The student is then expected to work on activities related to the course for an additional 90 hours over the course of the term which is 6 hours per week. Additional activities on the other hand can include reading, homework, studying and exam preparation, writing papers, field or lab work and other unsupervised and asynchronous activities.

The question then remains, “How do we measure credit hours in online/virtual courses?” Along with the notion that the learning objectives for these types of courses should mirror traditional courses; the amount and rigor of the work in an online class should be the same as well. In online courses calculations for credit hours will include synchronous and asynchronous lectures and discussions, reading, writing assignments, student-peer engagement, examinations/tests, group assignments, projects, and so on. Educators and scholars agree that an online or blended course can offer the same learning benefits as a traditional face-to-face learning modality. As such, online students should be expected to invest the same number of clock hours in a course even though they won’t have the seat time of instructional contact hours. In an effort to verbalize these expectations it is further suggested that faculty include this information on the syllabus of their courses.

Overall, the purpose of this article is to promote the best practice of faculty expectations of student participation and effort. As long as learning objectives are met regardless of the modality of course presentation learning and subject mastery can be evaluated.

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