What is a credit hour?

When I first looked at the major and minor course requirements at Colby I recall wondering “exactly what is a credit-hour?” Truth is, I still don’t know. At Colby, each class is assigned a number of credit hours, which generally are taken to indicate the amount of time or the workload that the course demands. As far as I can tell, this explanation is about all any student knows about the system. Personal experience (and a quick Google search) tells me that this definition is neither accurate nor is it consistent across colleges. Wikipedia suggest that “A course credit (often credit hour, or just credit or ‘unit’) is a unit that gives weight to the value, level or time requirements of an academic course taken at a school or other educational institution,” which is pretty much my understanding too.

However, Wikipedia goes on to say that most credits are based on “contact hours” and suggests that three credit hours per class, representing three contact-hours per week throughout the semester, is standard for college and university credits. Anecdotally, I receive three or four credit hours per class, my brother receives six, and a good friend two or three. We all go to similar institutions in the United States, so I have a hard time imagining that this discrepancy can be explained by a difference in our contact hours and workload. Even if we just look at Colby, the system seems very inconsistent. Most of my science classes without lab meet three times a week for 50 minutes and are three credit-hours. This fits with the standard fairly well. But how about my humanities classes, almost all of which have met two times per week for 75 minutes? These two classes typically require a similar time commitment outside of class, and both meet for two and a half hours a week. Despite this, all of my humanities classes of this type have been four credit-hours.

This is odd, but even stranger is the credit allocation for lab sciences. These classes often have the same three 50 minute lectures, a three hour lab, and sometimes another 50 minute discussion session. This brings the number of weekly time to six hours and 20 minutes, and yet these classes are still four credit -hours, without taking into account that (subjectively) these are typically courses that are more demanding outside of class time as well. Consistency would suggest that these classes receive at least five, if not six, credit-hours per semester. Additionally, since Colby does not charge per-credit for classes, there is little reason why credit allocation should not be based on the number of contact-hours for the course. So how does Colby allocate credit? Even after some thought, I’m no closer to a sufficient answer. The one consolation for those in the natural sciences is that since these (subjectively) more difficult courses do not receive more credit, they carry similar (or even less) weight in a GPA calculation as their counterparts in other fields.

Leave a Reply