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Why Vassar chose ‘units’ over credit hours

By Danielle Gensburg

Guest Reporter

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Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vassar College veers away from many of its peer institutions in the awarding of academic credit by using the “course unit” to measure academic course credit rather than the credit hour. In order to fulfill the requirements of a bachelor’s degree, Vassar students are required to complete a minimum of 34 units of class work, which translates into approximately 120 semester hours of credit in a more traditional system. As a general rule, one-semester courses are worth one unit of credit, and courses taken for half of the semester, classes that meet less regularly than most classes and a few other exceptions—such as classes offered through the Athletics and Physical Education Department and Department of Dance—earn the student a half unit of credit. For courses that run for the entire academic year, the College awards students two credits, conferring one credit per semester. Some accelerated courses, such as intensive language classes, also prove to be an exception to the general rule and receive one and a half units per semester. This system—which in its most basic form allots one unit of credit per semester course, regardless of difficulty, hours in class and subject matter­­­­—makes Vassar relatively unique in its credit system.

According to Registrar Dan Giannini, “The rationale behind such a system is to try to send the message that all courses are equal in worth and that one shouldn’t try to distinguish between courses based on time spent in or out of class.” Giannini noted that Vassar used to measure courses based on a credit hour system tied loosely to contact hours of professors, but changed to the current course unit system in 1969 because most faculty members felt that each course “should be thought of as a full and equal experience.” Ultimately, the purpose of such a system is to send the message about curriculum that one area of the academic curriculum is worth no more than another. At Vassar, all courses, regardless of concentration, subject matter or department, are equal in intellectual value.

Before coming to Vassar in 2008, Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette was an associate dean and a professor of music at Grinnell College. Grinnell College, operating in a system similar to that of many colleges and universities, bases course credit on the number of hours that a course meets as well as its difficulty. Chenette said, “To recognize that different courses have different loads, to capture nuances of workload in precise measures of units, is futile.” In fact, when it comes to credit hours per course, Chenette believes comparisons are ultimately relative. Courses are perceived differently in terms of difficulty depending on the opinions and experiences of individual students and faculty members. According to Chenette, “Who’s to say that someone spending additional hours in a lab is working harder than someone spending three hours in an English seminar, with many books to read and papers to write? When you credit most courses with one unit, you treat them as being essentially equal, even though workloads can vary considerably.”

Regardless of these egalitarian ideas, Vassar’s system is not without its dissenters. Recently, there has been significant discussion in both the Vassar Student Association (VSA) and the Committee on Curricular Policies (CCP) concerning the allotment of course credit to lab sciences and varsity athletics—an extra half credit in the case of lab sciences and a half-unit physical education credit for varsity athletes. Giannini, commenting on the issue, said, “Whether there should be additional credit for lab courses or for other activities such as varsity athletics is partly the reason that Vassar went to this one unit per course system, to reduce these types of disputes.”

Emil Ostrovski ’12, though not against the idea of allowing course credit for varsity athletics, asked, “Once we start giving credit for extracurriculars, where do we draw the line? Will it stop at varsity athletics or, better yet, should it?” By permitting students to receive credit for their varsity athletics, even if only half a credit, some argue that it may prompt individuals involved in other extracurricular activities, such as The Miscellany News or the VSA, to consider obtaining credit for their own time commitments.

In agreement with Giannini, Ostrovski expressed his approval of Vassar’s one-unit-per-course system: “I think a one-credit system that leaves room for a few exceptions is the most sensible way to approach credit for courses. The rationale behind it is the most straightforward. All academic disciplines are equal, and each course can potentially contribute as much to our intellectual development as any other course.” According to Giannini, this is a real concern in that when courses are evaluated based on perceived difficulty, subject matter or number of hours, there are problems that arise concerning how much credit variation should be allotted between courses.

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