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Policy - Credit Hour

Policy on the credit hour at UW-Madison, including definitions, guidance, and exclusions.


The Credit Hour

Policy Number


Responsible Office

Academic Planning and Institutional Research


University Policy


The U.S. Department of Education regulations include a federal definition of a credit hour. Institutions that seek to maintain Title IV (federal financial aid) eligibility are required to have policies and procedures “for properly implementing the credit hour regulatory requirements...” Compliance is subject to external review through the delegated authority of the university's regional accrediting agency (Higher Learning Commission) at the time of the comprehensive reaffirmation visit.

Institutional policy for what constitutes a credit hour must comply with the federal credit hour definition:

A credit hour is an amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that is an institutionally established equivalency that reasonably approximates not less than:
    1. One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester […], or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time; or
    2. At least an equivalent amount of work as required in paragraph (1) of this definition for other academic activities as established by the institution including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work leading to the award of credit hours.

The federal credit-hour definition alone is not sufficient to provide guidance for the full range of UW–Madison’s curricular offerings. Thus, this policy includes a broad policy statement and supporting guidance for how the policy applies to a range of modes of instruction and course delivery formats.


  1. Introduction and Context

    The UW–Madison credit-hour policy and the companion guidance are flexible enough to accommodate the full range of instructional formats we offer as a major research university. Formats include traditional face-to-face instruction, blended and flipped formats, and online/distance-delivered instruction. Formats range from traditional didactic formats with traditional lecture formats, seminars and discussions, labs, independent/directed study, practica, internships, clerkships, credit for students in supervised research, and other experiential instruction formats.

    The policy and guidance recognize that all for-credit instructional offerings at UW–Madison will have an instructor of record who meets the minimum qualification standards, who takes responsibility for the learning experience, and who has regular and substantive interaction with students, as appropriate for the course format and mode of delivery.

    Formats and modes of instruction are evolving and this credit-hour policy is intended to provide enough flexibility to serve the university as circumstances change and new formats emerge, while also providing sufficient structure to establish academic standards and communicate to all stakeholders how the credit-hour standards are met.

  2. UW–Madison Definition of Credit Hour – Policy Statement

    Generally, UW–Madison will follow the federal credit-hour definition: one hour (i.e., 50 minutes) of classroom or direct faculty/qualified instructor instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week for approximately 15 weeks, or the equivalent engagement over a different time period.

    Alternatively, a credit hour will be defined as the learning that takes place in at least 45 hours of learning activities, which include time in lectures or class meetings, in-person or online, laboratories, examinations, presentations, tutorials, preparation, reading, studying, hands-on experiences, and other learning activities; or a demonstration by the student of learning equivalent to that established as the expected product of such a period of study.

    In all cases, learning in for-credit courses is guided by a qualified instructor and includes regular and substantive student-instructor interaction.

  3. Guidance for Application of the Credit-Hour Policy

    1. The credit-hour assignment for a course is set at the time a course is approved through governance, and finally by the University Curriculum Committee. The credit-hour assignment is a feature of the course and is maintained across all offerings of the course. Course proposals will include information that supports approval of the assigned credit hours. As courses are delivered, departments and their instructors are expected to maintain the appropriate learning activities for students for the given number of credit hours.

    2. At UW–Madison instruction is scheduled during standard 15-week fall and spring semesters and in a summer term. Sessions of varying lengths are available in fall, spring and summer. The credit-hour policy accommodates instruction in all these semester, term, and session lengths.

    3. The 45-hour-per-credit standard conforms to the standard Carnegie unit of the federal definition that sets a credit hour as a course that meets weekly for a 50-minute period over a 15-week semester and expects two hours of student work outside of the classroom for every in-class hour.

    4. The 45-hour-per-credit standard is also flexible enough to be used with a standard 15-week semester offering or with sessions of a shorter length. For example, it allows a 1-credit course to be offered in as short a time as a week. It also provides a definition of a credit hour in cases where there is more student-instructor interaction and less out-of-classroom learning time than in the standard Carnegie unit definition.

    5. The 45-hour-per-credit standard is flexible enough to apply to all formats of instruction; it works for formats that are not tied to traditional “seat time” and do not readily fit within the traditional credit-hour definition. Such formats include flipped/blended instruction, online instruction, and other emerging modes of instruction. This credit-hour policy will be applied to independent/directed study, internships, coops, teaching practicum courses, clinical placements, clerkships, field courses, studio and lab courses, research study, and other kinds of for-credit experiential learning.

    6. In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Education issued the following definition of regular and substantive interaction. For purposes of this definition, substantive interaction is engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following:
      1. Providing direct instruction
      2. Assessing or providing feedback on a student's coursework;
      3. Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency;
      4. Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or
      5. Other instructional activities approved by the institution's or program's accrediting agency.

      An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors by, prior to the student's completion of a course or competency:

      1. Providing the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency; and
      2. Monitoring the student's academic engagement and success and ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.

      The requirement for regular and substantive student-instructor interaction sets a quality standard for UW–Madison instruction and recognizes the centrality of faculty and other qualified instructors in the student learning experience. The requirement for regular and substantive student-instructor interaction is a feature that is preserved across all formats of instruction; the way that requirement is met will differ across different course formats and modes of instruction. A traditionally formatted three-credit course will typically include three 50-minute class meetings of instructors and students weekly over the 15-week semester. In a blended or flipped course format, substantive interaction may take the form of instructor-guided problem solving or discussion formats. In addition, for online/distance courses the instructor uses technology and progressive disclosure of content to establish regular and substantive interaction. Independent/directed study, research, studio and performing art, internships, clinical placements, other workplace experiences, and other experiential learning will all have distinctive levels of regular and substantive instructor interaction consistent with higher education standards. There is no single comprehensive definition for regular and substantive student-instructor interaction.

    7. All courses are required to have stated learning outcomes or objectives. The learning outcomes are a feature of the course and are approved when the course is approved. Learning outcomes serve as a basis to determine if the amount of learning is consistent across different formats and modes of instruction. In relation to the credit-hour policy, a statement of what students will learn is necessary if credit is based on a demonstration by the student of learning equivalent to that established as the expected product of a period of study corresponding to a time-based credit-hour assignment.

    8. The credit-hour standard for the course, and the way that the credit-hour standard is achieved, are communicated to students as part of the course syllabus or equivalent documentation.

    9. Departments continue to be responsible for the consistent application of the credit hour, credit-hour policy, and for ensuring that a stated credit-hour standard is maintained as courses and instructors and mode of instruction or course formats change.
  4. Accountability and Federal Compliance

    Universities are subject to external review of their credit-hour policy, consistency with the federal credit hour definition, and how it is applied. For UW–Madison, the credit-hour policy and how it is applied will be reviewed in the context of the Higher Learning Commission review.

    Included is a review of the credit-hour policy and a scan of all course descriptions provided in the course catalog (at UW–Madison, the Guide) for alignment with the credit-hour policy. As part of the Higher Learning Commission federal compliance review, reviewers request syllabi from a sample of courses of their choosing to audit compliance, including checking that the credit-hour requirements are explained to students and that there is fidelity of the credit-hour standard across instructors and modes of instruction. This review is often part of evidence collecting for the criterion that instructional standards are maintained “wherever and however” instruction is offered.

    For detailed information, consult the Higher Learning Commission credit hour review.
  5. Exclusions - Correspondence Courses and Competency-Based Education

    UW–Madison does not currently have authorization from the Higher Learning Commission to offer some alternative forms of instruction that are not covered by this credit-hour policy.

    Excluded forms of instruction include correspondence courses and competency-based education. In this context, these forms of instruction have very specific definitions and criteria associated with them.

    Correspondence Courses: The requirement for regular and substantive instructor-student interaction is a key feature of instruction that distinguishes UW-Madison offerings from a form of instruction labeled correspondence courses. In keeping with federal regulation and Higher Learning Commission requirements, UW-Madison is not authorized to offer correspondence courses. Correspondence courses are defined as follows (34 CFR 600.2): “A course provided by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials, by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.”

    Competency-Based Education (CBE): CBE is an outcomes-based educational approach to earning a college degree or credential. Competencies are statements of what students can do as a result of their learning; competencies primarily emphasize what students can do, although they may include knowledge or understanding. Students engage in learning activities and progress by demonstrating competencies specified at the course or program level. CBE has two principal approaches, a course/credit-based approach, and a direct assessment approach. Unlike correspondence courses, CBE does involve regular and substantive instructor interaction. This credit-hour policy may be adaptable to CBE should UW-Madison seek authorization for this form of instruction in the future. See HLC Substantive Change: Academic Programs.

  6. Credit Limit Policy – Summer Term

    Students are limited to course enrollment equal to one credit per week of session with the exception of the eight-week general session. That session allows for nine credits over the eight-week period. The enrollment system does not allow students to enroll for more credits than their credit limit. In addition to the session credit limit, undergraduate students will be allowed to enroll in a maximum of 12 credits across the duration of the summer term.

Related UW–Madison Documents, Web Pages, or Other Resources

External References

Approval Authority

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

Policy Manager

Interim Director and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Institutional Research


Associate Director -- Michelle Young,, (608) 262-2143

Effective Date

Source: View policy UW-1011 in the UW-Madison Policy Library

Keywords:Credit Hour, Credit Hours, Federal Definition, Contact Hour, Contact Hours, Learning Outcomes, Hour, Instruction   Doc ID:110511
Owner:Karen M.Group:Academic Planning and Institutional Research
Created:2021-04-26 12:18 CSTUpdated:2022-11-15 14:50 CST
Sites:Academic Planning and Institutional Research
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