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Policy on the Credit Hour
A. Introduction and Context
The US Department of Education regulations (75 FR 66832) 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 our regional accrediting agency (Higher Learning Commission) at the time of the comprehensive reaffirmation visit (next in 2018-19).
Institutional policy for what constitutes a credit hour must comply with the federal credit hour definition (34 CFR 600.2):
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 document outlines a broad policy statement and supporting guidance for how the policy applies to a range of modes of instruction and course delivery formats.
The UW-Madison credit hour policy and the companion guidance is 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, seminar and discussions, labs, independent/directed study, practica, internships, clerkships, credit for student 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.
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 fifteen 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.
- 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.
- At UW-Madison instruction is scheduled during standard 15-week fall and spring semesters and in a summer term. Sessions of varying length are available in fall, spring and summer. The credit hour policy accommodates instruction in all of these semester, term and session lengths.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The credit hour standard for the course, and the way that the credit hour standard is achieved, is communicated to students as part of the course syllabus or equivalent documentation.
- 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.
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, scheduled in 2018-19.
The review will include 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 will 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 about the Higher Learning Commission credit hour review see: http://hlcommission.org/Policies/federal-compliance-program.html
UW-Madison does not currently have authorization by 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 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 http://hlcommission.org/Monitoring/competency-based-education-programs.html
Note: Credit by exam and credit for prior learning are not CBE because they are approaches of evaluation without any educational offering.
 Policy on Minimum Qualifications for Instructional Staff, adopted 2016, https://kb.wisc.edu/vesta/page.php?id=47764
 UW-Madison Plan for the Assessment of Student Learning, adopted 2015, https://assessment.provost.wisc.edu/institutional-plan-for-assessing-student-learning/
UW-Madison Credit Hour Policy (UAPC doc 2017.06.15.15)