Not-so-absolute units: Describe course work-load accurately so students can prepare

Units should honestly describe courses


Will Katcher/Collegian

By James Mazarakis, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

How many credits was your busiest semester worth?

For me, it was an 18-unit semester with few extracurriculars to note. Each class was worth every unit considering the level of rigor and homework that was assigned. But the easiest semester to date was 19 units – the only time I’ve taken six courses in one semester at the University of Massachusetts. How can that be?

According to one confusingly-written UMass webpage, one “credit hour” as it appears on SPIRE should represent three “academic hours” per week. So, if a student takes 15 “credit hours,” that would represent 45 “academic hours” a week — not including part-time jobs, which they note would take another 10 to 15 real-life hours. By that measurement, a student approaching the 21-unit ceiling in most departments would expect 63 hours of work a week.

In theory, those measurements are useful. But are they used accurately? After a few mid-semester surprises, I tend to be guarded about the workload that classes offer. It is better for me to estimate workload based on evidence like the syllabus, conversations with other students and mapping out meeting hours. Even then, though, it is hard to tell how much work the classes truly require until the middle of the semester, long after the grace period known as “add/drop.”

Part of the problem is adverse incentives. In cases where the course credits underestimate the amount of work involved, there is no incentive for academic departments to raise the units for the sake of accuracy. Doing that across the board would reduce the ability for students to fit the classes they need into their schedule and worse, the path to graduation could become more tenuous.

Of course, course credits often overestimate their worth. That can lead to students playing it safe – taking fewer classes than they might be able to take on for fear of pushing 18, 19 or 20 credits. Since professors often do take for granted the expectation of nine to 12 hours of work a week from each student, including class time, it becomes risky to overload your schedule.

However, professors will react to this reality differently. Some may recognize that students have a lot going on and will adapt according to what they are able to accomplish, which further enables students to course-cram. But others will ignore this, sticking to their expected nine to 12 hours a week. This inconsistency makes it a gamble to predict how much work a given semester might be during add/drop.

Another factor that affects the value of courses are general education requirements. Students at UMass are required to take four credits of classes in subjects like arts and literature, biological and physical sciences and diversity. As a result, any “gen-ed” worth its salt must be four credits — otherwise, you may experience an unfulfilled academic report. For example, I happen to have taken an arts and literature course worth three credits, but it’s worth nothing until I add a single unit, which would likely be accomplished with another three- or four-unit course. These requirements add to the confusion of unit value. Some gen-eds are worth four credits and keep students busy. Based on my experience, though, some are inflated to fulfill requirements rather than be an honest representation of work required.

It seems that honors courses and gen-eds with lab components dominate the majority of four-credit courses, so as students progress through the years, four-credit courses subside and they are inclined to take three-credit courses. To me, though, the classes themselves hardly change. On average, three-credit courses are not easier or harder than four-credit ones.

But you may ask, why nitpick on the value of a unit? After all, workload will always vary drastically from student to student, and students do have a responsibility to inspect the syllabi and make their own judgments. But the course registration process has been criticized as difficult, and on top of steering yourself into the seats you want, designing a balanced schedule can be a challenge. For students who work a job or commute to campus, it is critical for them to be able to judge whether they can take on more or less work.

Besides, it is not a lot to ask course schedulers to be transparent about how many hours a week students will be spending on their work, and if students are working more hours on average than expected, they should be properly awarded credit. Through honest valuing of credits, UMass can make the process of planning our course schedules more reasonable and fulfilling.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]