Duke must respond to discrepancies in course credit assignment for time-intensive lab classes, often in natural sciences, that meet for four or more hours per week compared to a lecture-only course. Duke should assign 0.5 or 0.25 credits to lab sections to recognize the additional time these courses take up. When the lab is focused on technical skills or experiment design—not concepts closely integrated with lecture material—the standalone lab course, graded independently of the full-credit course, is also a good idea. This practice, already implemented for several chemistry lab courses, should be extended to other courses as necessary.
Currently, a student doubling up on lab courses would likely feel overextended because of up to a whopping 10 additional hours of in-class lab time. That is a huge time commitment—above and beyond that of students who take no lab courses—which works out to, on average, two additional hours per day of class. Crediting an additional 0.5 credits for both courses, for a total of one full credit per semester, means that the student can forego a fourth full-credit class, lessening his or her academic burden considerably. Effective learning prioritizes quality over quantity, and numerous uncredited class hours decrease both the well-being and educational experience of a student.
But assigning credits should not become a complicated calculation weighing in-class time, out-of-class time, intensity and scale of thinking, and so forth. Duke has smartly adopted the policy of offering a single credit for the vast majority of its courses as opposed to, say, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which offers one-, two-, three-, and four-credit hour courses. When it comes to incremental differences in time spent in class, differentiation between courses is unproductive—especially when one considers that number of contact hours does not always correspond to the degree of learning. But, for mental and physical health, students required to attend class for a high number of additional hours—four or more hours above than an average class—should be cut some slack.
We do have some cautionary notes. First, Duke should limit the number of half-credit or quarter-credit lab credits that count toward the total 34 credits required to graduate. Currently, Duke has such limits in place for partial-credit physical education, performance and house courses. A similar limit should be considered for lab courses to ensure students still obtain a reasonable breadth of knowledge before they graduate.
Second, since tuition for summer courses is charged per credit, students taking lab courses over the summer will experience an increased financial burden. Duke should be prepared to provide commensurate aid with this increase in expense.
Third, assigning more credits to lab courses can create behavioral changes in Duke’s GPA-fixated academic culture. Already, time-intensive lab courses are perceived to be relatively difficult, leading science students to take apparently easier courses to compensate for potential hits to their GPA. Weighting these lab courses more heavily could exacerbate this practice, which would have pernicious effects for Duke’s weak intellectual culture.
Correcting discrepancies in course credits for lab courses would improve the lives of science students, acknowledging the hours they spend in class and helping them maintain a balanced academic life.