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Ethan Tobias '12: Time for credit

On more than one application for summer internships, I was asked to list the number of course credits I had completed in various subject matters. The question was startling, and on the online forms I was filling out, there was no room for me to explain.

All I could do was hope that when I wrote three credits in biological science, the person reading knew I meant three courses. While Brown's courses only carry a single credit (with a select few classes worth half a credit or two credits), many other institutions award three to six credits for their courses. In so doing, those universities can discriminate how much credit they award based on the number of hours a student would typically spend working each week. The more hours one works, the more credits one earns.

So how do Brown credits stack up against these much higher values? Well, on first thought, it should not really matter. Since Brown already acts as if any course is the equivalent of four credit hours, twelve credits elsewhere should be the same as three at Brown.

Not so fast — how can every class at Brown have the same value? The truth is that comparing courses is like comparing apples and oranges. For one person, two hundred pages of reading each week is a cinch, while for others it will mean hours upon hours in the basement of the SciLi. And while I was often in organic chemistry lab until the last minute, many of my peers had clocked out an hour or two earlier.

The truth is that no two students will have to spend the same amount of time each week working on the same class. Some students would breeze by with five or six courses, while others would have a full workload with just three or four.

Since courses at Brown offer such a diversity of types of work and assignments and since students differ a tremendous amount in their innate abilities, the university has decided to value each course equally as a single credit.  By valuing the courses this way, Brown sends a clear message that courses representing a wide array of disciplines from literary arts to computer science challenge students in many different ways as they explore the possibilities of the open curriculum.

However, not everyone is quite as acquainted with the way Brown rewards credit. Admissions officers at graduate schools, study abroad programs and internships, as well as future employers, will inevitably compare coursework completed at Brown to coursework completed by students at other universities. Since colleges typically reward three to six credits for a typical semester long course, Brown's use of a single credit system might create some disadvantage to an uninformed admissions officer. 

The potential for disaster is compounded by the fact that students may routinely "translate" their grades by multiplying by four in order to avoid confusion. This practice (and I have heard of people doing it) will hurt students who do not multiply their credits. While one student might write that she has completed four credits in chemistry, the application of a peer to the same program might say sixteen, leading to an unfair advantage.

This entire scenario can be avoided with a single quick fix that will have absolutely no negative effects on Brown academics. Instead of courses being worth one credit and students needing 30 to graduate, courses would be worth four credits and students would need 120 to graduate.

By making this one switch in the way the internal and external academic transcripts award credit, the University would clarify a potentially confusing point on the academic transcript without compromising its equal valuations of every course. In fact, it might even increase the boldness of Brown's current equal valuation of courses since in a four credit system it is easier to make the case that a course could have been valued otherwise but was not.

Multiplying course credits by four is not unprecedented. Just a few years ago, Brown arbitrarily multiplied the course code numbers by ten which presumably increased the possibilities in course listing. This small change simultaneously increased individual class prestige by raising seemingly introductory hundred level courses (where the phrase 101 comes from) to thousand level status ridding any doubt about their advanced nature.

Finally, administrators at other universities, study abroad programs and internships will have a standard metric through which to judge Brown students against everyone else.

There will be no doubt for someone looking at an internship application, who might wonder whether three credits in biology means three courses or just one. Without sacrificing any of the academic integrity of the open curriculum, this simple transformation will eradicate any ambiguity about how course credits correspond to credit hours.

Ethan Tobias '12 is a biology concentrator from New York. He can be reached at ethan_tobias@brown.ed


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