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Editorial: Creating course credit for labs

An article in Wednesday’s Herald reopened a perennial debate about the definition and value of courses on campus. Currently, all courses are credited equally (except for .5 credits for some music groups and lessons) regardless of hours of class time or the inclusion of a section or laboratory. Such a system treats all disciplines equally, and gives students the opportunity to make their own choices about their schedules. But students who take many lab courses often spend several extra hours per week on laboratories for which they receive no additional credit. We should consider altering the system such that students in high-demand laboratory courses have the opportunity to receive additional credit for their labs.

On one hand, the ability of students to craft their own schedules is one of the hallmarks of the Brown curriculum. Students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields can frontload lab courses early in their Brown careers to have more freedom later on or stagger them with a more gradual approach. Further, not all laboratory courses are equally time-consuming; four-hour chemistry labs are draining and require pre-lab sessions and preparation for lab quizzes, while some biology courses have less frequent labs that may only last two hours. Similarly, while several large lecture courses have breakout sessions, they can greatly vary in workload. The status quo also enables students to use the Satisfactory/No Credit option to take a less time-consuming course S/NC alongside one or more intensive lab courses. If a mandatory change were instituted, students might lose some freedom over designing the best path for themselves, a move that would be contrary to the spirit of the New Curriculum.

However, the current model creates needless scheduling snafus. Laboratory sessions are connected to the lecture section unless one fails the exam portion of the course, in which case they can retain their laboratory grade. At other institutions, students are able to take the lab portion separately, so they can take an organic chemistry lab section in a different semester than a difficult organic chemistry course. This is particularly necessary at Brown, where Organic Chemistry I and II are each available only one semester per year. Students should have the ability to separate the laboratory portion from the lecture portion of their classes, particularly because the laboratory material rarely is tested in exams anyway.

Ultimately, students should be able to receive additional course credit for their laboratory performance, but only if it does not prevent them from taking an additional fifth class. Students sometimes may audit or take S/NC a course in an enjoyable subject matter to supplement a challenging semester, and we would not support any change that would prevent them from doing so. Labs will remain a part of traditional introductory science courses as long as they remain required for medical school and other health professions — but Brown can do more to assist students by making their options more flexible. Mandatory laboratory sections can be time-consuming or cumbersome, sometimes essentially an additional course, and students should receive credit for this time spent. But any change should ensure that students are able to retain their scheduling flexibility.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to


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