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Does Time Equal Learning?

Updated: May 10, 2023

As a college Dean, I would help schedule classes. And I found it fascinating that we use time, not necessarily subject complexity, as the primary factor in determining how long to schedule classes. More specifically, we use the Carnegie Unit here in America.

The number of units and credits is not the same everywhere, but the formula is routinely and universally applied. A certain number of hours equals a unit, a certain number of units equal a credit, and a certain number of credits results in a diploma or degree.

It continues to baffle me that in academia, we actually believe it takes the same amount of time to learn Shakespeare’s histories and neuroscience as it does accounting and spot welding.


And the individual’s aptitude, prior experience, existing knowledge base, or speed to task is rarely considered. It’s all about butts in seats, or what we educators more politely call “seat time.”

Well, the Carnegie unit was developed in 1906 for the sole purpose of calculating a professor’s pension. Yep, that’s it. It had nothing to do with learning. And it is now the nearly universal accounting unit for colleges and schools. It’s tethered to academic calendars, eligibility for financial aid, faculty workloads, and testing schedules. The main problem is, it promotes a false perception that time equals learning.

Very interestingly, in 1993, the Carnegie Foundation President called the Carnegie unit “obsolete.” And since then, we’ve experienced a proliferation of accessible, portable, and asynchronous learning, calling it further into question. And in 2015, the Carnegie Foundation themselves published a very thoughtful report in which they said about their own Carnegie unit, the following:

“After studying the Carnegie Unit’s relationship to today’s reforms, we have concluded that American education’s reliance on the Carnegie Unit is an impediment … Most notably, the federal government’s financial aid rules requiring colleges and universities to measure student progress using Carnegie Units are a barrier to the spread of flexible delivery models in higher education.”

And again, as recently as last month, the Carnegie Foundation President urged us to move away from the Carnegie Unit and toward a new currency of education based on meaningful skills and accomplishment.

Yet we still use it.

We know that some students learn faster than others. We know that some learners naturally pick up concepts more quickly. Every three-dimensional person is unique, learns in different ways, and at various speeds. Yet we still hold on to the factory model of education beholden to the bell schedule and the way we are reimbursed by our government.

I acknowledge that competency-based programs and skills-based assessments are still a little messy. Yet there is universal consensus that the skills revolution is happening right before our eyes, and teaching with whiteboards and sled desks temporarily bound by the Carnegie Unit is officially antiquated and obsolete.

Truly competency-based systems are coming. Perhaps faster than some may like. The question is simple: Will we blindly accept whatever new framework we are given? Or might we dig in our heels and fight against anything that challenges the status quo choosing obsolescence instead? Or shall we step forward collaboratively now and help define for ourselves the replacement structure to the credit-hour standard to ensure it remains student-centered and mission-driven?

Doesn’t seem like a hard choice, does it?

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