Editorial: Tufts must reassess credit distribution to reflect goals of SHU system

by Annabel Nied

In June 2018, Tufts moved away from its traditional “1 class = 1 credit” credit-hour system, implementing a new system involving a more nuanced version of class units, known as semester-hour units or SHUs. It aims to allow easier credit transfer between institutions and a fairer allocation of credit by assigning courses one to five SHUs based on weekly time spent in class and out-of-class homework. While this is an improvement from the previous system, clear issues remain, for it often fails to achieve its goal of holistically and accurately assigning credit to courses. In order to authentically reflect this important and positive intention of the SHU system, Tufts must reevaluate SHU distribution based on instruction time, out-of-class work and course difficulty. 

Tufts claims that SHU values accurately reflect class time as well as time spent working outside class; however, often this is not the case. Many SMFA courses run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break, and they require an approximately one and a half hour round-trip between the SMFA and the Medford/Somerville campuses. In addition, SMFA students must do much of their work outside class, which often requires another commute to the SMFA during the weekend. Despite this extreme time commitment, SMFA courses are only worth four SHUs. In comparison, General Genetics is also worth four SHUs but only consists of two and a half hours of instruction per week. While the difficulty of Genetics perhaps warrants four credits, there is no question that SMFA courses deserve a higher SHU count based on Tufts’ own criteria, given the greater in-class time requirement paired with the additional commute and out-of-class work. 

Many Medford/Somerville classes follow this trend as well, often pertaining to three SHU courses; the university assigns most courses three SHUs despite clear differences between these classes’ time commitments. Tufts asserts that three SHU courses on average give six hours of outside-class work per week, but courses often exceed this limit. Television History, for example, requires students to attend weekly screenings, which last four or five hours per week  depending on the section students register for, and it also assigns mandatory readings due every class. While screenings and readings may amount to six hours of work per week, the overall out-of-class workload amounts to much more when studying for the course’s exams, three-to-five page essay and quiz are considered. In comparison, Introduction to Psychology also counts for three credits, but it only assigns two textbook chapters of reading on a weekly basis, which some students reported as taking around two hours of outside class work per week. When the course’s research requirement, exams and paper are factored in, a weekly workload may amount to around six hours per week, which is reasonable considering Tufts’ SHU distribution guidelines. The contrast between Television History and Introduction to Psychology highlights a clear problem across many three SHU courses: there is a severe range of workloads among these courses, and using Tufts’ criteria, many deserve a higher SHU count.

Tufts must also consider course difficulty in order to holistically assign SHUs, specifically pertaining to high-level and advanced courses. While introduction-level classes often reach four SHUs due to mandatory recitations, many required upper-level seminars receive only three SHUs, despite often being more challenging and requiring significant effort to understand the complex subject material.

Senior Henri Schmidt commented on his experiences with an upper-level Computer Science course, which was much more difficult than its 3 SHU label indicated. 

“I think the SHUs are poorly allocated. I took a [Computer Science] class, Graph Theory, that was three SHUs, and it was so hard,” Schmidt said. 

This idea transfers to other advanced courses, such as Calculus III. This class meets for almost three and a half hours per week, assigns homework due each lecture and covers advanced topics, including the divergence theorem, line integrals and Stokes’ theorem; however, it also is only worth three SHUs. These courses’ levels of difficulty lack any connection to their given number of SHUs, illustrating Tufts’ failure to accurately assign credits.

“Some classes need to be weighted higher than they are,” Schmidt remarked. 

Ultimately, this problem directly affects student mental health and the ability to meet the 120 SHU graduation requirement. If classes take up much more time and effort than their SHU amounts indicate, students must take more classes and burden themselves with a heavy workload to meet the graduation requirement. In fact, many students with schedules of only three SHU courses must enroll in five classes just to reach 15 SHUs, which is the average number of units per semester needed to graduate. This type of highly rigorous course load can overwhelm students, leading to much stress and placing more value on simply “getting through” classes rather than cultivating critical-thinking skills, harboring intellectual curiosity and developing new passions. 

Tufts must engage in a comprehensive reassessment of its SHU distribution across courses in order to address these issues and reflect the original goal of the SHU credit-hour system — to holistically and accurately represent a course’s workload in its assigned number of SHUs. By doing so, Tufts will not only champion values of student quality of life, fairness and respect for its student body but also follow through on its own claims towards the accurate assessment of SHUs. It is about time Tufts lives up to its promises and gives students the credits they deserve. 


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