Monday, August 22, 2011

Credit in Education

I have been thinking about higher education as a spontaneous order for an upcoming colloquium on that topic. One of the things I have been thinking about is the nature of the "currency" in the educational order. In science we have reputation, in democracy we have votes, and in economics we have, of course, money. What is it in education that would be equivalent? The knee-jerk reaction would of course be that it is "grades." But this isn't true. Schools aren't graded, and grades do not transfer directly. No, the currency of education is "credit." You can sign up for a 1 or 3 or even 5 credit course, and the grades are distributed by credit. It is more important to have an A in your 5 credit cell biology and lab course than your 1 credit intro. to chemistry lab. Further, colleges are "accredited." They, too, receive credit -- though theirs is typically from a central accrediting authority in the state the college is in.

Of course, the analogy of credits to other forms of currency, particularly money, is not perfect. In colleges, the credit transfer is one way -- from teacher to student. The same is true of accreditation -- from the accreditation board to the college. These credits are not transferable from person to person, but only from college to college -- thus they are really institutional. When you graduate, nobody cares about the number of credits you have, only that you have a degree and what major and minor you had. Of course, it is the credits which "purchase" the degree -- and the major and the minor.

Once we understand the nature of the currency of education as credit, we can begin to suggest ways of reforming higher education that would benefit students the most. I have discussed Arnold Kling's solution to credit and accreditation here. One of the benefits of outsourcing -- really, creating a new institution -- credits is that students would no longer seek out the "easy" professor, but would begin to seek out the best teacher. The best teachers would of course be those who can best communicate complicated or complex ideas in a way that students can best understand it. If professors were paid according to the number of students who showed up under this new way of getting credits, there would be an incentive to be a good teacher.

Now, there are those who would no doubt object that such a way of paying professors would encourage lots of English Composition classes, which everyone needs, and discourage those such as senior-level classes on epic literature in the 20th century. The solution is simple enough: to pay more per student for higher level courses than for lower level ones. There would still be a difference in pay, but in essence the professor would end up having to pay a little to offer a course he loves without being outright punished for it. Thus, we encourage professors to pick up the lower-level classes, but do not punish them for offering more advanced classes. And the students would be able to vote for who is the best professor with their dollars, while the new way of giving credits would discourage teachers from being too easy.

Of course, I don't think the outside creditor should be the only source. There should still be homework, etc. in classes. And that should count. The solution to that is for the grades to count if the student passes the creditor final test or essay. Thus, the credit is transformed into a grade. I would then further suggest that the grades be turned into credit themselves. For example, one could have a system where for a 3 credit course, an A gets you 3, a B gets you 2, a C gets you 1, a D gets you 0.5, and of course an F gets you 0 credits. This would alter the number of credits one gets, and make students have to take more classes in a field they have not done well in, thus increasing their knowledge (which is, after all, supposed to be the goal of education). So if you are supposed to have 9 hrs in a social studies area, and you got an A in all three 3 hr classes, you are good to go. But if you got a B in your classes, you would have to take 5 classes to reach the maximum hours. And if you got a C in your classes, you would have to take 9 classes. (Keeping in mind that mixed grades are more likely.) This, too, would encourage students to study harder to get higher grades. Again, this is in combination with Kling's idea for giving credits.

I think there is little doubt that these few changes would have significant consequences on higher education and the way it is done. And I think they would be mostly positive for education as a whole, particularly in helping students to actually achieve what education is supposed to be about: gaining knowledge. The goal for education should be gaining knowledge, not gaining credit. The latter should only be a means to facilitate the former.
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