Senior Staff Writer
This semester, Davidson published its expectations for students’ workloads, defining them as “at least 48 total hours of academic work each week in a fifteen-week semester” for a four-course schedule. According to Registrar Angie Dewberry, these expectations are not new, but this is the first time they have been explicitly defined. They are published in the Academic Program and Policies of the 2015-16 College Catalog.
In addition to specifying specific numbers of hours that students are expected to devote to coursework, the definition also states that “students are typically expected to engage in academic activities outside of the scheduled time in class. Depending on the nature of the course, some meet for longer sessions in person, while others include more out of class work. The expectation is that regardless of the individual design of the course, each course has a total workload of at least twelve hours per week.”
The college needed to publish an official definition in order for its accreditation to be reaffirmed in 2017, the next time Davidson is set to be accredited.
The accreditation process, according to the U.S. Department of Education, assures the quality of higher education curricula. The college receives its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredits schools and colleges in the southeastern United States.
Davidson was first accredited by the association in 1917, and reaccreditation typically takes place every ten years. The 2017 reaffirmation of accreditation will mark the centennial anniversary of the college’s first accreditation by SACS. The accreditation process by SACS focuses on mission standards, governance, curriculum, and student learning. The organization also oversees peer schools such as Washington and Lee University and Furman University.
“As you probably know, other schools calculate the credit students receive for courses differently than Davidson does,” explained Shelley Rigger, Assistant Dean of Curriculum and political science professor. Many other institutions use hours or credit hours instead of course credits. “In order to be accredited as giving credit for the same amount of learning that other schools do, we need to provide a definition of a credit hour that aligns with the definitions others use. The definition we are providing is a description of what we already do,” Rigger continued.
The learning outcomes outlined on course syllabi are part of the new credit definition as well. Course credit is awarded after “successful completion” of these learning outcomes.
“Davidson is doing more sustained and substantial learning outcomes assessment as part of this reaccreditation,” English professor Shireen Campbell said. “Learning outcomes [are basically] what students should be able to do as a result of what they’ve learned. Often when students do badly on an assignment, it’s because they didn’t unders understand the level at which they needed to grasp and deploy what they have learned. So the learning outcomes appearing on syllabi now have always been what faculty expected from students, but these expectations weren’t articulated.”
The defined expectations are not likely to affect the faculty, since they just officially state what faculty members have been practicing. “Faculty will not change their expectations; the definition we’re giving to SACS is a description of our current practices, so no change is required,” Rigger said. “Believe me, no one tells Davidson faculty how much work to assign. That’s something faculty are very possessive about.”
Some students have reacted negatively to the newly defined worload hours, their concerns including having to choose between sufficiently fulfilling academic expectations, participating in extracurricular activities, and maintaining proper mental health.
“Having 36 hours a week to work outside of class seems absurd when the expectation to take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities exists and is seemingly bragged about by the administration,” said John Owens ‘18.
“That’s over 40 hours a week, which is what has been defined to keep a working person stable,” remarked Chase Conrad ‘18. “If everything that I was getting in my classes was the kind of stuff that was fulfilling my needs, then I think that would be good. But I also feel that I have so much more learning to do outside the classroom. President Quillen talked about taking autonomy in our education and pursuing those opportunities on our own time, which I am glad to do and have done. However, it wasn’t realistic for me, and I had to sacrifice my 40-plus hours a week doing on-campus work when I was doing learning out in the real world. I think that [the course load expectation] is limiting our education to books and the classroom.”
Counselor and psychologist John Brunelle commented on the effect of the course load on students’ mental health, explaining that if students spend a greater part of their time on one activity, it will disproportionately affect their mental health.
“I actually believe the twelve-hour per course per week standard is fairly good in theory, although I do find it interesting that we demand and expect more from adolescents than the average adult spends at a typical job,” Brunelle said. “Regardless, if the standard were held up in practice, I do believe Davidson students would have a reasonable enough time to have a balanced schedule that includes appropriate self-care.
In reality, I’m not entirely confident that the twelve hour per course per week standard is always the reality at Davidson. I believe the culture of Davidson really presses students and professors to push the boundaries of a proper and healthy courseload. A standard of excellence and academic rigor seems to be a more important standard to live by than a balanced, equitable schedule.”
Brunelle recognizes that students have many choices to make in regards to their on-campus involvement. He recommends creating a balanced schedule including eight to nine hours of sleep per night, exercise, time spent outdoors, and time for “social and emotional development.”
In his suggestions to students on handling academics and extracurricular activities, Brunelle said, “Students need to at times choose sleep over over-studying, choose one student organization and not three, choose learning and mastery and not grades.”