Can the Carnegie Hour Support the Vocation of Student Learning?

The Carnegie hour is a unit of time that standardizes academic study across institutions. Established in 1906 as means to calculate retirement hours earned, Carnegie hours are now often required on syllabi. This way, students (and accreditation agencies) know how many “instructor-led” class hours to expect and how many “independent student learning” homework hours to schedule.

Educators have been critical of standardized measures of academic time since these hours were instituted. Even Carnegie has called for their revision. Others counter that they are so embedded in how higher education measures, well, everything—student learning, academic terms, job descriptions, full-time faculty employment (FTEs), TIAA retirement earnings, national accreditation assessments—that untangling higher education from this constructed 50-minute “hour” is practically impossible.

What Students Say

When I explain the Carnegie hour chart of required “independent student learning” hours in the syllabus, students laugh. When I mention Carnegie hours to faculty, they roll their eyes. Why? For students, these required “hours” are impossible, and for instructors, they are a lie. We know that students today do not have enough time. And now, after the pandemic, many still lack the bandwidth and the skills to complete them.

The impossibility of complying with Carnegie hours lies in the student independent learning hours. For every hour of instructor-led class, Carnegie requires instructors to assign two hours of independent student homework. In the life of a 20-year-old student with family responsibilities, two jobs and a 45-minutes commute to campus each way, this amount of homework is only possible if they do not sleep. So, I am spending more time teaching my students, because my students have less time for independent learning.

Carnegie Hours and Independent Student Learning

Here is the Carnegie hour “independent student learning” calculation common at my university. To receive financial aid, students must carry a minimum load of 12 credit hours (about three courses). This minimum load equals 36 hours per week, plus six hours of commuting for a three-day class schedule or eight hours of commuting for STEM students who have an additional lab day. Thus, students commit to 42-50 hours per week for a minimum load that will not allow them to graduate in four years on a two-semester schedule. However, few students take a minimum load. Most students enroll in 15-16 credit hours (between four and six courses) plus six hours of commuting for a total of 51-54 hours per week. They also typically work 15-20 hours in a part-time job. These students, then, have 66-74 hours of work/study each week before athletics, clubs, internships, friendships, or tutoring hours. In other words, college students today face seven, ten-hour days each week for a 15-week semester. If they want to cut hours from their commute (and reduce many first-generation family responsibilities) by living on campus, then they often add 15-20 more work hours to pay for the dorm and the meal plan.

We wonder why students are disengaged in the classroom, not sleeping, or skipping our class to attend another instructor’s office hours or to meet with advisers. Students today quite literally do not have time in their schedules to accomplish the Carnegie “independent student learning” hours that we call “homework.”

The Pandemic Effect on Student Learning

Since the pandemic, we have an additional problem. Student cognitive investment does not achieve the same learning outcomes as before the pandemic. The qualitative discrepancy is most apparent across my introductory courses when I compare student-learning assessments (exams and final grades) from 2022-23 with any semester before the pandemic hit in 2020. More students missed more class time (“instructor led” learning) in 2022-23. Although students reported studying the same number of homework hours in 2022-23 as before the pandemic, their learning capacity and assessments have dropped significantly. Without more formal data analyses, here are my preliminary observations:

Observation 1: Limited Cognitive Capacity during Instructor-Led Learning

Students, especially first-year students, are less present in the classroom. More students are skipping class, and some “ghost” for weeks at a time. Students who do come to class are often reluctant to engage. They fear saying the wrong thing when discussions of gender, race, religion, and politics can quickly grow hostile. Many students regularly wear ear buds; they report that listening to low-volume music helps them focus in class. Others constantly sketch or play games on their phones, again, to help them focus. I allow it. These behaviors seem to be adaptations from months or years of virtual learning during the pandemic. Students are trying to manage their social anxiety, depression, and wandering minds.

Observation 2: Skill Deficits in Independent Student Learning

Students have trouble processing questions. Even written prompts that have successfully elicited demonstrations of critical thinking and analysis in prior classes are now falling flat. Doing basic comparisons between cases or applying a method, definition, or conceptual frame to reading material can prove difficult for many first-year students. When I speak with them during drop-in office hours about their exams, they say that they did not know how to write an exam essay even though we prepared one step-by-step in class. First-year students are not demonstrating the basic academic skills for independent learning that similar students had mastered a decade ago, or even four years ago, before the pandemic. Could Carnegie hours help address this problem?

Students Learning Vocation in Real (Carnegie Hour) Time

If Carnegie units of academic time are fundamental to defining a baccalaureate degree, then they must serve the vocation of student learning. So, how can we structure academic units of time

  1. to support student independent learning, given the current demands on student time;
  2. to lower student anxiety, improve cognitive focus, and develop lost social skills; and
  3. to address the deficit in academic skills that students need for independent learning?

In a February report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano and Karin Fischer describe different assignments that instructors are developing to assist in the existential work that students need to do to learn. For example, given that stable social networks support learning, Deborah Sims assigns social time for her students. “My goal,” she says, “was to produce an opportunity for socializing that would be connected to the classroom but not happening in the classroom.” Supiano and Fischer summarize the result:

It worked. In a survey Sims sent out, students reported liking the exercise and finding it productive. Some indicated personal benefits she hadn’t anticipated, like getting practice for a career in which speaking with strangers would be an important skill. [. . .] Students seemed on the ball on what was happening in class, Sims says—an indication that they were taking their questions and confusion to one another, and not bringing it all to her.

Beckie Supiano and Karin Fischer, “Connecting in the Classroom and Beyond,” The Chronicle of Higher Education

Sims’s experiment started me thinking. What if I reallocate Carnegie homework hours to support the vocation of student learning? My assignment would invite first-year students to choose how to allocate their required independent learning hours. The choices would include activities that restore cognitive function, build social relationships, and support self-awareness in learning, such as physical activity, movies with friends, walks in nature, and sleep. Students would reflect on these choices in learning journals using goal setting as well as experimentation with and assessment of new study skills.

Perhaps requisite Carnegie hours can serve the vocation of student learning.

I will share more in my next post.

Julia Lambert Fogg is Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University. Her most recent book,  Finding Jesus at the Border: Opening Our Hearts to the Stories of Our Immigrant Neighbors, was published in 2020 by Baker-Brazos Press. Julia was an invited speaker at the NetVUE gathering held at the 2021 AAR meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on religion and justice issues in the undergraduate classroom. For more posts by Julia, click here.

2 thoughts on “Can the Carnegie Hour Support the Vocation of Student Learning?

  1. Thank you for sharing these reflections and concrete tactics for meeting our students where they are in their wholeness. Insightful and practical.

    • Hi Krista–so happy to hear from you. Please let me know if you try or have tried any of these. I know you are an innovative pedagogue and I always learn from you!

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