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Why a "Unit System?"

(Fall 2008)

The decision to move from a familiar variable-credit system to a unit system was not made lightly. It takes a lot of work on the part of many to change systems, and it can be confusing to all members of the university community in the short-term. Still, we believe the short- and long-term benefits make it worth the effort. Here are some of the reasons we’re making this change:

The Primary Advantage

The most important consideration with any curriculum decision is the impact on students. The choice to move to a unit system that requires 35 units (34.29 units for current students) for graduation was made after careful weighing of the options and seeing the advantages such a system would create for Richmond students.

The primary advantage is found in the opportunity for increased focus and intensity in the learning experience under the new system. Though some of our peer universities use a pure four-course-per-semester/32-unit system, our decision to create a 35-unit requirement allows us to move well in this direction yet still maintain a Richmond liberal arts education. Under the current system, students frequently take five courses in a semester, sometimes even carrying additional one- or two-credit courses beyond those five. Under the new unit system, students will take four courses most, or even all, semesters across their four-year education.

Having fewer, more substantive courses will reduce fragmentation of time, allowing students to concentrate their attention on fewer courses. In addition, we believe this greater focus will reduce the tendency of some students to designate one of their courses as an “other course”—as in, a lower-priority course which receives reduced effort. In this way, we hope students will get more out of each course they take.

Curriculum Review and “Course Leveling”

During the past year, the faculty in the Schools of Arts & Sciences, Business, and Leadership Studies have reviewed literally every course across all departments, working to ensure that they are appropriately substantive for a unit system.

As part of the review and transition process, several important things have taken place; most importantly among them, there has been a leveling of courses. Courses that may have grown too demanding over time have now been re-centered, and courses that were perhaps inappropriately “light” have been altered to be more rigorous. Of course, different students will still experience any particular course differently (that is, a student with a natural ability in mathematics or the arts might find a given course in one of those areas more or less challenging). Still, faculty efforts to understand the expectations in various courses and to actively “even out” course expectations have created a clearer sense of what a “course” should be here at Richmond.

The committee report that inspired this “even-ing out” defined a standard course by requirements, stating: “the minimum time that the typical good student should need to spend on a course, if that course is sufficiently challenging and if that student is to achieve a high level of learning, should be an average of 10-14 hours per week.” This hour range includes all time students put into a course, including time in class, reading, working on papers, studying for exams, meeting in small groups, working on assignments, etc. Faculty have been working with this in mind as they have revised their courses, with some 4-credit courses reducing their expectations and some 3-credit courses expanding theirs.

Again, different students will experience each course differently. However, Richmond students are excellent students already performing at the highest levels and putting in considerable time on their courses. Frequently, they’re putting in that time across 5 or more courses. The shift to the unit system should help students most often focus their efforts on 4 rather than 5 courses.

Finally, faculty have also reviewed the requirements for their majors in light of the shift to units. Some programs have made adjustments (some slight, some significant), to better fit their major/minor/concentration requirements to a unit system. Currently declared majors will not be penalized by these changes. Department chairs will work with individual students in each major, minor, and concentration to help them complete requirements in a fair and agreeable manner. In addition, all current and future students will get the benefits of the revised courses, reshaped requirements, and new course offerings.

Administrative Reasons

In addition to the reasons more directly centered on the student-learning experience, there are other more “administrative” reasons for the change. Some may seem a little dull, but all create exciting opportunities for the future.

Course Management Issues
Managing course scheduling and enrollments will be easier and more effective under the unit system. The unit system is an important piece in a combination of enrollment management systems, and these combinations are being designed to improve student advising, ease degree auditing, and improve prediction of course demand. They should also make us better able to estimate and respond to the demand for particular courses, easing registration frustrations.

Resource Issues
Once we have completed the transition to the 35-unit requirement, students will be taking slightly fewer courses overall than they do under the present system. Consider this: If one class year of approximately 750 students takes one fewer course (with an average enrollment of 20) over their four years, 37 courses—or the equivalent of the teaching of roughly 7.5 faculty members—will be gained in staffing. Since students may be taking as many as 2-3 fewer courses on average, and this gain will eventually be made across all four class years, the staffing gains could be quite sizable, creating considerably more flexibility in the overall curriculum.

How will this flexibility be used?
There are lots of possibilities, and it’s likely we’ll make use of all of these and others. For instance, additional sections of needed courses could be offered in some departments; class sizes may be reduced where doing so could improve learning; opportunities for unique team-taught courses will open up; faculty might be granted release time to work with students on research projects or to take students on trips abroad; or important academic staff positions might be added.

Closing Thoughts

Finally, while the shift to a unit system means making some changes at Richmond, this shift is hardly unprecedented—or even unusual. The initial committee that proposed our pursuing a unit system found that 36 of the top 40 colleges in the U.S. News and World Report survey required that students take an average of 4 rather than 5 courses per term, many on unit systems like the one Richmond is adopting. Further, they found literally no institutions that have moved back from 4 courses per term to 5.

Ultimately, the reasons for us to make this change to our system are good ones. The change is the result of considerable deliberation, and it was ultimately voted on and approved by the undergraduate faculty. At most universities like ours, the faculty bear the responsibility for determining and administering the curriculum. The faculty at Richmond take this responsibility very seriously, always considering the traditions of the past, the complexities of the present, and the possibilities of the future. We believe this is a very positive change for Richmond, particularly for our students, and we have been working with diligence to get our curriculum ready for the change.