A somewhat-frequent student gripe is the seemingly weak correlation between number of units and class difficulty or time expectation.
However, according to Susan McConnell, professor of biology and co-chair of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), there is actually a surprisingly good correlation between the number of units a class is worth and the time students spend each week on that class.
But what exactly is a unit?
“The bulletin sets out that the average amount of time per unit is three hours; one hour in class and two hours outside of class,” said Kirsti Copeland, director of residentially based advising. “Of course, in practice the amount of time a student spends on a class varies from student to student, based on a student’s preparation and investment, and to a certain extent from class to class.”
Copeland further explained that the instructor of a given course determines the number of units for a course in consultation with others in his or her department.
“Some departments have a typical number of units for each class and instructors then gear the amount of work they assign to that unit load,” she said.
Sharon Palmer, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, recently conducted a study that looked at student reports of hours per week spent on work outside of class per unit of credit. These were based on end quarter evaluations, and the study was limited and preliminary.
“The overall average for all undergraduate courses was very close to the Registrar’s guideline of two hours per week outside of class per unit of credit,” Palmer stated in an email. “There was, of course, some variation between department or program averages, and considerable variation between individual class averages even within the same department. But overall there was much less discrepancy between units than anecdote would suggest.”
However, Copeland noted, “any advisor hears anecdotally that particular courses are more or less work than their allotted units.”
This year, ME 101, an engineering class that is notoriously one of the most time-intensive classes at Stanford, was upgraded from three units to four units. This process has no standard operating procedure however, and Copeland stated that there is no established frequency for the reevaluation of units.
“Units would be likely reevaluated if the faculty become aware that their course is radically more or less work than is expected per unit,” she said.
When asked about how this would impact the engineering department, Copeland answered, “From my perspective as an advisor, the more profound impact of raising the units in a particular course is encouraging students to take fewer courses in the quarter when they have that course, and therefore creating a more balanced and reasonable schedule.”
“In my personal experience, it is better to use the unit count as an initial suggested guideline and to work with each student individually to help him or her determine if what he or she has chosen for the quarter is a reasonable load,” Copeland said. “So with most students, I don’t have a conversation about the equity of units per se, rather what is appropriate for them in that quarter after they have reviewed the syllabi.”