A recent headline in Fast Company got my attention. It read –

Credit for Actually Learning – Not Time in Class – Is Shaking Up Higher Education

I like it when books or articles affirm Glasser’s view. The idea of “credit for actually learning” was an important part of his vision for school improvement. In his book, Every Student Can Succeed (2000), Glasser introduced the Competency-Based Classroom and described in detail how students can be supported to success. He believed that students need to demonstrate competence to receive credit. Simply sitting in the classroom and doing little to learn the material was not good enough.

The Fast Company article can be accessed by clicking on HERE, however the article’s second headline and first two paragraphs that follow will give you a feel for its focus.

Competency-based learning is the new hot trend, but no one is quite sure how to replace the credit hour.

The credit hour is the standard way of measuring achievement in U.S. higher education. It’s the unit students have to accumulate before they can graduate. It’s used in assessments of how much to pay faculty. It’s an organizing force on campus and in relations between institutions. It’s a currency that everyone understands—but also something that an increasing number of people criticize. Are students really learning or time-serving? Does making everyone learn at the same pace hold back students who could learn more quickly, and does the credit hour-system raise costs unnecessarily?

In its place, a growing number of institutions are developing courses based on “competency”—or what students actually learn—rather than the number of hours they put in. Competency-based education (CBE) is a hot topic among policy-makers, foundations, and colleges because it has the potential to lower costs, broaden access to education, and perhaps raise standards. But, as two new reports point out, CBE isn’t a perfect solution. In some cases, it may be more expensive than the traditional model, and, importantly, it’s still unclear what could replace the credit hour as a universal unit.


It felt to me that one of the first waves to shake higher education, at least in terms of the credit hour policy, was the wave of high school and academy students wanting transfer credit for various classes and life experiences they were claiming. This was especially true of non-traditional or home school students. The second wave, more like a tsunami really, has to do with the effect of the Internet and online learning. More and more students are taking advantage of cyberspace learning, rather than face-to-face, in the classroom interactions with an instructor.

The Internet reality has most higher education institutions jumping on the digital learning bandwagon, and as a result they are focusing more on what students need to know or be able to do to receive credit. The implications of this kind of focus are spilling over into traditional, Carnegie unit classrooms, too. While a comparatively few universities and colleges do seem glad to pursue this new model of learning, most higher ed institutions are reluctant to consider it at all. If they do begin to get involved they are more likely to enter the “actual learning vs. the credit hour” discussion kicking and screaming, rather than having any real excitement over the potential of a new approach. Still, though, it is good they are getting involved. Their involvement may look about as positive and comfortable as a cat getting a bath, but the end result will be better learning and a clean cat.


Glasser’s reasons for emphasizing competency-based learning were different than higher ed’s reasons today. His reasons went deeper, as he recognized the importance to an individual’s mental health to be involved in quality pursuits and to ultimately create quality products, be it at home, at work, or at school. It is need-satisfying to learn relevant material and then to produce quality assignments. Students need to learn that their efforts matter and that they can accomplish what they put their minds to. The Internet existed in 2000 when Glasser wrote Every Student Can Succeed, although online learning had not yet started to explode. The Internet didn’t exist in 1990 when he wrote The Quality School and explained that only when students achieved competence would a grade be recorded in the transcript.


The wave of online learning is only going to grow, which means that traditional formats, including the credit hour policy, will continue to be tweaked and changed. For those of us who are teachers it would be good to give Every Student Can Succeed another read, as regardless of the level at which we teach – elementary, secondary, or higher ed – the implications of the “actual learning vs. credit hour policies” will have an impact on our instruction and assessment.



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William Glasser: Champion of Choice

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