I was asked recently to provide advice on ways to reduce faculty teaching load without increasing instructional costs. Often this type of request originates from institutions that want to provide faculty with increased opportunities for scholarship and service without incurring additional cost.
Among the numerous ways for reducing faculty course load responsibility without increasing instructional costs include two approaches: Adopting 4-credit hour course programs and focusing on student credit production rather than course credit generation. For our purpose here, I will present the two approaches and briefly consider associated implications.
4-Credit Hour Courses
When I served as Dean at a northeast private college, an effort to modify workload across academic programs resulted in one School adopting 4-credit hour courses only for all programs. Since the teaching load for faculty was 24 course credit hours annually, the change resulted in faculty teaching preps reduced from 8 to 6 annually. The switch necessitated curriculum modification. For instance, the total number of required and elective credit hours offered had to be consistent with program guidelines, in this instance, approximately 40-50 credits. Accordingly, select courses were eliminated and key content from these courses was included in new and revised courses. In addition, the new curriculum had to match with the existing cadre of faculty and their areas of expertise. Without these changes there would not have been sufficient faculty to teach the number of required and elective courses. Appointing more faculty would necessarily undermine the goal of not increasing costs.
The move to a 4-credit hour course curriculum generated a renewed emphasis on the management of classroom scheduling. Since 4-credit hour courses occupy more calendar time, care was taken to ensure the new schedule matched closely with the available classroom space. The change was offset in complexity since there were fewer courses in the curriculum being offered. I should note here that academic programs in this School included many 4-credit hour courses prior to the change, thus, making the move less dramatic than might be the case for programs not offering as many 4-credit courses.
The change also impacted programs and students in other Schools. As noted, the change from 3-credit hour courses to 4-credit hour courses required a reduction in the number of program courses offered. The elimination of courses (not necessarily content) impacted non-majors’ access to required and elective courses. Careful review was necessary to ensure that all students’ educational needs were met. In some instances, requirements and electives for non-majors were altered to address the change. In addition, course scheduling became more complicated for students in other programs. Care was taken to ensure students could navigate the new and more complex schedule brought about by the revised curriculum.
Student Credit Hour Generation
Moving in another direction, focusing on student credit hour generation versus faculty course credit hour production can also result in lowering course assignments. Assuming agreement can be reached on a baseline for the number of student credit hours generated per faculty and/or per academic programs, larger course enrollments can be adopted that reduce the number of courses assigned per faculty. I know of instances in which program faculty rotate in and out of larger enrollment courses to meet student credit hour expectations and progress toward degree completion, thereby accommodating faculty preferences, including scholarship, service, and personal needs.
For many institutions this approach is a significant departure from the way faculty workload is assessed. Moreover, adopting this approach often necessitates increased program-level autonomy, that is, programs exercise authority to determine the manner and method to meet student credit hour production. For instance, rather than expecting that all faculty should teach a given number of courses (e.g., 3/3 per term) and produce a set number of student credit hours, programs may adopt a more flexible model whereby faculty load and credit hour production vary from term to term, year to year in a manner the best fits circumstance. In effect, the approach represents a decentralization of command and control over this aspect of faculty performance.
Institutions considering pursuing such an approach must take care to identify and determine which programs are best able to proceed. It may be that not all programs are equally capable or prepared to manage the increased authority. Evidence indicates that establishing adoption criteria, which may be both program and institutional, is key to ensure fairness. As always, the best process for doing so includes strong faculty input.
Benefits of Both Approaches
An encouraging benefit of pursuing both approaches is that faculty reconsider and explore teaching methods, course structure, and the use of instructional technology to achieve student-learning goals and to ensure program success. Another benefit is that institutions considering such change must engage in a well-planned process of institution-wide engagement to increase awareness and ensure success. Irrespective of the plan by which workload is addressed, a faculty-and staff-centric approach is essential whereby stakeholders invest in the discovery, proposal, and implementation of change.
Before concluding, it is important here to note that beyond the two approaches described in the present essay there are other alternative methods for accomplishing the goal of reducing faculty teaching without necessarily increasing costs. For instance, a careful study of the number of courses/sections offered during an academic year along with an analysis of the actual enrollment may yield opportunities to reduce the number of courses offered without sacrificing student degree completion progress, and thereby increasing faculty teaching flexibility. A potential negative consequence of the approach can be that a net reduction in the number of courses offered can result in some faculty not making load in a given term. A remedy to such a problem could be to focus on student credit hours rather than course credits.
In this essay I have briefly outlined two basic approaches for reducing faculty course workload without increasing instructional costs. Not without its own challenges, adopting a 4-credit hour course curriculum seems for most to operate within existing parameters of institutional governance. Focusing on student credit hour production and moving toward increased academic program autonomy often represents a greater leap from existing standard operating procedures. However, doing so can produce a laudable increased sense of self-determination among faculty and programs.
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