Most university students are required to take at least one lab class during their four undergraduate years, but for students pursuing STEM degrees, labs are a routine engagement every semester.
As a senior biology student, labs are nothing new. However, after nearly four years of taking lab classes, I’m still asking the same question: Why are labs only worth one credit?
For most science courses (e.g., physics, biology, chemistry), labs are taken at the same time as a lecture on the same topic. For example, at UCCS, General Chemistry I is worth four credits and is taken at the same time as the corresponding lab, which is worth one credit. The pair is then worth a total of five credits.
Some labs are set up to be mandatorily taken in parallel with the lecture course, which is most common. However, other labs at UCCS are structured so that they could be taken during a different semester or at a different time than the lecture, if necessary. For these labs, the coursework, syllabus and meeting times are separate from corresponding lectures.
The one-credit lab is a nationwide concept implemented at most universities in the U.S. “Credit hours refer to the number of hours you spend in a classroom per week,” according to an article by CollegeRaptor. While course credits are slightly more involved than this, the idea is that hours in a classroom are reflected in the credit earned for a course.
This semester, I am taking two lab classes: a human anatomy lab concurrently with the lecture and an organic chemistry lab for which I already took the lecture in an earlier semester. (I am taking the lab and lecture asynchronously as result of COVID-19 related disruptions.)
Taking the organic chemistry lab course on its own this semester — a lab that is worth just one credit — has accentuated the fact that labs really should be worth more than one credit hour.
I would like to clarify that I have no concerns about the amount of work or time required for labs, as I enjoy them thoroughly; I just feel that students should
be earn ing more than one course credit for these classes.
For organic chemistry, there is a lab period which is scheduled for two and half hours and one lab lecture which is one hour and 15 minutes each week. Granted, these lab class periods don’t always fill the scheduled time, and we do not have the lab lecture every week, but there is still around 2-3 hours spent in a classroom during a typical week.
Outside of class, there is pre-lab work that involves reviewing lab techniques, writing out safety information, writing out a procedure and completing a quiz. After the lab period, we complete a post-lab, which involves calculations, analysis and a written discussion.
During a busier week, I spend over eight hours on this one lab class.
However, not all labs require this much time during the week inside the lab/classroom or out.
For human anatomy, we are in the lab for approximately two hours and 30 minutes per week. Time outside of the lab is put toward weekly quizzes and learning content for practicals that occur every three weeks. While this lab usually requires less time during the week than my chemistry lab, one could argue that it should still be “worth” more than one course credit.
The coursework for lecture courses bleeds into lab classes, so the one additional hour for labs could be justified in this way. However, there is still a significant amount of additional work required beyond the course credit for a three or four credit lecture and the one-hour lab.
I could even make the point that some online humanities classes, for example, require maybe a reading or one discussion post per week — sometimes even less, from personal experience — and are worth three credit hours. No negativity intended toward those kinds of classes, but comparing their three credits to labs that require a whole lot more work for one credit hour just doesn’t add up.
The course credits offered for labs, especially upper division lab courses, should be reevaluated and adjusted to reflect the time and efforts of students both in and outside the classroom.