When looking at how credits are measured, you must take into account the type of academic calendar a university operates within. There are three main calendars: semester, trimester and quarter.
- Semester: An academic year divided into two fall and spring sessions, each lasting approximately 15 weeks.
- Trimester: An academic calendar year broken into three fall, winter and spring sessions that last 12 to 13 weeks.
- Quarter: An academic year divided into four sessions, typically 10 weeks each.
Since roughly 90% of colleges in the U.S. follow a semester academic calendar, let’s look at how credits work within a semester. The amount of learning time expected in one semester credit hour over the span of the term is defined by federal guidelines as approximately one “contact hour” of in-classroom learning per week, plus two hours of weekly work outside the classroom, which might take the form of studying, research or homework.
For a three-credit course, for instance, you can assume you’ll be spending three hours a week in the classroom and six hours a week working outside of the classroom. This means over the span of an approximately 15-week semester, one would spend about 135 hours of work inside and outside of the classroom to earn three semester credits.
Typically, in the traditional semester calendar format, students take four or more courses at the same time to be considered a full-time student for that term.
However, some schools, like University of Phoenix, offer courses in an accelerated format using the semester credit calculation by having students focus on one course at a time while truncating the 135 hours of learning activities for three semester credits into a 5- or 6-week course to better serve working adults by speeding up degree completion.