I am a member of a curriculum committee where we want to improve our undergraduate physics program. One way of doing that is to include weekly discussion sessions with our courses.

After looking at the undergraduate physics programs in some universities, including top ones, I have noticed the following:

  1. Such sessions come under different names: recitation session, discussion session, tutorial session, problem session. Are they all the same thing? if not then what is the difference?

  2. The total number of credit hours for a course that has 3 hrs lecture and 1 weekly discussion session sometimes is listed as 3 Cr. in some universities or 4 Cr. in other university. What are the criteria to include or not to include that session in the course credits?

(Replies are welcomed from math, chemistry, biology, computer science, engineering, geology, etc.)

  • 3
    Every university is different.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 12:51
  • @JeffE I understand that universities are different. But there must be a reason why some universities count the weekly discussion session as a credit hour and some do not.
    – Moa
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 12:54
  • 1
    Every university/department has its own reasons, most of which can be described as "tradition".
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 12:57

2 Answers 2


Just add a couple more points that may be more applicable to you as a committee member.

Usually, most academic degrees granted by universities are accredited by some overseeing organizations. These organizations evaluate the school's syllabus, infrastructure, and other personal and academic factors, and determine if they would continue their acknowledgement of the degree's representativeness. You can scout around and see if your department has some of these accreditation processes, and learn more about the missions and criteria of those overseeing organization.

Second, check your school's and department's mission/value statements. When proposing a new course, these statements would come handy as a supporting point. Similarly, if your department has a good academic competency checklist, you can also refer to that list, and evaluate if, overall, your institute's degree is enabling these competencies, and if a discussion-type course can further strengthen so.

Third, understand the process of approving a course. This process varies school by school. However, most often there should be a committee (probably called curriculum and academic committee, etc.) that meets regularly to approve new courses or remove old courses. Ask if you can sit in one of those meetings and learn how the process happens. Meeting with the chairperson or secretary would also be helpful.

Fourth, if you happen to be a student representative, don't forget to use your connection to solicit students' ideas. Be very present and actively seek inputs (even it means standing out at a large lecture and ask them to fill in your online survey, etc.)

All these should give a good preparation.

Now, your question is difficult to answer because it does not just depend of school, but also is an evolutionary process of its own within each of the schools. A credit-counting discussion course might be a result of an informal journal club started a couple decades ago... likewise, a current informal discussion could be a remnant of a credit-counting course many years ago which was crowded out by expanded syllabus or was cancelled due to constant under-enrollment. You'd have to check with some more senior faculty members to understand the ins and outs. And here, knowing the school culture and history would help.

  • Thanks for the informative answer. I am not a student representative, I have a PhD :)
    – Moa
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 15:02
  • @Moa, oh my apology. Edited my answer. Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 17:28

As JeffE states, there aren't really any hard and fast rules about when recitation sections count for credit and when they don't, because of the multiple overlapping credit systems used.

For instance, in the "Carnegie" units system, such as that used by MIT, the amount of credit associated with a class is strictly dependent on the number of hours expected to be spent on a class per week. For instance, a 12-unit course requires 12 hours of work per week on average, while a 9-unit course would be less than that. The number of hours spent in class is included in the total, but does not strictly govern it.

Other faculties may have their own rules for deciding how much a class is worth. My undergraduate institution, for instance, had a fairly strict reckoning system: 1 "unit" for most classes, 1.5 for language classes, 0.5 for labs "bundled" with a lecture course, and 1 unit for labs "separated" from a lecture course. Recitation and discussion sections did not carry any extra credit.

So it basically is what the tradition for your school in assigning credit should be, and what regulations your university has with respect to this matter.

  • 1
    This MIT system you described is often used but with some small differences. For example at my university (and almost all in Belgium) it's calculated by dividing the amount of expected working hours by 25. For example, I have a course of System Analyses for 4 credits, meaning I'll have to spend roughly 100 hours studying it. A lot of universities have this rule "1cr = x hours of work" :) Commented Nov 19, 2013 at 17:13
  • 1
    @DylanMeeus: What you're describing is the ECTS system, which assigns the credits based on total work for the semester divided by a factor (at my university, this is 30, not 25). The MIT/Carnegie system represents hours of work per week, which is a little different.
    – aeismail
    Commented Nov 19, 2013 at 17:14
  • Yeah, it's used with some differences as I've mentioned :P But still based on hours of work. :) Also I might add there is a limit of 66credits / year in most courses, so that should be taken into account as well by the university. Commented Nov 19, 2013 at 17:17

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