Flexible Credit and Continuous Registration

Meeting the needs for new instructional formats

by Robert M. Diamond and Peter B. DeBlois

New demands for more flexibility in the delivery, structure and effectiveness of courses has significantly increased the need for new administrative support systems that provide the structural capabilities that are required. Integral to the development of these systems is the active involvement of the registrar in the design process. While first developed over 25 years ago the flexible credit and continuous registration systems described in this case study, while meeting these needs, are still not available on the vast majority of American campuses.

A case study

In 1971, in an effort to re-focus the university on the quality of instruction, Syracuse University established the Center for Instructional Development within the office of Academic Affairs. This office, with staff experienced in instructional design, faculty development, evaluation and media production, was charged with working with faculty and academic leaders in the design and structure of new courses and curricula more attuned to the needs of the discipline, the students, and the community. There were no charges for these services. As work began in a number of high priority programs in academic units throughout the university at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, a number of common questions began to surface for which we had no clear answer:

  • What were the assumptions being made by faculty about the students entering their courses and degree programs, and how accurate were the assumptions?
  • What knowledge and skills did students actually bring to particular classes or programs?
  • If students entered an introductory course with a wide range of knowledge and competencies, why should they all start at the same place?
  • If students had advanced skills or knowledge, could they be exempted from certain units within a course or curriculum?
  • Must all students move through a course or program at the same pace? If some students required more time to complete a unit, how could we handle grades at the end of the semester when the work was not yet complete? How could we address financial aid and academic progress requirements for full-time enrollment when a student might be enrolled full-time but had only earned six credits by the end of the semester? How could we handle enrollment fees when certain students were taking more time and using more resources than others to develop the required level of competence before advancing within a course or program?
  • How could we allow students who were interested to take additional credits in a course to do so? Could this decision be made during the semester? How could fees be established for such additional work?
  • How could we take advantage of technology and independent study to make better use of faculty and student time?
  • If we had students enrolled in a course with different majors, could we have small concurrent group sessions that applied the same principle or concept to their respective fields of study? If we used faculty from other departments or faculty from other areas of specialization in the same department to teach these groups, how could we handle teaching loads for such short assignments?
  • If different topics in a course were offered by different faculty, must we average the grades of each unit to get a final course grade?

The need for flexibility in time and structure

As these question surfaced and data on students began to be collected, it soon became apparent that, for many courses and programs, the existing time-frame and credit and fee structures significantly limited our ability to use new patterns of instruction designed to address these issues.

It should be noted that with the recent growth of independent study, new applications of technology, service learning, and distance education, these limitations have become even more pronounced as faculty have attempted to address the increased diversity among students, an increasing number of part-time students and the lack of prerequisite skills possessed by a growing number of incoming students. At the same time, more students are entering post-secondary study with credits earned from advanced placement coursework in basic skill areas and previous learning from work experience. More than ever the enhanced academic placement and trascripting options that current systems allow and that the registrar manages are essential elements in planning for curricular innovation. Unfortunately, the traditional credit and semester structures with which most of us are familiar no longer meet today’s instructional needs. Without major changes in instructional delivery and support systems, it will be impossible for institutions and faculty to address the concerns of national leaders, state and federal legislators, senior campus executives, employers, accreditation agencies, faculty, the community at large, and students themselves.

What is needed are smarter ways of aligning instructional strategies, academic policies, and the new generation of information systems that have the technical capacity to support transformational change. Fortunately, the work that began in Syracuse in the mid 1970’s provides us with a structure that other institutions can build upon. In a joint effort between the Office of the Registrar and the Center for Instructional Development, with grant support from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), a major effort was begun to address the administrative and structural problems. A way had to be found to allow for more options in the design and delivery of instruction. What evolved from this effort was one of the first flexible credit and continuous registration systems in the country. As an added benefit, the structures developed also facilitated the use of new and cost effective instructional patterns and assessment procedures.

These approaches, as effective as they were in the mid-1970s, are still not available, or if technically available, are not used at most institutions at 2006. To be sure, some institutions, especially those with a major commitment to distance/distributed learning and “non-traditional” learners, are adapting instructional strategies and support systems in advanced ways that go beyond even what Syracuse did in the 70s. The University of Phoenix, other commercial distance learning providers, and community colleges constitute a new generation of pioneers that have, in large measure, co-opted non-traditional students by being more responsive more quickly to flexible learner models—with information systems to match. Four-year and research institutions are only beginning to catch up.

The key has always been the willingness of the faculty, the registrar, and key support offices to work together in designing and implementing the use of flexible administrative systems, structured to meet the specific needs of the institution. Experience has shown that the registrar, academic leaders, or the faculty can either be effective facilitators and supports of change or major barriers to innovation in academic affairs. The keys are institutional leadership and the ownership of all groups in the final product.

What such a system allows:

Flexible credit

  • With flexible credit, a course or a curriculum may be offered for variable credit (1 to 3 credits, 2 to 4, 3 to 6, 30 to 45, etc.) based on the needs or the interests of the individual student and the instructional goals of the faculty. For example, in an introductory course, students who do not have the required prerequisites may be required, based on diagnostic testing, to take additional credit or non-credit units while others, with more extensive knowledge or a higher skill level, may have the option of taking additional work for additional credit.
  • Within a given course, students may take separate units of instruction, each of which may generate its own grade and credit. A student may earn 2 A’s and a B in a three-credit course, with the transcript showing the specific name of each unit under the overall course title. This would be particularly advantageous for students doing more advanced, in-depth work.
  • Units in a course may have different weights with credit assigned based on the work and time required, (some units, for example, may be assigned two or three credits with others worth only one).
  • Courses may be combined in clusters for a set number of credits depending on the structure and needs of the academic program.
  • The system facilitates faculty load and time flexibility. Faculty not only can be given variable load assignments based on their course responsibilities, but this load can be distributed unevenly throughout a course. For example a team of faculty could offer a series of one-credit units at different times throughout a course, or two faculty, based on their areas of specialization, could divide a course into major blocks with each having their teaching load focused on only one part of the semester.
  • While grades are reported at the end of the semester, or when work in a specific unit is finished, final grades are not necessarily recorded until the entire sequence is completed, with non-punitive Incompletes posted for a specified competence-development period.
  • Overall, such a system allows student performance to be more accurately reflected on the official academic record/transcript and, perhaps, a faster or slower, more rational timeframe to degree completion. The latter possibility resonates with calls for more global alignment of U.S. higher education (with all due caveats about quality and independence) with the emergence of the three-year “Bologna degree” that is being regularized in the European Union, Australia, and India.

Continuous registration

  • Designed to remove the many constraints of the semester system, continuous registration allows work within a course or program to continue beyond the semester framework. With current online, Web-based registration services at most institutions, this process is considerably less burdensome to students and staff than it used to be.
  • It allows students to enroll in individual course units as the semester progresses.
  • It allows students to register for additional credits during the academic year, and for faculty to assign additional work if the need becomes apparent.
  • Course units may be established and offered continuously throughout the semester; there is no single starting date for beginning options.

(For an in-depth description of courses that use one or both of these systems and for more information on the design process that was used, see Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula, Robert M. Diamond , Jossey-Bass).

Administrative issues

As the structures were developed a number of administrative issues surfaced. For the most part, these needed to be addressed by the registrar office. The university transcript had to be modified to accept within a single course, a number of options or additional work for additional credit. Each unit needed to have its’ own description and assigned grade. New procedures for students and faculty using these options (a paper-based Continuous Registration Form that would now be electronic) had to be developed, tested and revised. An information booklet for faculty on using these systems also had to be developed and field-tested.

One of the more complex challenges was the need to add new grade designations to the university transcript. Three new letter designations were required: one to designate a variable-credit modular course (“VC”), one for the base course which would not have a grade required since the grade would be assigned to the individual modules or units of the course (“NR”), and one to use at the end of the semester if the student were going to resume the same module in the following term. Complicating the process was the need for all changes to be approved by the University Senate where there was no agreement among members as to which committee needed to sponsor the final recommendation since several thought changes of this type fell under their jurisdiction. After a decision was made to have the proposal made jointly by all interested groups there was little agreement on which letter or letters to use to designate an in progress grade for those modules that were to carry over to the next semester and where the work of the student was not yet complete. After extensive discussion, the committees finally agreed on “V” which is used to signify that the student is making normal progress in a particular module of a variable length course and that work is not yet complete.

Two other issues surfaced. First, we were concerned that while a student could be carrying a full load, s/he might not, under certain circumstances, be earning enough credits to maintain eligibility for certain scholarships or federal assistance programs. In checking with state and federal officials, the university registrar was able to obtain approval to determine full-time status on the basis of “credits enrolled” rather than on “credits earned”. This was most important decision for entry level courses where remediation is essential if the students were to succeed. The second key factor was the policy already on the books for undergraduate students to be allowed to earn 12 to 19 credits for the same basic tuition. This helped in two ways: First, students interested in doing so in a variable credit course, could earn up to 19 credits a semester without an additional tuition change. Second, students requiring more time and additional resources could be earning fewer credits while paying more for each credit earned since they were consuming additional instructional resources. In institutions where a large number of students are requiring more time to earn course credit, moving away from the traditional cost-per-credit-hour enrolled system may make a great deal of sense.

Learning outcomes, accountability, and retention

A key element in a quality course and curriculum design process is the requirement that diagnostic tests be used to determine the entry level of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in a course or curriculum to determine were remediation  or additional course work may be required or where exemption is possible. In both instances the evaluation process requires that the faculty define their assumptions and the goals of each course or program in outcome terms. Decisions are to be based on accurate data and well-defined outcomes.

Using outcome statements and quality student data for important placement decisions has a number of significant advantages.

1. The data that is collected and the impact of its use are important elements in the information on student learning outcomes that is being demanded by disciplinary and regional accreditation agencies.

2. The use of remediation and exemption can have a direct and positive impact on students’ attitudes about degree programs and the institution.

3. As a number of studies at Syracuse found, this approach can result in major improvements in student learning and retention, critical goals of all institutions and a major focus of the Spellings Commission report

In short, flexible credit, continuous registration, and new grading systems, overseen and shaped by the registrar on behalf of the faculty, provide instructional design options that are more attuned to today’s instructional problems and to the various course and curriculum design opportunities that now exist through the use of technology and the research on teaching and learning. Their use provides a wide-range of benefits to students and to faculty, while supporting new forms of departmental and institutional accountability for learning outcomes. In addition their implementation requires the active support of the academic leadership and the involvement of the registrar, key support staff and faculty.

Three key lessons can be learned from the Syracuse experience.  First, without the registrar as a key player from the start, no easy synergy can be developed between instructional innovation, academic policy, records procedures, and system adaptation. Second, new technology innovations such as e-portfolios and course/learning management systems are often implemented under accelerated pressure jeopardizing compliance with external privacy regulations that the registrar could have anticipated. Third, unless an individual or a design organization, i.e., the registrar or a teaching and learning support unit, becomes a visible proponent of opportunity to adapt technology and policy, new visions will chafe against tradition and sputter at best. The registrar knows the institutional change culture, doesn’t forget political and technical history, and remembers what has worked and why. Institutions ignore this player at the cost of inefficient or retarded progress.


Robert M. Diamond is President of the National Academy for Academic Leadership and professor emeritus at Syracuse University where he played a major role in the development of the flexible credit and continuous registration system.

Peter B. DeBlois, currently Director of Communications and Publishing at EDUCAUSE, served as University Registrar at Syracuse University from 1985–2001, prior to which he served as Director of Registration and Records and Assistant Director of Freshman English. He helped design and implement Syracuse’s flexible credit and continuous registration system.