How Do University Credits Work? – Student’s Guide

In University by Think Student Editor5 Comments

Students tend to talk about the percentage they achieved in an exam or a piece of coursework, but they don’t really talk much about university credits. University credits are essential to completing your degree and yet it probably doesn’t even cross most student’s minds. Credits could be the difference between you passing a module and could even result in having to repeat a year in university – probably a student’s worst nightmare!

You gain credits for each module you complete during your time at university. Without credits students would not be able to progress throughout university as credits are evidence that you have passed all your exams and assignmentsFor a 3 year undergraduate degree 360 credits are required which are accumulated by passing all your exams, and even doing an exchange can contribute to your credits. The number of credits gained is fixed and will not change regardless of the grade you achieved in your assessments. 

If you’re unsure about how university credits work, or you would just like to gain more insight about them please continue reading!

What is a university credit?

In every single university, students have to gain credits to pass each academic year, and ultimately to graduate and get their qualification at the end. The typical number of credits required to pass each academic year is 120 credits for an undergraduate degree and 180 credits for a master’s degree. So for an undergraduate degree that lasts 3 years you would need to have achieved 360 credits by the end of your time in university before you can wear your graduation cap and gown and collect your certificate!

You gain credits for each module you complete during your time at university. A credit is essentially evidence that you successfully achieved all the learning outcomes and requirements of that module, and shows that you should have a good level of understanding of all that was taught.

How many credits do you gain for each module?

The credits for each module vary across different degrees and even in different academic years; the common number of credits are 15, 30, 45, 60, 75 and 120There is a large variety in the number of credits to reflect the hard work (and long hours) that would need to be put in to successfully achieve the required number of credits.

A notional hour is the formal name for the estimated hours that are expected that a student would need to complete a module. 1 credit is equal to 10 notional hours, so 15 credits are equal to 150 notional hours. 150 notional hours sounds like a lot of time, especially for only one module. However, it’s important to note that teaching for one module is spread across a semester (you may want to read How Long Are University Semesters for more information).

Also, the 150 hours includes time in lectures, tutorials, preparing for your lectures, assessments as well as your own personal revision and studying that you would do. I wouldn’t focus too much on the 150 hours, as it could lead to you feeling overwhelmed and putting a lot of pressure on yourself. Instead I would suggest breaking it down, for example:

150 hours of work across a semester that lasts 12 weeks = 12.5 hours of work per week 

12.5 hours of work a week = 1.8 hours every day  

1.8 hours of work a day doesn’t seem like a lot at all, especially for only one module! 1.8 hours would probably not even include lectures, but may only include your personal revision time. So in reality, you might actually go above and beyond the expected notional hours, in particular if your degree requires a lot of independent learning you would most likely exceed the predicted hours.

There are normally 4 modules per semester each worth 15 credits so in total you would need 60 credits in semester 1 and 60 credits in semester 2. However, if you have a module worth 15 credits and a module worth 30 credits it is expected that you spend more time on the module worth 30 credits; this would most likely be evident in the amount of work required by each module.

How do credits relate to your assessments and exams for each module?

There are a range of different assessments which differ for different degrees. You could have a formal exam in an exam hall whereby you need to write an essay, or a group project, or a 1000 word essay for coursework or multiple choice questions (MCQ), or you could even have all of these assessments in an academic year.

Below is a table of the modules taken by a student in their 2nd year of a Biomedical Science degree in semester 1 with the different ways they are assessed, the percentage of each assessment, as well as the marks they achieved.

Module Assessment Type  Percentage Weighting  Mark Achieved  Credits
Biochemistry  25% 38% 15
MCQ 20% 60%
MCQ 20% 40%
Essay 60% 30%
Molecular Biology  25% 77% 15
Coursework 30% 70%
Essay 70% 80%
Microbiology  25% 70% 15
MCQ 50% 70%
MCQ 50% 70%
Physiology  25% 65% 15
MCQ 25% 60%
MCQ 25% 60%
Essay 50% 70%
Total 62.5% 60

Table 1: Modules taken by a 2nd year Biomedical Science student with the percentage weighting of each form of assessment and the grades achieved.

From the table you can see that even though each module is worth the same number of credits, the way you are assessed in each module differs.

As there are 4 modules, each with an equal number of credits, each module is worth 25% of the overall grade for semester 1. From the table above the student’s average for semester 1 is 62.5% which would get rounded up to 63%. In semester 2 there would also be 4 modules, each worth 15 credits. The average for semester 1 and 2 would be taken and this would be your final grade for your 2nd year of university. For example, if the student from Table 1 got 73% in semester 2, their average for their 2nd year of university would be 68%.

Are credits different for different courses?

In some courses the number of credits for each module is not equal and can vary significantly, especially if a student has the option of choosing their own modules.

Table 2 shows an example of the final year modules chosen by a student studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). The credits assigned to each module vary; the number of credits also reflects the percentage weighting of each module to the overall grade. As the Politics and International Development module is worth 10 credits it’s worth 8.3% of the overall grade, whereas the Advanced Economics Analysis module is worth 15 credits and counts towards 12.5% of the overall grade.

For most degrees, the final year consists of a research project that involves writing a dissertation that spans across the duration of your final year, across both semester 1 and 2As shown in Table 2, the research project module is worth 40 credits and although it comes under semester 2 which is when it is assessed, it actually begins in semester 1.

Module Assessment Type  Percentage Weighting  Credits
Semester 1
Advanced Economics Analysis 12.5% 15
Coursework 35%
Coursework 35%
Coursework 15%
Coursework 15%
International Economic Policy 12.5% 15
Exam 70%
Coursework 30%
Politics and International Development 8.3% 10
Coursework 100%
Semester 2 
Research project 33.3% 40
Concept notes 25%
Dissertation 75%
Capitalism, Justice and Society 16.67% 20
Coursework 60%
Coursework 40%
Machiavelli to Mussolini 16.67% 20
Coursework 60%
Coursework 40%
Total 120

Table 2: Modules chosen by a final year student studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE)

How is your final degree grade calculated?

Most people aim to get a first class, or ‘first’ (formally called first class honours) in their degree which means their average of all their assessments in university is 70% or above. A 2:1 is equal to 60 – 69% while 2:2 is equal to 50-69% and 3rd is equal to 40-49%. There is a clear distinction between the grades as achieving 70% and above requires a significant level of both knowledge and understanding of your subject, as well as the willingness to go beyond the scope of what you are taught, do extra reading and see things from a different and new perspective.

If you want to learn more about the university grading system check out this Think Student article.

In most universities the first year of your degree doesn’t count towards your final degree grade, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your first year seriously – you can be complacent! In order to progress to your second year you need to pass your first year, achieving the required 120 credits – so you need to put in the hard work from the beginning. The first year of your degree can really set the tone of your attitude towards your education and it’s best to start taking it seriously at the very start. Of course, you should still make time to relax and socialise, otherwise your university experience wouldn’t be complete!

The table below shows an example of the breakdown of each academic year for both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and the percentage weighting of each year towards the final grade.

Degree 1st year  2nd year 3rd year 4th year  Total
Bachelor’s 0% 35% 65% N/A 100%
Master’s 0% 25% 35% 40% 100%

Table 3: Percentage weighting of each academic year

For a bachelor’s degree, the final year carries the most weight of 65% while the second year is worth 35%. Once again it’s best to always be consistent in your effort throughout your degree, but as the final year does weigh the most it does tend to lead to the most amount of sleepless nights unfortunately.

If a student achieved 60% overall at the end of their 2nd year and wanted to get a 1st at the end of their degree, this would mean the student has to achieve a minimum of 75% in their 3rd year in order to achieve a 1st overall.

It’s important to always try your best in every assignment or exam you have in order to achieve the best grade possible that is a reflection of your true ability.

What is the pass mark at university?

No one plans on failing a module or exam but sometimes it does happen, and you could even have missed the pass mark by literally just 1%. The standard pass mark at university is 40%, so even if you get 39% this would mean you failed.

If you don’t achieve the minimum of 40% overall in a module you will not achieve the 15 credits required. The number of credits you can achieve is fixed so regardless of whether you get 40% or 60% overall in a module, as long as you pass, the only number of credits you will achieve is 15. If you get below 40% for a module, for example, 38% you will not achieve 15 credits but will receive 0 credits which means you failed the module.

How can you fail a module?

Due to the different percentage weightings for the different assessments in a module it is possible to pass some assignments and still fail a module. Likewise, you could fail some assignments and still pass a module.

From Table 1 in the Biochemistry module the student passed both of the MCQ’s but failed the essay as they got 30%. As the percentage weighting of the essay was higher, at 60%, this meant that it decreased their overall grade for this module, even though they passed the other two assessments (the MCQ’s). As a result their average for Biochemistry was 38% which means they failed the module and did not achieve 15 credits. This once again reiterates the importance of doing your best in all your exams, in particular the ones that have the highest percentage weighting as it could make a significant difference to your grade.

Below is a table similar to Table 1, except in this instance the student failed the MCQ and passed the essay. This resulted in the student instead achieving 50% overall so they passed the module and achieved the 15 credits required.

Module Assessment Type  Percentage Weighting  Mark Achieved  Credits
Biochemistry  50% 15
MCQ 20% 30%
MCQ 20% 40%
Essay 60% 60%

Table 4: Biochemistry module taken by a 2nd year Biomedical Science student with the percentage weighting of each form of assessment and the grades achieved.

What happens if you fail a module?

If you fail a module by getting less than 40% you would have to redo the assessments for that module again. For example, from Table 1, in the Biochemistry module the student failed the essay so would have to do the essay again in an attempt to pass the module. If you’ve passed an assessment or module you can’t redo any of the assessments again in an attempt to get a higher grade, the only way you’re allowed to redo an assessment is if you failed a module.

If you failed a module your university will contact you on the next steps you should take, there may also be a fee involved and they would also advise you to speak to your supervisor who could provide more guidance. When you’re doing a retake on a piece of coursework or an exam the grade is usually capped between 40-50%, 40% is the minimum as this is what is needed to achieve 15 credits.

When you do a retake depends on where you are in the academic year. If you fail a module in semester 1, you would retake it at the end of semester 2 with your other assessments. If you fail a module in semester 2 your retake would take place in summer, anytime between July and August. If you re-take a module this is shown on your transcript that holds the details of all your modules, your module marks and the grades achieved, similar to in Table 1.

To learn more about what happens if you fail a module at university, check out this Think Student article.

If you fail a module can you still progress to the next academic year?

Although 120 credits are required in order to pass onto the next academic year, there are some instances whereby a student may have failed a module but is allowed to continue to the next academic year. For example, if a student in their 2nd year of university passed all their modules in semester 1 and gained 60 credits, failed 1 module in semester 2 but passed all their other modules in semester 2, their total number of credits for the academic year would be 105 credits. They would retake this module in the summer and if they still didn’t pass they could also retake it again in the next academic year in the 1st semester, while continuing with their 3rd year.

If you were to fail 60 credits or more in an academic year this could result in having to retake the year again. Although this is not ideal and many students would hate the thought of having to repeat the year, sometimes you might encounter a situation that is out of your control. If you were put into a situation like this it would be difficult seeing your friends and other people on your course move on and you’re having to re-do the year, this is when you would have to focus even more and not compare your journey to anyone else as this could distract you from what you’re meant to be doing.

An extenuating circumstance could be a reason for having to retake the year and it could involve you being seriously sick, the death of a close loved one, or involvement in a serious accident. All of these situations would impact your wellbeing and are out of your control, if one of the above mentioned occurred in your life you could be given leeway, for example with a piece of coursework and you could be given an extension past the deadline or your grades may be compensated.

What happens if you submit your coursework late?

The majority of degrees require students to submit coursework that will be assessed and will contribute to their final degree grade. You could be given coursework at the start or in the middle of semester and it would be due to hand in before the end of the semester. Coursework given tends to be due in the semester it’s given and it wouldn’t be spread across 2 semesters.

When you have to submit a piece of coursework you are normally given a deadline in which you would need to have submitted the work. If you had a deadline on a Tuesday at 4pm and you submitted it after 4pm, this could impact the grade you will achieve. In some universities you may have a 5 minute leeway after the time of the deadline, for example, up until 4:05pm you would not be penalised for handing it in late as the university will make allowances to account for issues with the internet connection. But after 4:05pm you may be penalised, in some universities for every 24 hours that you hand in the coursework late you will be penalised 10% of your grade. If you submitted your coursework in at 5pm on the day it is due (on Tuesday at 4pm), when it gets marked if the actual grade is 70%, because you handed it in late your grade would reduce to 60%. Likewise if you hand the coursework in 2 days late on a Thursday, the grade would drop to 50%.

It is possible to apply for extenuating circumstances (EC’s) for a piece of coursework if you’re struggling to complete it. Normally you would need a valid reason to apply for an EC such as a doctor’s note, however in the current pandemic some universities have made it easier to apply for an EC. Students could even self-EC a piece of coursework, which means they would not need a doctor’s note to apply for an EC which makes things a lot easier for them. But what a lot of students fail to remember is that when you apply for an EC you’re giving yourself more time to complete the assignment, but this could lead to procrastination and could lead to you doing the assignment last minute.

If you do an exchange will you gain more credits?

A university exchange programme is when a student has the opportunity to go abroad and study at one of their university’s partner institutions, for example this could involve studying at the University of Barcelona or Texas A&M University. The degree you’re studying will determine how easy it is for you to partake in an exchange programme. If your degree involves the study of a language it may be compulsory for you to study abroad in the country in which your language is spoken.

There is the opportunity to do either one semester or one full academic year abroad, it depends on the exchange opportunities your university has. While studying abroad you will be given assignments and exams to do that you would have to pass although they may or may not count towards your final degree, but you won’t gain extra credits. Either way, you must pass all of them as your transcript will show that you did an exchange and the grade you achieved.

As different international universities would have different ways of assessing students and different learning outcomes it would get confusing trying to convert credits gained in an international university to the credits in your home university. The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) was created to allow credits gained while on exchange to count towards the credits that contribute to your final degree in your home university. 60 ECTS credits equal 120 credits, which is the number of credits required to pass an academic year.

If during their second year a student studying Modern Languages did an exchange programme for a semester and gained 30 ECTS credits this is the equivalent to 60 credits. So once this student returns to their home university they will continue with semester 2 and if they pass all their modules in semester 2 and gain 60 credits, they will complete their 2nd year with 120 credits in total (60 credits gained while on exchange and the other 60 at their home university).

If you do a placement year will you gain more credits?

A placement year will not contribute to the 360 credits needed to complete your degree, but it will be shown on your degree transcript.

A placement year is when a student takes a year out of university to work in the ‘real world’ in a field that interests them. A placement year is normally after your 2nd year of university and in order to even be considered for one you need to have good grades from your 1st year and have achieved the required credits in each academic year. 

Your placement could be paid or unpaid and it could even be abroad. You would normally be required to complete a certain number of hours of work to pass, even though you will not gain extra credits for a placement year. You may also have to write a report detailing your placement experience as well as give a presentation that will all be assessed and you would be required to pass even though it won’t give you extra credits. A placement year will also teach you numerous lessons and skills that can’t be taught in a lecture hall and is attractive to future employers as it shows that you have experience working in the real world.

If you change university or course, will you lose your credits?

Whether your credits are affected when transferring to a different university or changing your course is most often dependent on the degree that you are transferring to. If the degree you’re transferring to is similar to your previous degree the credits can be transferred.

If you’re changing from one university to another, but are continuing to study the same degree your credits won’t be affected but will just be transferred. However if you’re changing to a completely different course you would have to start from the 1st year of that degree as your previous credits will not be transferred.

In both situations your university would provide the best insight and advice as every university is different and has different requirements. If you want to learn more about transferring university credits, read this helpful Think Student article.

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Casa Blanca
Casa Blanca
3 years ago

Smashing article. I did not realise the different intricacies of the university grading system. This was a vey enlightening article, extremely well written and very clear.

Thank you

3 years ago

Found this article very insightful and detailed, thank you

Ndawedwa Abraham
2 years ago

what if i failed four module in my first year? will i proceed with my next year?

Pranav Mistry
Pranav Mistry
1 year ago

Not too much to read, but clear and precise providing me with the understanding I needed.

1 year ago

Great text, very informative for the first-time student. Thank you!
Am I seeing a mistake in the text? : Biochemistry module taken by a 2nd-year Biomedical Science student – he achieved 30% in MCQ and 60% in the essay which would mean he failed MCQ, not the essay.
Thank you for the article.