Quick Facts 3 - Classes
What are electives? What is a major class? What does prerequisite mean? What is a syllabus? What is the difference between credit, credit hour, and unit? There are many new words and terminology to learn and understand when taking classes in the USA. Continue reading and learn about the key areas that international students need to know about when taking university classes in the USA.
We draw from our depth of experience from working in the US higher education system, and in this section we use that to highlight important factors related to taking university classes in the USA that you need to understand as a international students. You are very likely, if not guaranteed, to encounter all of these as an international student while attending classes at a university or college in the USA. Make you sure you read them and understand them.
For instance, how do you get your class schedule every semester? How do you know if a class is a lower or upper division class? What does lower or upper division mean? Can you take online classes as an international student in the USA? Keep reading and you will find the answers to these and many more question regarding taking university classes in the USA.
When you are done with this section, feel free to click on the links for more quick facts relating to exams, university system overview, campus, employment, admission etc.
What is the difference between General Education, Electives, and Major classes?
The general education requirement (also called core requirement) refers to general classes, not part of a major, which students have to take in order to graduate. It is designed to enable students to acquire general knowledge in a variety of different subject areas. The general education requirement is a component of the undergraduate curriculum, in addition to both the major and elective requirements. Although you can typically choose among numerous areas, it is common for certain areas to be mandatory (you have to choose one or more classes from the specified subject area or areas). Examples of areas that are very likely to be mandatory are mathematics and communication, for instance.
Electives are classes a student can take in another subject that is not necessarily specific to the student’s major. It is an optional class that will count as credit earned towards the elective requirement, which have to be complete in order to graduate. Some universities/colleges have a list of pre-specified elective classes that students can choose from. However, other universities/colleges allow you to choose any classes that fit your need and interests. The whole idea with electives is to give students the opportunity to explore classes that they find are interesting and beneficial. You can, for instance, be majoring in Marketing and decide to take an elective class in journalism to help with your writing and research skills.
Major Requirement refers to classes that are directly related to a student’s main field of study. These classes make up your major and are heavily focused on your primary area of specialization and relating disciplines.
To earn a degree you have to fulfill the major, elective, and general education requirements. These requirements are typically stipulated in terms of credits.
Do I go to classes only during fall and spring?
It depends on the semester system used by your university/college. Semester system means the number of semesters an academic year is divided into. A single semester, in turn, is an academic time period (also called “academic term”) usually lasting for approximately 15 weeks where students attend and complete classes. Each semester ends with one week of final exams.
The majority of universities/colleges follow a two-semester system (fall and spring) with the option of shorter third (summer) semester. Another reasonably common semester system is the so called Trimester, which consists of three mandatory and equally long semesters (fall, spring, and summer). A third alternative is the quarter semester system where the academic year is divided into four semesters, usually 10-12 weeks each, and includes a fall, winter, spring, and summer semester.
An undergraduate degree normally takes eight semesters (four years) to complete and a graduate degree normally 4 semesters (two years).
Will I be given a class schedule each semester?
When studying in the USA at university/college level, you will create your own class schedule for each semester.
When you attend a university or college in the USA, you choose (register) from a selection of available classes each semester to create a schedule. Some classes “fill up” (the class has reached its capacity in terms of registered students) quickly so you do best in registering for classes as early as possible so you can get not only the classes you want but also the classes that are offered at a time that best suits you. Many times, the same class is available during different times and at different days. Make sure that you are registering for classes that are counting towards your major, general education, and electives requirements.
You can also add or drop classes. After registering for classes at the beginning of the semester, the university/college offers a grace period of typically two weeks where students are allowed to change their schedule by adding or dropping classes.
How do I know if a class is elementary or advanced (class designations)?
In the US higher education system elementary classes are generally called lower division class/course and more advanced classes are called upper division classes/courses.
Lower division classes are introductory and elementary level classes that students normally take during the first two years (freshman and sophomore) as an undergraduate student. The class names commonly have a number between 100 and 299 (or 1000 and 2999 depending on course system) at the end of them. For instance, a business class called Corporate Strategy 101 would be an introductory (“basic”) class, while Corporate Strategy 450 would be an advanced class.
Upper division classes are more advanced classes that students normally take during the final two years (junior and senior) as an undergraduate student. The classes are generally numbered 300 (3000 depending on course system) or higher and are generally more specific to your major.
Very often a lower division class is a prerequisite for registering for an upper division class. Not all universities/college follow the same numerical system and some use other means of distinguishing between lower and upper division classes/courses.
What does Prerequisite mean?
In plain words, prerequisite means that you have to do something in order to later be able to do something else. In an academic setting, it means that you have to take a certain class before you can take another more advanced class. For instance, in terms of math classes, Intermediate Algebra is usually a prerequisite for Pre-Calculus. When registering for classes at the beginning of a semester you will find that prerequisites are listed next to most classes. Not all classes have prerequisites.
What is the difference between Credit, Credit Hour, and Unit?
Credit, credit hour and unit all mean the same and refer to the number of weekly hours of instruction for a particular class during a semester. Most people say either Credit or Unit. Every class has a set number of credits assigned to them – anywhere from 1 to 5 credits. If a class has three credits assigned to it, then it means you will have three hours of lecture per week. Some classes are held only once a week, meaning you will have a three-hour long class once a week. Other classes are scheduled for three times a week, meaning you will attend three one-hour classes per week (normally Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). To earn an Associate’s degree you generally need a minimum of 60 credits, for a Bachelor’s degree you need a minimum of 120 credits, and for a Master’s degree you need roughly a minimum of 30 credits. It is normal to take between 12-16 credits per semester which equates to 4-5 different classes at undergraduate level.
As an undergraduate student, if you take 15 credits you will spend 15 hours in the classroom each week. It doesn’t sound like much, but you are expected to spend 2-3 hours on independent study for each credit you take. So if you spend 15 hours in the classroom, you are expected to spend 30-45 hours per week studying and completing assignments at home.
How does Online Classes work and am I allowed to take them?
An online class is a computer-based class where assignments are submitted online and test taken using a timed computer system. Any interaction between you and your instructor is done online. Although you will generally not have any specific classes to attend, you are likely to have set times and dates scheduled for discussing assignment and preparing for tests. International students are generally allowed to take one online class per semester. However, this varies from institution to institution, so make sure to speak with your student advisor.
Do I need to buy Textbooks for each class?
You will need one or more textbooks for the majority of your classes, but not all of them. In the syllabus you will find a list of textbooks that are required and a list of books that are relevant, but not required. Always ask your instructor if you are not sure.
You can buy textbooks online, in the campus bookstore, or from other students. Check the bulletin board in the library, dorms, or dining hall for textbooks for sale by students.
What is a Syllabus?
This is a document that all students receive during the first class session for each class taken during a semester. The document generally includes a course description, a week-by-week schedule, test dates, assignments due dates, attendance policy, plagiarism policy, grading procedures, required textbook(s), and instructor/professor contact details and office hours. The first class session at the start of the semester will typically consist of the instructor/professor presenting him/herself, followed by a review of the syllabus.