College Courses 101

In order to be a successful college student, you will need to understand some of the key differences between high school and college academics. In high school, you most likely learned in smaller classroom settings and labs that met almost daily and had one teacher for each subject. This is not always the case in college. Different class formats may require different engagement levels and study skills. Understanding the different class formats and teaching styles can help you identify which skills in addition to studying can contribute to success.

Common Course Types and Terminology


Many introductory level courses are taught in lecture format. Lectures, which are more common at larger universities, are typically large in size, sometimes with several hundred students, and are taught by a faculty member. In a lecture, the instructor will present key course content and will be speaking for most of the class, so there is often little time to ask questions or engage in discussion. Lecture-style classes often have accompanying Discussions. If you have lecture-based classes, you should consider attending your professor’s office hours in order to ask follow-up questions and build connections with campus faculty. Listening and note taking skills are essential for this style of class.


Many courses taught in a large lecture-style format have smaller, supplemental discussion sessions. Discussion sessions are usually between 20 and 30 students in size and meet in a classroom setting. This is where you will get to ask clarifying questions, engage in dialogue and discussion, and relate the information that your instructor presented in the lecture to your readings or real experiences. Discussions are often led by graduate student teaching assistants who study under the instructor leading the course and are knowledge experts in the class subject. Participation and engagement are important for discussion sections. 


Depending upon your university culture, seminars can take on two different meanings. For some seminar experiences, you may have a primary faculty member and guest lecturers who are content experts. For others, seminar may simply mean a smaller class led by an instructor that blends lecture with discussion. Whichever format, seminars require active listening, note taking and active participation. 


Lab settings allow you to test and apply content you are learning. In a lab setting, you may be working independently or in small groups. Labs are not just reserved for science-based courses. Classroom participation and methodology are extremely important for lab work. 

Online Learning and Distance Learning

These courses utilize technology to deliver course content. Learning may be self-paced or follow a structured timeline. Online courses are taught by faculty. Independent motivation, listening skills, and attention to assignments are essential for learning success.

Independent Study

Some campus settings offer individualized learning experiences or culminating projects for credit. Students often meet with a faculty advisor on a set interval for these projects. 

General Education Requirements

Your campus may call these by a different name, but these are the core courses that your college or university requires every student, regardless of what you choose to study, or complete. Often, for the first year or so, you will be completing general education requirements. 

Major/Minor Requirements

The subject areas you choose to major or minor in will have specific course requirements for you to complete. 


These are optional courses. These may satisfy general education or major area of study requirements, or they may be a class you take because you are interested in the subject.


These are foundational courses you may need to complete prior to enrolling in more advanced level coursework. 

There is no need to worry about all this jargon! Your college or university has academic advisors to help you help you navigate selecting your courses and ensuring that you are satisfying all of the requirements. 

Class Frequency

Another distinction of college or university courses is the frequency with which your classes meet. While in high school, you may have met every day for specific subjects; some college and university classes may only meet once per week, while others meet two or three times a week. Because of this, your schedule will be different from day to day and will vary from semester to semester. Instead of attending school for 6-7 hours daily, you may only be in classes for a couple of hours each day. Some students may find they have days where they don’t have any classes at all. Understanding classroom and course expectations and managing your time can help you navigate each semester’s courses and schedules accordingly.