What You Need to Know about College Classes

By Patricia Gorden Neill - June 28th, 2013

The first thing you’ll have to face about choosing classes for your first freshman semester is the amount of choice you have. In high school, you had very little choice, except maybe to take chemistry rather than biology. However, in college, everything having to do with classes is a choice. You can choose among general education classes, courses you’ll need to take for your major or core classes required by the college, if any. On top of that, you can choose when to take the class, on which days and at what time, morning or afternoon. How do you figure all this out? You’re afraid you may miss a class you are supposed to take or take too many of the same type of class.

The first thing to do is make an appointment with an academic advisor. If you’ve already chosen a major, the college will assign you an advisor who is a faculty member of your major’s department. Other academic advisors, however, are available for everyone to contact. An advisor knows all the requirements and core classes and knows how many general education (gen ed) classes you’ll need to graduate. He or she can help you get signed up for the right classes for your first semester. You’ll still have to make all those choices, but at least you can do it with sound advice and assurance. Contact an advisor soon after you get your dorm room straightened out.

On the other hand, you might have had help picking your classes during orientation. In that case, you can relax, just make sure you get registered properly and you’ll be all set.

Your college may have sent you the college course handbook. If so, be sure and look over it carefully. It will list all required courses, gen ed classes, class schedules, where classes meet and a lot of other information. Keep the course handbook nearby as it can come in handy. Here’s some basics about college classes you’ll need to know.

Class Formats

The classes you’ll see in the handbook come in different formats. You’ll see them listed as lecture, discussion, seminar and lab.

  • Lecture—lecture classes are large, often 200 to 300 students in a large university. Usually, these classes are introductory courses taught by a professor. In a lecture, profs expound, students listen and take notes. If the professor allows any time for questions, it is generally at the end of class time and only for a few minutes.
  • Discussion section—If the lecture class meets three times a week, two of those classes may be lectures with the other period set aside for discussion. These discussion sections of the lecture might be led by a graduate student T.A. or teaching assistant. Up to 20 to 30 students may attend the discussion section. Discussions focus on the material presented by the professor.
  • Seminar—seminars usually have 20 to 30 students, and the class meets in a more personal setting. Taught by the professor, seminars will include both lecture and discussion and may meet either three times a week or in longer classes on Tuesday/Thursday. The seminar format is usually reserved for advanced courses or upper level classes.
  • Lab—Lab classes are usually associated with science classes. Students will take the material they’ve learned in a lecture and attempt to apply what they’ve learned in various lab experiments. For example, in a biology class, students might dissect an animal in the lab after learning its anatomy and physiology in a lecture.
  • Foreign language labs—many language classes may also have an attached lab class where students listen to tapes and repeat what they hear to work on vocabulary, grammar and accent.
  • Mixed format classes--You can also expect to find mixed format classes where there might be the occasional lecture amid many discussions or freshman seminars which include lectures, video presentations, group projects by students, etc.

General Education Classes

For most four year college degrees, you’ll need 120 to 130 credit hours to graduate with 30 to 45 of those being in general education classes. Check with your college as variations exist within many college degree programs. The skills component of the general education curriculum include mathematics and basic communications, that is, being able to reason quantitatively and to communicate both in writing and in speaking. The knowledge domain component includes the arts, humanities and sciences. These classes are in natural science, social science, American history, western civilization, world civilization, humanities, arts and foreign languages. As you can see, you’ll have a wide variety of disciplines and classes to choose from. Some of these classes may also be required for your major. Your academic advisor will be able to guide you in choosing which would be best for your freshman year.

What Interests You?

Whether you know what you are going to major in or not, at this point you can pick classes that pique your interest. You’ve always wanted to know more about medieval European history? Take a class, and indulge your curiosity. It will satisfy the general education requirement of a humanities class and it might lead you into majoring in history. You might find psychology fascinating, or discover that you enjoy working in the biology lab. At this point in your college career, expand both your skills and knowledge by studying what interests you and getting credit hours you need for graduation.

Be Careful not to Overload

In your first year of college, you’ll be going through a lot of transitions, both personally and academically. Each college recommends a certain number of classes and credit hours, and it is best to stick within that limit. While you may feel the temptation to take more classes in order to graduate earlier, you could easily overload yourself and not do well in one or two classes. Take enough classes to challenge yourself, but don’t overload. After your first year, you’ll be better able to judge how much you can take on, but be circumspect at first. Find your balance first.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.