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What is the course catalog and how can I use it to my advantage?

Choosing College Courses

Jonathan O’Brien, Ed.D. (Associate Dean of Students, Occidental College) gives expert video advice on: What is the course catalog and how can I use it to my advantage?; What are some tips for college class registration?; What does it mean to 'crash' a course? and more...

What is the course catalog and how can I use it to my advantage?

The course catalog at most institutions is a book that's printed or published periodically. It is not a regular publication, but one that is printed about every three to five years. In that book is essentially the contract between you as the student and the college. When a student enters the college, what we call the contract year that the student enters the college, they follow those rules and that book for the rest of their time, four/five years in school. In that book are descriptions of all the courses that are available. Usually, it also lists patterns of study to graduate and the number of credits/units required in your major and in electives. It also describes general policies, academic policies, and other social and campus life policies.

What is a college 'credit'?

A credit, also known as a unit, is a way of measuring the amount of time that a student puts into a course. Credits, or units, for courses can vary from one to three, four or sometimes five units depending upon the level of work that a student is required to contribute to the course, as well as the amount of time that it means per week.

What is a class 'syllabus'?

A syllabus is a document that the faculty member provides to each student, usually on the first day of class that describes everything that's going to happen in the class. That includes the assignments and when they are due, as well as a brief description of the goals and the expected outcome to participation in the course.

What is a 'prerequisite course' in college?

A prerequisite course is a course that is required to be taken prior to the course that you want to enroll in. What this means is that if you want to take a course that looks interesting or exciting to you, always read the course catalog to determine if there are prerequisites required to be completed before you are eligible to take that class. Many times if you haven't taken the prerequisites, you won't be able to enroll in that course.

What is an 'elective course' in college?

Elective courses are optional courses, hence, elective are your opportunity to choose the courses that you would like to take to round out your educational program, and meet graduation requirements. Often, electives can also be used towards a minor. Students would choose electives in a prescribed pattern that they get in their college catalog earn a minor or students take electives just based on special interest because they want to round out their general education.

What are 'upper and lower division' college courses?

Courses are divided into upper and lower division. Typically, courses at a college are numbered from 100 to 499. Courses in the 100 and 200 level series, such as Psychology 101 or Political Science 204 are considered lower division. Lower division courses are numbered from 100 to 299. Upper division courses are numbered from 300 to 499. Typically, upper division courses are more specific in focus and are often courses that are required for your major.

What are 'core' or general education requirements?

General education or core requirements are the courses that are required for graduation that help you to explore a variety of different disciplines. These are not necessarily related to your major. Many students do not necessarily look forward to taking core requirements but often are very excited by what they learn. They take courses in social science, in art, in natural science, and they learn about the variety of knowledge that is out there, and many times explore some other area that becomes their major.

What is a college 'term' or 'semester'?

A term or a semester is sometimes known as a quarter. It depends on how your college or university structures the amount of time that you take a set of courses. A semester is often 15 weeks. A quarter can be 8 or 10 weeks. And it is the way that the college organizes the period of time that you take courses.

What is the procedure for 'adding or dropping' courses?

Adding or dropping courses requires permission from the instructor as well as from the faculty member who is in charge of the department. many times it can also require additional stipulations or regulations. There is also a form that is available in the registrar's office at your college or university that explains the entire process.

What are some tips for college class registration?

Each semester, students are required to select their courses for the following semester. So, it's a good idea to go into that process knowing which courses you want to take as well as which courses you're required to take to graduate in a timely fashion. This requires a little bit of preparation on the student's part. To do that, it is important to first of all meet with your faculty advisor on a regular basis. This person will help you develop a plan, and often times for your entire four years. Always keep that plan with you and keep track of the courses which you've taken as well as any courses that you may have not been able to take in the past. Enter into that registration process knowing, "Which classes do I have to take in order to make my requirements for future semesters? In addition to what courses do I want to take because maybe I'm interested in an elective or I'd like to pursue a minor?" Be prepared to enter into the registration process (many times it's done online) and get all of the appropriate permissions in advance. Some classes actually require that a faculty member approve you getting into the course before you actually sign in. When all those permissions are met and all of your paperwork and planning is put together, the process is usually very simple and students find it to be pretty exciting.

What does it mean to 'crash' a course?

Crashing a course, and it may go by different names at different schools, is the process of doing a sit in and trying to get into the course, even though it shows that it is full. If a student goes to registration, for example, and finds that the class is full but that student needs that course for graduation requirements and it is maybe next year that they're going to graduate, and they need that prerequisite this year and that course is always full because it's popular, many times students will crash a course. This involves going to the class at the day and time that it meets on the first day and sitting in the class, even though it's probably going to be full, and waiting for the instructor to recognize or perhaps even going to them in the beginning of class and saying "Are you accepting new students?" This is when the instructor will tell you how they feel about this process. Many times faculty members don't appreciate this, because it says that you are perhaps not following the procedure process. It's also difficult because those seats in that classroom are a limited resource. Many times faculty members will consider the fact that there aren't that many classes required and that their class is very important for graduation, and they will say, "Okay, I'm willing to let only graduating seniors into my class at this time", or "If a few of you are considering dropping out, this is what my class is going to entail." Then people may leave who are already registered. The bottom line is that it benefits you to ask. It doesn't hurt to ask whether or not you can add that class even though that class is full, but you need it for graduation. By the same token, if you don't need that class for sure this semester, it may be better to spend your time elsewhere.

What is 'independent study'?

Independent studies are specific courses, as well as, entire programs of study that are entirely independently developed. This means that the student has looked through the catalog and has determined that maybe there isn't a major for me here. Now, that is a very rare situation, because they hopefully should of chosen the college because of a major, a program, or something that they're interested in studying there. But often times, interests evolve and a student may say " I'd like to take courses from three different major areas of study and there isn't anything here for me". This means that you can approach a faculty member or two, who are interested in working with you as a student. And essentially create your own major, or even your own course, if it means that it will help you to enrich whatever your pre-existing major may be. It's often a complicated process, because it requires meeting with a faculty member or more than one faculty member, seeking approval at many different levels. Sometimes all the way up to the department chair, or to the vice president in charge of academic affairs at the college. But often, it does help the student to study exactly what it is that their interested in. And it helps them to be better prepared to go to graduate school.

How many college credits should I take per semester?

The number of credits that you take per semester is usually explained by your catalog. Often, what we call full time status is either 12 units, all the way up to 15 or 16 units. Most colleges use 12 units as the minimum number of units required to maintain full time status while in school. Each course is typically worth approximately 3 units, sometimes 4 units. When you take 3 or 4 courses, you are usually at a full time course credit load.

What is a 'lecture course'?

A lecture course is very much how it sounds. The faculty member stands at the front of the course, and the course is usually taught in a very large lecture hall that can seat as many as a thousand students, depending upon the size of the school and the student body. Lecture courses are many times only offered in one direction. The instructor stands in front of the class and shows diagrams and speaks from notes, and often because of the size of the class, it's very difficult to ask questions or to do any interactive learning experience. Because of this, lecture courses are often introductory level courses, what we call a survey course that is lower division, and the goal is to bring in a large number of students to learn about a subject and eventually to be able to determine whether or not they're interested in it based upon the lecture.