Your guide to the different types of college classes

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Many teens envision stepping onto their dream campus, but what about stepping into college classrooms? Undergraduate majors, average class size, and other academic programs factor into every student’s college application process, so it’s worth taking a look at the different types of college classes. 

Along with questions to ask an academic advisor and on a tour of a college campus, it’s helpful to ask not just about the typical course load and class offerings, but also about what types of classes are offered. After all, a lecture-style class with potentially over one hundred students is a very different experience than a small-group seminar or online class.

That’s all the more reason to know about the myriad of different college course formats! 

Often, students will have the choice of several college class formats when they register each semester. Your student may need to take a range of different kinds of classes during their undergraduate years. It’s useful to know not only the basics of what to expect, but what strategies can help students succeed.

7 Types of College Classes (and How to Succeed in Them)

Every college experience is different, so as you look ahead to your teen’s future, it’s good to know the ins and outs of the academic component of that experience. No matter what their major is, however, it’s likely that they will take a mix of different types of classes. 

Whether the class is a graduation requirement, a core part of their college major (or two college majors), or an elective, it’s good to know what students are signing up for! Here are the essentials of what they can expect in seven types of college classes.

1. Lecture

Picture a hundred seats facing a lectern and a screen, and you can learn a lot about a lecture-style class. Most often, these large classes consist of entry-level and/or requisite classes for specific majors or for graduation from the university. 

Lectures are professor-led, and often require copious amounts of note-taking. Some may involve a participation element, either through traditional Q&A or an electronic participation system (which we’re seeing more and more of these days), but this element is not always present in lectures. These classes often involve working from a textbook or a relatively small number of texts. 

At times, it’s easy to feel anonymous in a lecture class, but to succeed in them, it’s important to devote as much attention as to any other type of class. These professors often don’t meet all of their students personally, so attending office hours is particularly important. 

2. Sections

Sections go hand in hand with lecture-style classes. In a section, a subset of students enrolled in a lecture meet in smaller groups to discuss course material and complete assignments. Often, sections are led by a teaching assistant or graduate student. 

In a typical lecture, students may meet for a professor-led class once per week and meet with their section once or twice per week. These sections are critically important for asking questions, deepening understanding of the content, and collaborating with peers. 

3. Independent study

If colleges offer the opportunity for students to take on an independent study, it’s usually at the upper-division level. Students may be able to pursue an independent study as a capstone senior project, or to work through advanced material at their own pace.

In an independent study, students either complete a series of projects, assignments, and readings that are pre-agreed with a professor advisor or of their own design. They may meet weekly or monthly with that advisor, but students will complete the vast majority of the work on their own. 

Students should bear in mind that, while the freedom and flexibility that goes with an independent study can be appealing, this type of course won’t work for everyone. It goes without saying that a high level of organization, discipline, and self-direction is essential to success in an independent study. 

4. Seminar 

These small-group classes, think 25 students or fewer, are usually discussion-heavy and are designed to encourage a high level of engagement from students. Seminars usually consist of a higher number of short readings, the better to explore a specific set of material in depth. 

A staple of many humanities departments, seminars are offered at both introductory and advanced levels of study. For a great seminar experience, students should focus on quality (over quantity) of in-class participation and thoughtful written responses on assignments and projects.

5. Online and hybrid courses

More and more common nowadays, online classes can be offered both during the typical academic year and during summer sessions. Most often, online courses at the college level cover introductory-level material. 

It is worth noting that online classes offer a higher degree of flexibility for students balancing jobs and other commitments with school. If completing a for-credit internship or study abroad program, for instance, it’s worth looking into the university’s online course options. 

Similarly, a hybrid college class involves a combination of online and in-person instruction. Offering the flexible benefits of online courses with a collaborative element, hybrid courses can be a great option for students looking to take on jobs, internships, volunteer work, independent study, or other projects. 

6. Labs 

Essential to many STEM classes, labs are opportunities for students to conduct extended research and explorations of subject matter. They are often paired with a lecture-style class.

During lab sessions, students will work individually or in groups to gather data, conduct experiments, and solve complex problems. STEM enthusiasts will be familiar with labs from high school, and they will find similarities in the format of college-level labs. In college, labs most often meet at a different time than the lecture and will be longer in duration. 

7. Studio

These project-based classes focus on hands-on work and are common in the arts. In a studio class, students will follow an instructor as they learn various techniques and complete assignments that demonstrate mastery of the material. 

On a class to class basis, students will likely encounter a mix of short lectures, discussions, and independent work. As coursework for studio classes are often graded holistically in a portfolio format, it’s essential that students keep up with the pace of the course.

Prepare for college with expert guidance

The college application process is as exciting as it can be daunting, and families deserve excellent resources for navigating it. Whether your teen needs personal tutoring for the SAT® or an AP® exam or is looking to boost their extracurricular resume, iD Tech has something for every student. 

Plus, check out our recent expert Q & A about how to succeed in STEM in college and beyond, and visit our blog for more college-bound tips and tricks! 

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains. 

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