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In higher education in Canada and the United States, a course is a unit of teaching that typically lasts one academic term, is led by one or more instructors (teachers or professors), and has a fixed roster of students. A course is usually an individual subject. Students may receive a grade and academic credit after completion of the course.
In the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore, as well as parts of Canada, a course is the entire programme of studies required to complete a university degree, and the word "unit" or "module" would be used to refer to an academic course as it is referred to in other parts of the world, for example North America and the rest of Europe.
In between the two, in South Africa, a course officially is the collection of all courses (in the American sense, these are often called "modules") over a year or semester, though the American usage is common. In the Philippines, a course can be an individual subject (usually referred to by faculty and school officials) or the entire programme (usually referred to by students and outsiders).
Courses in American universities are usually on a time constraint. Some courses are only a few weeks long, one semester long, last an academic year (two semesters), and even three semesters long. A course is usually specific to the students' major and is instructed by a professor. For example, if a person is taking an organic chemistry course, then the professor would teach the students organic chemistry and how it applies to their life and or major. Courses can also be referred to as "electives". An elective is usually not a required course, but there are a certain number of non-specific electives that are required for certain majors.
Types of courses
Courses are made up of individual sessions, typically on a fixed weekly schedule.
There are different formats of course in universities:
- the lecture course, where the instructor gives lectures with minimal interaction;
- the seminar, where students prepare and present their original written work for discussion and critique;
- the colloquium or reading course, where the instructor assigns readings for each session which are then discussed by the members;
- the tutorial course, where one or a small number of students work on a topic and meet with the instructor weekly for discussion and guidance.
- the Directed Individual Study course, where a student requests to create and title an area of study for themselves which is more concentrated and in-depth than a standard course. It is directed under a tenured faculty member and approved by a department chair or possibly the dean within that specific college;
- the laboratory course, where most work takes place in a laboratory.
Many courses combine these formats. Lecture courses often include weekly discussion sections with smaller groups of students led by the principal instructor, another instructor, or teaching assistant. Laboratory courses often combine lectures, discussion sections, and laboratory sessions.
Students are expected to do various kinds of work for a course:
- Attending course sessions.
- Reading and studying course readings assigned in the course syllabus.
- Discussing material they have read.
- Writing short and long papers based on assigned reading and their own library research.
- Completing homework or problem sets.
- Completing laboratory exercises.
- Taking quizzes and examinations.
The exact work required depends on the discipline, the course, and the particular instructor. Unlike most European university courses, grades are generally determined by all of these kinds of work, not only the final examination.
Elective and required courses
An elective course is one chosen by a student from a number of optional subjects or courses in a curriculum, as opposed to a required course which the student must take. While required courses (sometimes called "core courses" or "general education courses") are deemed essential for an academic degree, elective courses tend to be more specialized. Elective courses usually have fewer students than the required courses.
The term elective is also used for a period of medical study conducted away from the student's home medical school, often abroad. Motivations for choosing such a program include a wish to experience other cultures, and to learn how to work in the clinical situations in other countries.
Typically, North American universities require students to achieve both breadth of knowledge across disciplines and depth of knowledge in a particular chosen subject area, known as a major. Thus, students of the Arts or Humanities are required to take some science courses, and vice versa. Normally, students are free to choose their particular electives from among a wide range of courses offered by their university, as long as the students possess the prerequisite knowledge to understand the subject matter being taught. An English major, for example, might also study one or two years of chemistry, biology or physics as well as mathematics and a foreign language.
Elective courses are also offered in the third and fourth years of university, though the choice is more restrictive and will depend upon the particular major the student has chosen. For example, at the University of British Columbia, students intending to specialize in Sanskrit as part of a major in Asian language and culture will usually have to complete several Sanskrit and Hindustani or Punjabi courses during the first two years of university, as well as additional courses in other languages of India in the third and fourth years of study. In addition to these required courses, however, students would choose among several third- and fourth-year elective courses on topics not directly related to India, such as the history and culture of China, Japan or Indonesia.