If you’re starting off at college for the first time and you’re finally going to choose your classes, you’ll want to know that college classes are a bit different from high school classes — there are different types of college classes. What you do in each type and what you can expect from them will vary.
From my experience, there are four major types of college classes: lectures, seminars, discussions, and labs.
This is your typical large class. Most college lectures are taught in (you guessed it) a large lecture hall by a professor.
A typical lecture consists of the professor talking for the length of the class and everybody taking notes. PowerPoint or overhead projectors are common, as well as writing on the chalkboard. Interaction between the students and the professor doesn’t usually extend beyond students asking the professor to clarify something.
Large lectures aren’t personal. Unless you go specifically out of your way to meet your professor, chances are he or she will never know your name, considering there may be as many as 500 students in a single class. Most lectures will have about a hundred students, give or take. Attendance usually isn’t mandatory, since it’s tough to take roll when there are so many students.
As you progress in college, the sizes of lecture classes will decline, until you’re in a rather small class.
A seminar is actually pretty similar to a high school class — it’s generally a small group of 20-30 students and a professor. Seminars are used for classes which need to be more personal and thrive on interaction between students and professor, such as a writing class or a literature class.
Seminar classes in college involve a lot of group discussion. Since there are so few students, you’ll come to know most of your class. Your professor will also recognize you, and attendance will (usually) be mandatory.
Discussion classes — also known as discussion sections or just “sections” — are a required part of many lecture classes.
The purpose of discussion sections is to provide additional support for what you learn in lecture. Discussion sections are taught by a teacher’s assistant (TA), typically a graduate student. The average class will have about 20-30 people.
What you do in a discussion section will vary from class to class. For some classes, you’ll be doing additional work to the homework you’re assigned already. In others, it’ll be open for you to ask questions for your TA to clarify. Some classes will be much like a seminar, where you openly discuss what was taught in lecture. In my math section for example, we would take weekly quizzes.
Whenever you need help, sections are one of the best places to go for it. Your TA is a huge help here, and a good relationship with your TA can help a lot. Any time you need something clarified, go to section to clear it up.
Attendance for sections can be mandatory or optional, it really depends on the class and what happens in section. Even if your discussion is optional, that doesn’t mean you should blow it off all the time — drop in now and then to make sure you still have a solid grasp of the course material.
Lab classes typically come alongside science classes. In a lab class, you’ll be applying the knowledge you’ve learned in a lecture to complete an assignment of some sorts. For a computer programming class, you might have to write a quick program. For a physics class, you might have to design/perform an experiment.
A lab class will sometimes give you additional credits to the lecture class, as well as a separate grade, which means that you’re going to be doing a good bit of work in these. Labs are usually mandatory.