Academic work at U.S. institutions of higher education is organized in concentrated clusters of subjects called courses. Each U.S. academic course occupies a scheduled amount of instructional time each term, in addition to laboratory, field exercises, homework, and research or creative requirements associated with the course.
The individual courses that make up the degree program can be divided into the following types:
Core courses: These constitute the foundation of a degree program and are required of all students. Students take a variety of courses in mathematics, English, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences to meet their core course requirements.
Major courses: A major is the subject in which a student chooses to concentrate. Most students major in one subject. However, some colleges offer the option of pursuing a double major with a related subject. Your major courses represent one-quarter to one-half of the total number of courses required to complete a degree.
Minor courses: A minor is a subject in which a student may choose to take the second greatest concentration of courses. The number of courses required for a minor tends to be half the number of major courses.
Elective courses: These courses may be chosen from any department. They offer opportunities to explore other topics or subjects you may be interested in and help make up the total number of credits required to graduate.
Successful completion of a course results in a student’s receiving a letter grade and academic credit for the course. Credit hours refer to the number of hours of instruction that a course provides each week. Degree programs require that a specified number of credit hours, and therefore courses, be accumulated by the student as a graduation requirement.
American universities employ a system of continual assessment and assign grades for each course taken. Almost everything you do for a class will influence your final grade. Examinations and tests, essays or written assignments, laboratory reports, laboratory or studio work, class attendance, and class participation may all be used to determine your final grade. This means it is essential to keep up with the reading and course work and to attend classes on a regular basis.
A variety of grading systems are used depending upon the nature of the work being assessed and the philosophy of the faculty or institution doing the assessing.
The most common grading system is the assignment of a numerical or alphabetical letter score to the results of examinations or submitted reports, projects, and papers. Numerical grading systems usually are arrayed on a scale running from 0 to 4.0, with 4 representing outstanding work. Letter systems generally run from A to F, with A representing outstanding work and F representing failure.
Some undergraduate schools and institutions do not use numerical or letter grades, but rather prepare detailed comments on student’s work, progress, and capabilities. Institutions that do not award grades are usually able to translate their reports into a grade scale if that is required by another institution or an employer.
Advanced academic work, such as theses and dissertations are frequently graded on a “pass-fail” basis, which can sometimes be augmented by appending terms like “honors” or “outstanding.” This approach is often used when the requirement is absolutely essential to a degree award and is either met or not.
The Credit System
Students at American universities complete their degrees when they have accumulated a certain number of “credits.” Usually you need somewhere between 130 and 180 credits to graduate. Sometimes a terms “semester/quarter hours” or “units” are used instead of credits. Each individual course you take each semester earns a specified number (usually three or four) of credits/hours/units. Your academic adviser will help you plan your course schedule for the academic year.