How Do College Classes Work? [2024 Guide]

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How do college classes work? Sorting out credit hours, major courses, minor & elective courses is enough to make anyone’s head spin. We’ve got the answers you need!

How Do College Classes Work

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If you have found yourself asking how college classes and credits work, you are not alone. The entire college experience can be confusing to people who have never had reason to dig into it in detail.

How Do College Classes Work?

How College Classes Work

College classes are generally divided into three categories: elective courses, core courses, and major courses.

Core courses are those you must take to graduate. Major courses are courses that you must take to complete your major. Elective courses fill the spot in your schedule in which you need credits but don’t have to take a set core or major course.

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A typical college student takes a wide selection of core courses during the first two years. After that, course loads typically depend on major. Whatever you choose as your major will usually determine the courses you take in your third and fourth years.

College vs. High School

There are significant differences between high school and college classes.

  • High school students typically spend about 30 hours per week in class. College students usually spend between 12 and 16 hours in the classroom.
  • While high school classes are generally limited to 35 students or fewer, college classes may seat hundreds of students.
  • High school teachers generally present material from a textbook. College professors rarely use textbooks alone but supplement their lectures with written materials.
  • High school students are generally told what they need to learn. College professors expect their students to figure out what they need to learn based on provided materials.

The biggest difference between high school and college classes are the expectations. College students are expected to take full responsibility for their attendance and performance.

How Many Classes Do You Take per Day in College?

How Many Classes Do You Take per Day in College

College also differs from high school in terms of the number of daily classes taken. While a typical high school student might take six or seven classes per day, college students are more likely to attend that many in a week.

Much of it depends on what’s being studied and whether or not you are a full or part-time student. Colleges typically classify full-time students as those seeking to earn between 12 and 18 credit hours for the term. Part-time students typically earn between 6 and 11 credit hours per term.

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Three credit hours for a single course usually translates into three actual hours per week spent in class. An additional 6 to 9 hours is usually spent studying. Likewise, a course worth six credit hours would likely have you in class for six hours weekly with an additional 12 hours of independent study.

Assuming you are a full-time student with 18 credit hours per semester, those 18 weekly class hours are spread out over five days. Each class period might be an hour long.

This would mean a schedule that had you attending four classes three days per week and three classes on the other two days.

How Long Is a Class in College?

How Long Is a Class in College

How long are college classes? College class length can be described in two ways. The first is the total amount of time it takes to complete a class over the course of a semester. The second is the amount of time a given class takes out of your weekly schedule.

Most colleges and universities define the fall and spring semesters as 12 to 15 weeks. Summer semesters are generally shorter.

The total time it takes to complete an online class is quite different. There are accelerated online classes that can be completed in as little as five weeks. There are also longer classes that run for 12 to 15 weeks.

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In terms of weekly time commitments, the best way to understand it is to go back and look at credit hours. A credit hour equals the amount of time spent in the classroom. That means a three-credit-hour class will probably have you sitting in the classroom for three hours per week.

That three hours could be scheduled in a single sitting or over multiple days. Here is an example of three different classes you might take in a week:

  • Class A: one hour each on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
  • Class B: two hours each on Tuesday and Thursday
  • Class C: three hours only on Thursday

The way classes are scheduled can make it a bit challenging to manage your time in college. With a little practice though, most students get the hang of it.

How Do College Class Schedules Work?

How Does College Class Schedules Work

One of the things you might find a bit different in college is that you have the freedom to manage your own time.

You sign up for classes that meet your needs for that particular semester, then schedule your time around them. That’s why it pays to know what days of the week and times of day classes meet.

A hypothetical 24-hour schedule for a typical college student includes three different classes of one hour each. Between each class is time to go over your notes and do a little bit of independent study.

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The schedule also includes time set aside for intern opportunities, meals, and a bit of socialization. It’s clear that this schedule would be ideal for someone who likes to get up early and not stay up late.

Your schedule could be equally relaxed or more complicated, depending on your course load.

The most important thing to remember here is that your actual classes are subject to an ironclad schedule. You are free to do with your non-class time as you see fit, but classes will run as scheduled for the most part. It’s up to you to be on time for all of them.

It’s also your responsibility to get work done between classes. Again, professors probably won’t tell you what you have to learn. They will only impart the knowledge and tell you when specific assignments are due.

How Do College Credits Work?

How Do College Credits Work

You already know that credit hours determine how much time you spend in class per week. Perhaps you’re wondering how credit hours translate into college degrees.

Well, every course you successfully complete awards you with an equal number of credits toward your degree.

A typical Bachelor of Arts or Science degree requires completing 120 credits over a four-year period covering eight semesters. That works out to 15 credit hours per semester. You would spend around 15 hours per week in class every semester to earn those credits.

Obviously, there is more to it than just attending class. There are also outside assignments to be done and exams to pass. The key to graduating on time is to make sure you complete and pass all of your classes during each semester.

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Obtaining a Master’s degree usually requires an additional 30 to 64 credit hours above and beyond what was earned for a Bachelor’s degree.

If you were looking to get an Associate’s degree instead, you would probably only need 60 credits earned over two years of study. That means 60 credit hours over four semesters would get it done.

It’s important to note that some colleges and universities base tuition schedules and scholarships on credit hours.

In other words, a scholarship program might dictate that you earn a certain number of credits per semester. That number would be non-negotiable if you wanted to keep your scholarship going all the way until graduation.

Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes

student studying on his laptop in a cafe

Modern technology can allow you to take college courses without actually visiting a campus. Online classes are gaining popularity among students that have grown up on technology. They are quite different in terms of experience though.

The vast majority of work required for the best online college courses is done over the internet and can be completed right from your own laptop. In some cases, you may even find colleges with free laptops as part of their student support services.

Also, a school will typically offer an automated learning management portal that acts as the hub for classes, communications, etc. The quality of the hub can determine the quality of the student’s education.

Online classes can be conducted completely online. However, they don’t have to be. There are online programs that require students to visit a campus once or twice per semester to participate in group study activities.

Another thing to consider is that online classes may offer a mix of self-scheduled work and live components. Self-scheduled work would include things like watching prerecorded videos, reading text-based assignments, and take online exams.

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An example of a live element would be a lecture given by the professor who expects students to watch in real-time.

Communicating with professors and other students in an online setting is generally a matter of utilizing online forms, e-mail, and chat services. Professors are sometimes available for in-person meetings when students are struggling.

As you can see, online classes offer many of the same benefits as traditional classes. Their primary advantages lie in not having to commute and being able to do the required work on your own schedule.

Start Early – Take College Classes in High School

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Did you know that you may not have to wait until you graduate from high school to start taking college classes?

Some high schools offer a limited menu of AP courses for students that meet certain academic requirements. There is also the possibility of taking courses at a local community college.

Why take college classes in high school? Here are just a few reasons:

  • You can get an early start on college, earning some of your credits while you’re still in high school.
  • Starting early shows colleges and universities that you’re serious about getting your degree.
  • You’ll have the opportunity to learn things in college courses you would never learn in high school.
  • College classes represent an opportunity to broaden your horizons and fill your schedule.

The thing to understand about college classes is that they are tough.

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It would be smart to think long and hard about the amount of work required before signing up for such classes. It’s also a smart idea to talk to teachers, school counselors, parents, and even other college students before making a decision.

In the event that you decide college classes are right for you in high school, a guidance counselor can help you decide what classes would be best.

Your guidance counselor can work with you based on your academic performance and your future college goals. Heed the advice you get from your guidance counselor.

Deciding How Many Classes to Take

college students carrying textbooks while walking in university hallway

How many classes do you take in college?

College classes are substantially different from high school classes. Remember that your decision to go to college will mean an opportunity for you to choose your own classes and make your own schedule. The classes you eventually choose will form the foundation of your career.

Consider how much time you actually have to put into studying. Consider whether or not you want to work while you’re in college. In short, you need to think about how heavy a course load you want in relation to how quickly you want to graduate and the degree you want to pursue.

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Jordan Meeks
Jordan is pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and earned her Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management and her Bachelor's in Business Administration. Jordan's research focuses on adults returning to college and online degree programs.