Quick Guide to College Course Types

Find the right college for you.

You’re going to have a lot of new experiences in college with different types and styles of courses. You may take a gen-ed in a large lecture hall, or find yourself doing research for a major-specific class in a lab. Here’s an overview of the different college course types and delivery styles.

Orientation Classes

An orientation course is a short educational program that formally introduces first-year college students to the school. Orientation helps new students learn about their college campus and its rules and familiarizes them with the services and resources that the school offers. Orientation classes are designed to get new students excited and prepared for the start of their academic journey. For most colleges, attending orientation is required.

First-Year Seminars

Many colleges now offer first-year seminars designed to help new students make the college transition. These courses will prepare you for future classes by providing the tools and study habits necessary for success. First-year seminars can be one-to-three credit electives, a full semester course, or part of a longer orientation program. However, these seminars differ from standard orientations, which are more about introducing the school, campus, and staff.

General Education Classes/Core Courses

As the first part of any degree, general education classes or “gen-eds” are the courses a student must take before getting into major-specific studies. General education classes are required by a college’s core curriculum and may include basic math, science, and humanities classes. For example, a student majoring in biology may still need two semesters of English courses as part of their general education. Some general education classes/core courses can be satisfied prior to first-semester enrollment if the student meets certain AP® and IB test scores.

two students in a laboratory

Major-Specific Classes

Major-specific classes are the classes required by your specific field of study. Your academic adviser can help you understand which courses are necessary for your major. It's important that you meet with your adviser at least once a semester to ensure that you remain on the path to satisfying these requirements.

Elective Classes

Unlike the process for general education and major-specific classes, students usually have a degree of freedom in choosing their elective classes. Even though elective credits may be a requirement for your major, your electives don’t necessarily have to be related to your field of study. Many students use elective classes as a way to explore educational interests outside of their major, such as an engineering student taking a dance class.

Lecture-Style Classes

Many gen-eds, electives, and lower-level major courses will be lecture-style classes. These are large classes held in a lecture hall, a theater-like room that may seat hundreds of students. The professor talks for the entire class while students take notes. Lecture classes are common in first-year courses. Students in these classes may also attend a related discussion class.

College Discussion Classes

Discussion classes (sometimes called sections) are often a required part of lecture classes. Discussions usually involve smaller groups of students led by a graduate student. You’ll do additional work, talk about the lecture, and have a chance to ask questions.

Laboratory Classes

Labs are usually part of a science lecture class. Students use what they’ve learned from the lectures to complete a laboratory assignment, such as creating a computer program or doing a physics experiment.

Studio-Style College Courses

Students who take hands-on classes such as art, theater, music, design, or photography will find themselves in a class environment that corresponds to what they are studying. A drawing class, for example, may be divided into two parts: a lesson class and a drawing studio.

Independent Study

For an independent-study class, a student and a professor design a study program for the student that is separate from regular courses. Independent study often requires a research project or a research review of readings on a central theme, as well as a series of papers or one major paper.

Online College Classes

Many traditional and online colleges offer classes to enrolled students over the internet. These online classes are usually conducted via a learning management system, a software or web application that students can use to submit assignments, see their syllabi, and even communicate with teachers and other students. Some courses may combine in-person class meetings with online course elements that are more self-paced and time-flexible.


What is a core subject in college?

Core academic subjects in college are the general education/core course requirements for each major, and they must be taken before starting major-specific studies. They can include basic classes in the humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences, and they may not all be directly related to your actual major.

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How long are college classes?

College courses can vary in length depending on the number of credits and how many days a week the class is held. Usually, some classes will run an hour and 15 minutes and meet twice a week. Some classes might be three hours long and meet once a week, while some may be as short as 50 minutes and meet three times a week. Lab classes and discussion classes will vary in length depending on the subject and number of credits they provide; they are usually between 2 and 4 hours long.

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What are the basic classes in college called?

The basic classes in college are called general education or core course requirements.

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