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The Undergraduate Classroom Experience

Active participation is expected in the classroom

11 April 2008

Students are expected to participate in classroom discussions. (Michael Conroy, © AP Images)

By Linda Tobash

Different courses and professors have different requirements for students, but in general, U.S. colleges require students to participate in class discussions and activities, and to do assignments throughout the course. Final grades are often based on a combination of interim and final examinations, as well as this other coursework. The author explains some of the various practices. Linda Tobash is the director of University Placement Services at the Institute of International Education.

The U.S. undergraduate classroom environment is generally one where students are expected to actively participate in the learning experience. While each professor will have his or her own teaching style and expectations for students, most often students are expected to be active learners. Usually during the first class, the professor will provide students with a course syllabus—or direct the students to the course Web site on which the syllabus will be posted. This syllabus outlines the objectives for the course, the reading and work assignments, the grading policy, the attendance policy, and frequently the instructor's approach or philosophy. Some common expectations that professors will most likely hold include the following:

The learner is expected to attend class. At many institutions, the professor sets the attendance policy. At others there may be an institution-wide attendance policy established; e.g., students are expected not to miss more than three classes. It is not uncommon—and at some institutions it is mandatory—for attendance to be monitored. Often poor attendance will affect the final grade (see sidebar) a student receives. Also, some professors give "pop" (i.e., unannounced) quizzes. If a student is not there, he or she misses the quiz, which can also hurt the student's final grade.

The learner is expected to be prepared for class. In the course syllabus, the professor generally will identify all assignments. Students are expected to come to class having read the material to be covered and to be ready to discuss it. Sometimes students are expected to form study groups and to work together on projects. Most college guides stress the importance of keeping up with the work and of not getting behind. The volume of work can be high, and usually it is impossible for the student to "catch up" once he or she falls behind. So the key is to "keep up."

The learner is expected to turn in all assignments on time. Assignments, e.g., papers or projects, turned in late usually will result in a lower grade. Some professors may refuse to accept a late assignment under any circumstance.

The learner is expected to participate in class. In large lecture classes, where there may be well over 200 students, discussion among professors and students might be limited. However, many of an individual's classes will be much smaller, and the ability to participate in discussions frequently will be part of the grade. Students are expected not only to answer questions but to ask questions as well. The goal in most classes is for students to synthesize the material being learned and formulate their own opinions. In other words, students are expected not just to be able to master the material but also to develop, articulate, and defend their own opinions around a subject, theme, or content area.

But what should the undergraduate student expect in terms of the types of classes he or she might take? There might be any number of different types of courses in which the undergraduate student will be engaged. It is not unusual during the first year to be enrolled in large lecture courses with 100 or more students. These large-lecture style formats generally cover a large amount of material, and students are expected to take comprehensive notes. There might be frequent quizzes or tests. Students might be required to meet with a smaller number of students in study groups—either in a face-to-face (F2F) mode or through a Web-based study program.

Most courses, though, will be smaller in size, with up to 30 or 40 students in a class and where student interaction is critical. As one takes more advanced classes, the class size often becomes smaller, with some courses being held as seminars—sometimes with 10 or fewer students. Again, being prepared for class and able to participate actively is very important in these smaller settings.

Other types of classes might include labs, most frequently held in the hard sciences and mathematics, where the focus is on conducting experiments. Fine artists will find that a number of their classes will be in studio art where they will both cover concepts and work on projects. Similarly, dancers, actors, vocalists, and other musicians will have a large number of their courses focused on practice and performance.

Students can arrange for some courses to be taken as independent study. Usually these students work with a professor to design a course of study involving individual research, papers, and a schedule of meetings with the professor over the term.

On a growing number of campuses, students need to choose between delivery options: resident (face-to-face) or Web-based (distance education) courses. It is not uncommon for students to take some courses in an actual classroom and some via the Web. Even if one never takes a distance education course, there is a growing trend for professors to use the Web to post additional information and assignments, as well as direct students to additional resources. It is, therefore, important to get used to the Web-based course functionality implemented at the institution.

Some students will be engaged in internships as part of their degree study. The goal is to supplement their study with real-world experience and also to give students a chance to see if this field is really where they want to be. Usually students are employed in companies or businesses closely related to their major. If offered for degree credit, students often will be required to participate in periodic class meetings that enable them to reflect on their internship experiences. A salary might be offered, but many internships are unpaid or offer minimal financial compensation. In some fields, e.g., engineering, it is highly recommended that students engage in internships over summer breaks. Usually these summer internships do not carry college credit.

Another effective model is to incorporate service learning into courses or to have students engage in service learning experiences as part of the curriculum. Service learning focuses on having students use what they learn in the classroom to solve problems and issues in a specific community. In addition to helping the community, the goal is to instill in students a civic responsibility and to facilitate a sense of democracy and citizenship.


The most common grading scale in the United

States is the A – F / 0 – 4 scale:

A = 4

B = 3

C = 2

D = 1 (U.S. concept)

F = 0 (failure) [sometimes called E]

Other common grades:

I = incomplete

W= withdrawal

WU = unofficial withdrawal

Audit = take course for no credit, no grade, attend and complete assignments

Pass/Fail = take course for either Pass or Fail, no specific passing grade

Pass/No Credit = take course for either Pass or No Credit, no negative points

Each professor establishes the criteria that he or she will use to evaluate work and assign a final grade for the course. Professors generally inform students of the grading criteria on the first day of class by including it on the course syllabus.

Often professors will explain how they grade tests and how they grade research papers. Very rarely will one’s final grade depend on just one paper or test. Usually there is a range of items that will be evaluated. Some combination of the following criteria might be used:

• % class participation

• % quizzes or interim tests

• % midterm exam

• % final exam

• % final research paper

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.


Students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte attend a lecture in an amphitheater-style hall. (Wade Bruton, UNC Charlotte)