Tuesday, January 08, 2008
The Dreaded "300 Level" Course
Although I've been doing this for some time, I still don't fully understand how course levels are determined. This is particularly true in the social sciences and humanities, where you don't have relatively hard and fast prerequisites to settle the question.
Is “Women in Film” properly a 200 level course or a 300 level course? What about “Psychology of Aging” or “Civil Liberties”? More interestingly, how do you know?
In my neck of the woods, this is becoming a high-stakes question.
By law, cc's here aren't allowed to offer classes above the 200 level. The idea is that 300 level classes are intended for juniors and seniors majoring in a given discipline, so they properly belong to the four-year colleges. (In return, we have a very strong claim on having credits for 100 and 200 level classes transfer.) If we overstep our curricular bounds, the four-year schools won't take our credits in transfer, and our graduates will have to repeat – and pay for repeating – courses they've already taken.
Worse, it's at least theoretically possible that continued, sustained curricular overreach could land us in serious trouble with the state, which would not be a happy outcome for us.
Over time, as one might expect, there have been border skirmishes. Northern Midtier State says Advanced Basketweaving is a 200 level class, and it accepts our credits in transfer; Southern Midtier State says it's a 300 level class and gives our grads a hard time. We defend ourselves by pointing out that NMS says it's a 200-level class, but you can imagine how much that means to the faculty at SMS.
Now that the state is pushing harder for regularized transfer of credits, the stakes are being raised. Now we aren't just talking about a course here and there; we're talking about the entire midsection of the curriculum. Some of the four-year schools have started renumbering some 200 level courses as 300 level, specifically to defeat the transfer initiative. (They'd rather have the students pay them for the course a second time.) Of course, others haven't, and there's a surprising level of disagreement among the four-year schools when you get down to specifics. And, to be fair, we'd love to run some of the classes that the four-year schools claim as their exclusive domain. Both sides have an economic interest in the outcome of the squabbling, so nobody can credibly claim impartiality. In the absence of some sort of authoritative list of what goes where, it can be hard to know where intellectual arguments end and resource battles begin.
So I'll ask my wise and worldly readers, since y'all can afford a certain honesty.
How do you know a 300 level class when you see one? Is there a reasonable way to distinguish the 200 from the 300 level on a course-by-course basis? And if there is, how does one square “statewide transfer” with local faculty governance?
So, for example, I teach logic. My course is supposed to produce students who have mathematical/logical reasoning skills. This goal has a bundle of sub goals, of which the official outline for my course needs to satisfy at least %51. the paperwork includes what amount to short-answer essay questions explaining how we meet the goal and a sample syllabus.... in addition to the official course outline.
The course outline and MnTC paperwork is aproved by our local curriculum committee -- which is %50 faculty and %50 administration.
Recently, the state did an audit of the transfer curriculum courses -- they selected some they didn't think were actually gen eds and asked for clarification. Our Medical Ethics course was on the list, so we did a little revision of the course description and wrote an explanation that the course was a philosophy course and not a course in professional behavior for students in health care fields... This paperwork went to our local curriculum committee for aproval...
So, the short answer is that the transfer people need to place some level of trust at the campus level -- as any other alternative is really, really icky.
In my field (political science), I think the dividing line is reasonably clear: general subfield courses (introduction to American/comparative/IR/theory) get offered at the 100 and 200 levels, while specific geographic areas or foci within subfields (Politics of Western Europe; Congress; Marxist Political Thought) tend to be 300+. But sometimes those lines are on the fuzzy side; I've taught places where Congress was 200-level and Methods was 300-level, and places where the opposite was the case.
If I were the king of rationalizing curricula, I think the numbering scheme would say "if you want to take a course at the 300 level, you need to have taken a prior course in that subfield at 100/200." In political science, that would give latitude for about 5-6 courses at the community college level; most don't offer anything beyond 1 (or 2 in Texas). Ironically, if CCs offered more of the political science curriculum, you'd probably see more resistance to transfer of anything beyond the obligatory American Government course(s)... the content of which most of us are resigned to having to reteach in upper level courses anyway.
But that doesn't work in a lot of fields, particularly ones that have a big gen ed burden in addition to majors or ones that are strongly cumulative (differential equations is plausibly a sophomore course, but it's got the whole calc sequence as a prereq).
The only problem with Huge State University was that it had a different way to number its courses. 100-level was for freshmen and sophomores, while 200-level was for juniors and seniors. (300 and 400 were for grad programs.) When I went to Largeish Private University, the evaluators didn't consider this and gave me 100-level and 200-level credits - even though the courses were a 200-level and a 300-level at LPU.
At LPU, which I consider to have a more standard numbering system, 100-levels typically went to the "Intro to Large General Topic" or "Intro to Basic Topic that We Offer Only to Nonmajors." For the latter, examples would include Public Speaking and Business Communication in the Communication department, or Spanish for the Medical Professions in the language department.
I think 200-level would be for the intros to the specialized topics - for Communication, the 200-level would be for Intro to Advertising, PR, Journalism, etc. 300-level would be advanced topics in the specialized area, and 400-level would be some practical application (like Advertising Campaigns) or capstone course to tie everything together across the department's specializations.
In general, our courses do get more focused in subject matter the higher the number (so broad period or genre surveys would likely be lower down, and specific author or period or theme classes would likely be later), but the primary difference resides in the kinds of skills students are expected to learn or already to know at each level. In English, that means that lower-level courses are focused on close-reading; learning/practicing how to analyze literature closely; how to talk about genre; and basic historical/literary content. Mid-level classes involve the introduction of more secondary sources, criticism, theory, and research skills. Upper-level classes require yet more of those skills, and expect them to be turned to a sustained project.
(That being said--at my undergrad/grad institution, the numbering system from 150-399 was used to designate the period of the material covered, with medieval literature getting the lower numbers and modern literature the later ones. Totally pointless and confusing, but they weren't exactly thinking about transfer students.)
My department gets a decent number of transfer students, and courses from CCs are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, usually by the faculty to teach equivalent classes. Personally, I look to see whether the number/range of texts is roughly equivalent, and (most importantly) whether the nature and volume of the written assignments is comparable. Usually CC lit classes transfer in as 200 level, but occasionally they'll count as 300.
Several 4 yr programs in the area accept our 2 yr degree. The policy course is required for our degree, and the 4 yr programs don't require an additional undergrad policy course if the student comes to them from our program.
Everything from the text to the assignments to the expectations of the student are more rigorous than the 100 and 200 level courses I teach. That doesn't really answer your question, though, does it.
In general, lower-div classes are intro survey classes, or easy classes designed for non-majors.
If we, like potential transfers, were actually restricted to only taking lower-div classes in our first two years, I think most people would tire of the offerings VERY quickly.
Foe example, the communtiy college offers a wide variety of marketing courses. At all of the four-year schools, the into marketing course is a junior/senior level course, largely because of the fairly extensive set of rperequisites that we all have (2 semesters of intro econ, stat, sometimes business law). So do we accept the community college intro to marketing course? What happens to some kid with 12 or 15 hours in marketing, none of which transfer?
I don't know how to determine what's right or fair, and I'm damned glad it's not my job.
Thus, although we have vestiges of the freshman-->senior classification, including number ranges of 100, 200, 300, 400 (up to 999 for dissertation work), there is great flexibility. Some departments with well structured undergraduate paths have well structured numbering--100 would be an introductory course for non-majors, whereas majors would take a 200-level intro course, and so forth. Other departments might start their numbering at 200 or even 300, if they primarily serve graduate students.
My department is rather unstructured. I teach a 200-level intro course (lectures, exams, interpretive paper) as well as a 300-level intro course (readings, discussion, research projects). The material in both courses is similar, but the 300-level course takes a more sophisticated approach and requires more active engagement from the students. Any undergraduate can take either course, or both.
Transfer credits, on the other hand, are generally done by comparing syllabi and coursework. In my field, we regularly get requests for credit transfers from Asian schools which may not even use numbering at all. So an advisor or a faculty member has to eyeball the syllabus and coursework and make a decision. Once the decision has been made, it goes into the system.
In the specific case of transfers from CCs, even though much of this process is already done, we are under a mandate to rationalize things and simplify the transfer process for students who deliberately attend a CC with a concrete university degree as a final goal. So far it has gone quite well, to the point that we are actually working with the largest CC here (the state technical college) to set up certain of their courses to act as pre-reqs for certain of our courses. I sense some conflict in the future--there is still sentiment here that a CC course, like a high school course, should equal 1/2 a university course just by definition--but I think that the syllabus-workload approach will take care of a lot of that.
We'll see, though. The real work hasn't started yet.
If your prerequisites consist exclusively of 100-level courses, you are very likely a 200-level course (however you happen to be named).
If your prerequisites include coursework which requires 100-level courses, you are very likely a 300-level course.
If grad students can get something out of taking the course, you're a 400-level course.
We don't have Gen Ed requirements- they're expected to have been covered in High School, where all students sit the same exams so there is'nt inter-high school variation like there is in the States.
The courses will usually have the same lectures, but the assessment needs to be at 200 or 300 level - I think the exams are harder, or 300 requires a research paper. So it's a different way of looking at the same content, a requirement of a more indepth, mature consideration of the same material.
Makes no sense, I know, but it's a vestige from times long ago and has become well entrenched.
If you need only 100-level courses as entrance prerequisites, 200-level.
If you need any 200-level courses as prerequisites, 300-level. (With logic applied to two-part half-classes, if you have such things. I'm used to a non-semestered, full-year school.)
The criteria relate mostly to where it fits in the curriculum. Since a chemistry major needs to complete organic chem by the end of their sophomore year to be on track to graduate in four years, organic chem is a lower division course. (There was quite a battle on that one, but how can you claim it is a Junior course if you can't become a Junior without passing it?)
Note that, unlike what Philosophy Factory describes, everyone (university and CC) has to do the paperwork to show that the master syllabus for their course agrees with the statewide definition.
I think Michigan has come up with some kind of retrofit that tries to accomplish the same goal, but I think it is limited to CC transfer. Florida applies to all state schools and some private schools have signed on as well (for obvious competitive reasons).
For the first time I am teaching 300 level courses and I struggle with what makes it different--should I expect more? the reading be harder? assignments and exams be harder? In undergrad I couldn't tell, as a student, much difference between 100 -400 level in my field. Perhaps my former professors had the same problems?
Oregon tries to have consistent course numbering in all the public 2 year and 4 year colleges for clear transferability, so that a WR 121 at a CC is the same as WR 121 at a university. Basically, that works out about right, with some quirks because some of the CC's have a 2-course (2-term) sequence while not all the universities have the same sequence. The question gets stickier because the WR 122 at the CC is WR 222 here, and the WR 123 at the CC doesn't exist here but is folded into the WR 222, sort of. Then we have the tech writing WR 227 at CC and WR 327 at the university, which can cause some problems for transfer credits. Also, some high schools teach writing through College Now programs affiliated with the CC's and those credits are supposed to transfer to the universities, yet the WR 121 at a high school may or may not actually cover what the WR 121 covers at a CC or at a university.