Lower-Division vs. Upper-Division Classes: How Do They Differ?

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Lower-Division vs. Upper-Division Classes: How Do They Differ?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Published on October 25, 2021


What are upper-division courses? What makes them different from lower-division courses? And why do course numbers matter?

Most four-year colleges divide undergraduate courses into lower-division and upper-division classes. For example, one common course numbering system classifies 100- and 200-level classes as lower division. At many schools, including the University of Arizona, these courses are primarily for first-year and second-year students.

In contrast, 300- and 400-level classes are considered upper division. These courses are primarily for juniors and seniors. Courses numbered 500 or higher typically represent graduate-level classes.

Other schools use different numbering systems. For example, lower-division courses may include 1000- and 2000-level classes, while upper-division options may consist of 3000- and 4000-level courses.

These distinctions matter for undergraduates. Taking an upper-division class in a new field can leave students struggling to keep up. But not taking enough upper-division classes might make it impossible to graduate.

What Are Lower-Division Courses?

Lower-division courses introduce students to an academic discipline. They provide an overview of foundational theories, concepts, and methods.

These introductory courses may cover a great deal of ground in less detail than upper-division courses. For example, a 100-level history class might cover several centuries or even millennia. History 101 at the University of Louisville covers a minimum of 1,000 years of history. When I taught the course, my syllabus guided students from 3000 BCE through 1500 CE.

Most general education courses fall into the lower division. These courses, such as English 101, introduce learners to college-level study in diverse fields like the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Taking a variety of lower-division gen ed courses can help first-year and second-year students choose a major.

Students gain knowledge and academic skills in lower-division courses that prepare them for upper-division classes. After building core skills in a discipline, undergraduates move into higher-level courses.

What Are Upper-Division Courses?

Upper-division courses build on the foundational knowledge gained during lower-division classes. These courses take an advanced approach and often require students to possess prior knowledge in the field.

At the University of Washington, for example, introduction to microeconomics is a 200-level course, while intermediate microeconomics is 300-level and advanced microeconomics is 400-level. Each course requires students to complete the prior class in the sequence as a prerequisite.

An upper-division class might feature more reading, longer projects or research papers, and a greater level of academic rigor.

Undergraduates typically take upper-division classes within their major. Depending on the discipline, majors may need to take a particular sequence of upper-division courses to complete departmental requirements.

Many colleges set a minimum number of upper-division coursework to graduate. At the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, students must complete 36 upper-division credits to earn a BA. The University of South Florida requires 42 upper-division credits for a BA. Students who do not meet the requirement cannot earn their degree.

When Should You Take Upper-Division Courses?

When should students take upper-division courses? And when should they avoid 300-level or higher classes?

Generally, academic advisors recommend that first- and second-year students proceed with caution before enrolling in upper-division coursework. At a minimum, students should contact the professor to ask about prerequisites or required knowledge before joining an upper-division course.

As a general rule, undergraduates should also avoid taking an upper-division class as their first course in an academic discipline.

Colleges expect students to take upper-division courses in their majors. However, enrolling in an upper-division class outside your major could leave you feeling overextended or unprepared for the academic expectations.

At the upper-division level, professors expect students to bring prior experience in the field to their coursework. When teaching 300- and 400-level history classes, for example, I expected undergraduates to know how to closely analyze a primary source, ask historical questions, and write persuasive papers backed by evidence. The 100- and 200-level history classes all emphasized teaching those skills.

Colleges divide classes into upper and lower divisions for a reason. The class level indicates which students should enroll and the course expectations. Undergraduates who pay attention to the class level can set themselves up for success.


Feature Image: Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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