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What Is Course Load?

Students in a college class.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 March 2014
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Course load refers to the number of classes or hours spent in class a person takes while in college. Usually it determines whether a student is considered full or part time. Some academic programs require that students study at full time and take a minimum number of courses per semester, trimester or quarter, and others may have a maximum course load and don’t generally allow students to take more than a certain amount of classes in each period, since this may diminish chances of academic success.

Different types of colleges can define course load in various ways, and also in the ways they determine minimums, maximums and full or part-time status. There is also usually a change when students study at the graduate level. Fewer courses are needed to reach full-time status. In some programs, a single class that takes place over numerous hours may be a full-time course load, while in other programs, people must take about four or more classes at the undergraduate level to be considered full-time students.

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One of the reasons that consideration of course load is important can be due to the way aid is apportioned, particularly in the US. Most state and federal grants are only given to students who attend full-time. Student loans may be available for half time or part-time attendance, however. Scholarships of many sorts may require students to take a minimum number of courses too, and it can be helpful to know if the minimum can be met successfully and the scholarship maintained.

Generally, a full load in most semester-based classes at the undergraduate level is four to five classes. Each of these classes is usually broken up into units, and a unit is roughly equivalent to one hour spent in class per week. A few science and math classes may be four units, while most liberal arts courses are three units. If a person takes minimum full time work, or 12 units a semester, they will not graduate in four years. Most people must take five classes a semester in order to meet graduation requirements within four years.

Yet working at a slower pace may be more suited to students who work and attend college, and to some students with learning disabilities. An extra year can be worth it if it translates to an easier schedule or better grades. Some students are more adept and can work at a much faster pace, easily handling six or more classes per semester. If there is a course load maximum, they may be able to petition their school to allow them to take more classes, so they finish in less than four years, or can complete two majors in a four-year period.

College students should always be aware that the way units are apportioned and course load is determined can be different when students attend colleges with a quarter system or with a trimester system. Each system has its own peculiarities, and it’s important to figure out the intricacies involved. School counselors are excellent resources in this respect and can help students determine how to figure out the most appropriate course load.

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