Does 101 = easy?

September 18, 2011

So I am a part of a committee that is busy discussing what the different levels of college courses mean (i.e. 100, 200, 300, and 400 level courses).  Many different people tend to view these distinctions differently.  Here are a few common views:

  • 100-level courses are easier than upper level with 400-level courses containing the ‘most difficult’ information.
  • 100-level courses are typically taken by freshman, 200-level by sophomores and so on.
  • 100-level courses teach basic knowledge that will be needed to upper level courses.  400-level courses thus can assume that students have been exposed to the necessary background knowledge and skills.

Now all of these distinctions are not necessarily isolated from one another.  Of course if we see freshman as primarily taking 100-level courses then these would assume the least amount of knowledge and thus probably cannot (or do not) introduce information where extensive background is needed.  Many times these distinctions are pretty clear between lower level (100 & 200) and upper level (300 & 400). What we have been busy grappling with is attempting to distinguish what is the difference between 100- and 200-level courses (besides from who tends to take them) and 300- and 400-level courses (probably less distinction here than between 100- and 200-level).

A common experience that I have is that my PSYC 101 course is often first perceived by the students as supposed to be easy.  When in reality, it may be one of the more difficult classes in our major.  It is not difficult because the material is taught at a high level…the difficulty actually comes with the breadth of material covered.  It is what is sometimes referred to as a ‘survey course’ where students are introduced to many different fields and theories on our discipline.  So unlike the majority of courses within our major (where you focus on one area or theory) in PSYC 101 we cover many areas as a more superficial level.  So when I think of whether 100-level courses = easy, I tend to disagree.  And I believe that many other teachers of 100-level courses would agree….but it does seem that this is the belief of the students (at least in the beginning before they get their first exam/paper back).

What I rather believe 101 courses are (or what I feel they should be) is as a way to introduce a novice student to a new area of study, but in a way that they can see the application to either their own lives in college or in life or in an interdisciplinary way that shows the student how interconnected much of human knowledge/art/skill is.  This is the way I teach my PSYC 101 course.  I do not see this as a class to recruit majors and then get them ready for upper level courses.  I see this as a course that any student can use no matter where they go in life.  Fortunately, I think that focusing on the latter actually addresses the former.

But I get a bit off topic, right now I am in the middle of what I think is a fascinating and important debate about how we label our courses.  What meaning we give to these numbers can potentially be used to help inform our curriculum and our student when we advise.  At this point there is language of  Foundational Skills, Emerging Skills, and Skill Mastery.  I think I am the one who first brought this to my current group, but I am quite sure I commandeered this language from the CLA workshop I attended last year.  It seems to fit well, but only has three levels (doesn’t map perfectly on the traditional 4 level course structure).  I hope that this discussion helps to inform us in our attempts at current curricular revision.  It has certainly begun some interesting debate and also helped us to see what some future issues will be as we continue.