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100 and 200 Level Courses

Are 200-level courses more rigorous than 100 level?

There's a recurring debate on my campus about mandating a certain number of 200 level classes for a degree.  Advocates tend to frame the argument around academic rigor. 200 level classes are more rigorous than 100, the argument goes, so we should require some 200 levels in every program to ensure that students are appropriately challenged.

August 24, 2018
 
 

Are 200-level courses more rigorous than 100 level?

There's a recurring debate on my campus about mandating a certain number of 200 level classes for a degree.  Advocates tend to frame the argument around academic rigor. 200 level classes are more rigorous than 100, the argument goes, so we should require some 200 levels in every program to ensure that students are appropriately challenged.

The argument strikes me as hinging on the premise.  If the premise about course numbers correlating with rigor is correct, then the argument makes sense.  But I’m not sure the premise is correct.

For example, in my own discipline of political science, “Intro to International Relations” would usually be a 100, and “American Foreign Policy” would be a 200.  It's not clear to me that the latter is “harder” in any meaningful way. It's narrower, but that's not the same thing.

And that's within a single discipline.  Across the curriculum, it gets weirder. Is Literature by Women more or less rigorous than Calculus III?  More to the point, how do you know?

(Theoretically, one could use Bloom’s taxonomy.  But I’d be hard-pressed to claim that most of the people on either side of the argument use that.)

Outside of strictly linear progressions, course numbers signify different things.  They could signal rigor. They could signal an expectation of previous knowledge picked up in a prerequisite.  Or they could signal greater specificity of topic, as opposed to a broader survey at the 100 level. Specificity can allow for rigor, but it certainly doesn't guarantee it.

The arbitrariness of course numbers becomes clearer when we negotiate transfer agreements with four year schools.  It's not unusual to see courses we designate as 200 labeled as 300 there. That way, they don't have to “give away” credits.  Put differently, they can force students to pay for the same course twice. (Statewide transfer rules don't necessarily apply to courses in the major.). In the absence of a widespread understanding of what numbers mean -- or a central authority to assign them -- they become tools for other purposes.

I understand the argument for requiring a certain number of 200 level courses, and would support it if I thought that was what the numbers meant.  But I’m just not sure that’s true.

Wise and wordly readers, what do you understand course numbers to mean?

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