Transitioning to upper division classes

HANNAH LEE / AGGIE

Managing the transition from lower division to upper division courses

It is the natural progression of a student’s academic plan to begin with lower division courses and then continue their studies into more narrow subjects provided in upper division courses. While all strive for success, according to experienced students, the transition is easy for some but quite difficult for others.

Maya Barak, a first-year communication major, took an upper division class earlier in her college career than she had expected.

“I didn’t really think about it as a different [type of] class going into it,” Barak said. “I just kind of thought of it as like another history class because like I really like history so I didn’t really think about the fact that it was upper-[division class] until [the professor] started talking on the first day about how much work we were actually [going to] do.”

Unlike Barak, Robin Strasser, a fourth-year managerial economics major, had a more difficult time in her first upper-division class her sophomore year at UC Davis.

“I think it was [Economics] 101: [Intermediate Macro Theory], [and] I was a sophomore,” Strasser said. “It was super hard but my counselor warned me it was going to be super hard […] so I was prepared for it but it was still a lot of work.”

In some majors, the transition to upper-division courses is more difficult due to heavier workloads or hard concepts.

“Yeah I was definitely nervous going into [Intermediate Macro Theory],” Strasser said.  “My teacher was super nice, but it was still really hard. I was still nervous for it the entire class because of how much work it was. I think I definitely had to spend a lot more time on homework than I was used to.”

From Strasser’s first upper-division class her sophomore year to her final quarter at UC Davis, she has greatly improved her studying skills.

“[My] time management is much better. Procrastination, I have learned, is a very bad thing,” Strasser said. “I definitely learned to stop procrastinating as much because it gave me more time if I had a problem and didn’t understand something it gave me a lot more time to figure it out and ask for help for that.”

Unlike Strasser and Barak, some students go into their first year ready for upper-division courses.

“I actually took an upper-[division course] fall quarter freshman year,” said Maddie Thomas, a second-year political science and philosophy major. “I had, like, no expectations.”

At first, Thomas did not realize that most students do not take any upper division classes their first quarter at UC Davis, as some courses require a good amount of prerequisites. Without understanding the difference between the two types of classes, Thomas had signed up for both.

“It was super weird being in an upper division class at that time,” Thomas said. “I mean obviously there was a bunch of stuff that people already knew going in because they were like pretty specific classes with stuff I definitely didn’t know. It wasn’t unmanageable but other people were definitely more familiar than I was.”

Most UC Davis students learn how important time management skills are early in their college careers but it becomes even more important throughout a student’s transition to taking primarily upper division courses.

“[I have improved] mostly in terms of time management,” Thomas said. “I became used to upper [division courses] really early since I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. I’ve kind of been able to figure it out quicker than some people I guess because I’ve been doing them longer.”

While time management is important, it is not the only skill students found useful for success in upper-division courses. Thomas also found building relationships with her TAs and professors to be very important.

“Over the last two quarters I’ve definitely gotten to know TAs and professors pretty closely,” Thomas said. “The material is harder in a lot of cases and I always have more questions, so definitely I’ve noticed those relationships in upper [division courses] way more than lower [division courses].”

Like Thomas, Barak found building relationships with her professors and TAs was important for understanding the material.

“I would just tell myself to take more advantage of the fact that the teacher is there to help me [and] take more advantage of having that personal relationship with the teacher rather than just trying to do it by myself,” Barak said.

Thomas explained that not only is having a personal relationship with the professor or TA helpful for doing well in the class, but the connection is also important for receiving letters of recommendation.

“As I’m thinking about internships, […] having relationships with these people is really important for just like the knowledge and expertise they have,” Thomas said. “I wish I would have started those relationships with people I met last year.”

Taking an upper division course for the first time can be more difficult than expected, so Strasser offered advice for students approaching their first upper division course.

“Go all-out until the first midterm so that you know that what you are doing is good enough,” Strasser said. “That way you won’t be poorly surprised. Some classes you’ll go in and you’ll be like, ‘oh, this class doesn’t seem like it takes a lot of work or needs a lot of studying’ and then you’ll get your first midterm back and be like, ‘oh that was a mistake.’”

While many upper division courses may indeed be more difficult, they often have smaller class sizes, creating a more interactive learning environment for students.

“Another thing that was really different about [my first upper division class] was that the class size was relatively small,” Barak said. “It gave the class more of a chance for discussion and actual debate rather than just listening to the lecturer talk.”

Going into upper division courses for the first time may seem daunting, but all UC Davis students who plan to graduate will eventually encounter them.

“I think it’s important to take [General Education classes] and have the big lecture hall,” Barak said. “But [it is] cool to be able to take smaller classes at such a big school that are geared toward the specialties that you want to study.”
Written by: Elizabeth Marin — features@theaggie.org