Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

What does a typical graduate class look like?

To say that I was anxious about my first graduate class is an understatement. What will my classmates be like? How will instructors teach? What are homework assignments like? Are the course memorization-heavy? Will I be bored to death by lectures again?.. With all these thoughts racing in my head, my mind immediately jumped back in time to my undergrad.

I got my Bachelor’s in linguistics in a pretty big Russian university. I remember coming to a lecture hall full of 50-100 people at around 9 am, trying to pretend I was following the lecture that could put you to sleep far better than the most powerful sleeping pill. Professors would ask a question, look at listless, sleepy, blank faces and just go on with their lecture. We were taking tons of notes, trying to jot every single word down because we knew: when it comes to finals, the notes are our only hope. We almost never had textbooks, so skipping a class, having bad notes or having no friends who could share their notes with you equaled failure. Even in classes supposed to be practical (e. g., speaking English and grammar classes) we were forced to focus on note-taking and listening as opposed to voicing our ideas. To top it off, most of our classes were heavily theory-based, and for someone who values practice more than anything, it was torture. Most of our finals were oral exams, with the final exam grade determining the final course grade. On the bright side, at least we didn’t have GPA...

Well, it turned out that graduate classes in the US are very different. Here’s a brief overview of the elements of a typical graduate class in my program.

Disclaimer: classes in other majors/fields of study may look different from what I experienced in my program.

Typical elements of a graduate class in social sciences
★ Clear curriculum, usually discussed in the first class and provided as a handout/digital document
★ Discussions
★ Mini-lectures with powerpoints
★ Reading assignments tend to include research articles, sometimes books, very rarely textbooks
★ Writing assignments are usually reflection and reaction papers
★ Almost no testing/exams with rare exceptions
★ Usually a few presentation assignments
★ Students are expected to speak up and actively participate in discussions
★ It’s okay to question instructors and your classmates and engage in constructive arguments

I’ll describe one of the first classes I took which covered the basics of Educational Psychology theories to give you a better feel for a typical graduate class in my program.

Class 1: Intro to the course


The class had about 15 people in it, which I consider small. The desks were arranged somewhat as a circle, meaning we were facing each other rather than staring at the instructor the whole time - kinda like this.

Image by Frantichek from Pixabay 

The instructor was a professor who does research related to the topics covered by the course. Each student introduced themselves stating their first name, major, and research interests. Some people shared more if they wanted. Our university serves a very diverse population, so we had a few international students in that class.

We might have had an ice-breaker - a game-like activity used to help students get to know each other - but I can't remember for sure. I’m not a fan of ice-breakers because they feel very artificial to me, but it's a common practice in many university activities.

Syllabus presentation

The instructor went over a powerpoint with the main points form the syllabus. A syllabus is basically a course plan that contains all the topics covered in the course, assignments and due dates. Syllabi in my university tend to include a brief overview and learning goals of the course, information of required and optional readings, information about the instructor’s availability for office hours and appointments, information about academic misconduct (such as cheating on assignments), grading policy, late work policy, sometimes links to important supporting university services (such as counseling, writing center, academic coaching, etc.) and other information relevant to the course. Each instructor has their own syllabus but the core structure is likely to stay the same.

If you are interested in seeing what syllabi look like, take a look at this Carnegie Mellon University page with syllabus examples from different courses.

When you get a syllabus, study it carefully asap. It will help you understand how much work the course requires, what the major milestones, assignments and projects are, and the instructor’s expectations. I also recommend getting a calendar (in an app or on paper) and put down all due dates for each course. You will pat yourself on the back for doing this a few weeks later.

Our instructor communicated her expectations in terms of attendance, participation and assignments very clearly. Missing classes was penalized, late assignments were penalized, active participation was expected. Since it was the first class for many new students in the program, she explained some basic university and academic services for us. She let us go early since it was an introductory class. Some instructors prefer to start talking about content right away, so always have something ready in case you need to take notes.

The following classes

The rest of the classes mostly followed the same structure: mini-lecture with powerpoints intertwined with whole-class discussions, sometimes group work and individual activities, and sometimes we did presentations for the entire class. We had readings due each class, a few papers (but not weekly) and prepared one big presentation throughout the semester.

Reading assignments

We had a textbook for this class, which is unusual in my program, and the textbook was pretty expensive (about $100). We had to read one chapter per week, each of them about 40-50 pages long. Sometimes we also read research articles (usually 1 or 2).

International student advice
If your English skills are limited, you will have a hard time reading research papers - mostly because they are terribly written to start with. They are lengthy, boring, and often use difficult words just because it’s a tradition in academic writing. The best way to read them is to chunk them up and read chunk by chunk, taking breaks as needed; creating mindmaps of big ideas from articles; and reading them on a device that has a built-in dictionary (or an app that has the same functionality) so that you can look up words seamlessly within your reading app).

Class participation and discussions

Class conversations mostly focused on discussing the readings or deconstructing assigned research papers and thoroughly going through them (that was specific to this class because it was for first-year students). The instructor didn’t try to gauge how well we memorized things; showing understanding and reflection was more important. We could have any materials with us and consult them as we needed.

We were expected to speak up. The instructor invited us to talk or asked us a question if we didn’t participate for a long time. We were never forced to talk but expected to contribute at least something. We also usually didn’t raise hands and just spoke out.

If you didn’t have similar learning experiences in the past or are introverted, you might struggle with it. If it becomes an obstacle to learning or getting a good grade, I recommend you talk to your instructor and explain the problem. Instructors are likely to accommodate your needs or give you tips about how to get better in discussions.

International student advice
     ★ Remember: even if speaking up is not common or is disrespectful in your culture, it is normal in the US. Read more about the importance of observing and understanding US social norms here
     ★ The best way to learn how to engage in a discussion is to observe how others do it.
          ☆ Note, write down and memorize what phrases other people say to jump in the conversation. For example, I like to say things like “To piggyback off (name), …”; “I agree with (name) but…”; “I disagree with the idea that…”; “I have some experienced related to …”.
          ☆ Note when other people speak up. Do they interrupt others (respectfully)? When is it acceptable to interrupt? Do they chime in as soon as a short pause emerges?
          ☆ Note what other students say when they speak up. Do they express their own opinion? Share their personal experience? Add to a theoretical point made earlier? Ask questions? Try to say something along those lines.
     ★ Language barrier is absolutely normal and is expected to happen. If you are not a native speaker, you will have an accent and you are likely to make mistakes. The thing is, all Americans I know understand that and do not care if your accent is imperfect or your grammar is off. They want to understand you. Imagine other students in your class trying to speak your native language. What would you expect from them?
     ★ Keep working on your pronunciation and intonations every day. In my experience, only a very heavy accent that distorts word pronunciation significantly causes communication issues. I tested this with my American boyfriend: when I speak in a heavy Russian accent but stick to the reading rules and stress placement, he understands me well. Make sure to look up correct pronunciation and practice it daily.
     ★ Pay special attention to intonations. They really do matter - even more than your accent. Imitate them from native speakers.

Class activities

Most activities were done in small groups (3-5 people) and usually involved answering a set of questions, summarizing some ideas in a mindmap, talking about each other’s experiences, etc. Such activities are usually not graded, but being (or at least looking) engaged in them counted toward our participation grade.


Papers always had a page limit and clear guidelines about formatting (we use APA style in my program; learn more about it here: https://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/what-is-apa-style). We answered questions about the topic(s) we discussed before or reflected on ideas form our readings. The papers weren’t very long but they did take me a while to write because I wasn’t used to academic writing in English. Some instructors will have clear rubrics which assign points based on established metrics, such as clarity of writing, formatting, depth of discussion, etc.


The final grade was calculated based on several factors. All assignments and participation were graded in points. The course had a maximum number of points. Final grades (A, B, C, D - from the highest to the lowest) were assigned based on specific point ranges. For example, if you earned 95% of the maximum points or more, you would get an A. Anything from 85 to 95% would yield a B, and so on. These percentages are different from course to course. For example, if the course had a maximum of 100 points and you got 92 points overall, that would constitute 92% and give you a B. When the maximum is more than 100 points, you will need to do some math. Overall, as long as you do the work for your course and don’t skip classes, you are very unlikely to get a bad grade.

Other courses

My other courses didn’t use textbooks and were centered mostly around discussing research articles. Most of them assigned papers for assessment. Some of them were purely discussion-based without any activities. Some of them had a few hands-on projects (mostly qualitative and quantitative research courses). Most of them had some sort of presentations, sometimes individual, sometimes in pairs. We usually met once a week except for statistics courses. Statistics courses had two sections: lectures (taught by a professor) and labs (taught by a Teaching Assistant in a computer lab). Most classes last from 2 to 3 hours.

And there you have it - an overview of a typical class structure in grad school. There are pros and cons to this educational approach but it was definitely a breath of fresh air for me after heavily lecture-centric Russian undergrad classes. Feel free to ask any questions in the comment section - I’ll be happy to give you more details!