The Differences Between Upper-Division and Lower-Division Courses

The Differences Between Upper-Division and Lower-Division Courses

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Becoming a bachelor requires you to undergo a series of coursework in your undergraduate study. Such courses prepare you for a career in your chosen discipline. With your admission to an undergraduate degree, the classes you are to take are assigned into upper-division and lower-division courses.

If you are curious about the differences between these two divisions of courses, this article is for you.

Here, we will discuss the difference between upper-division and lower-division courses. To be more specific, you will know the principle behind the assignment of courses to upper and lower-division as adopted by most universities. Additionally, you will be able to recognize the difference in complexity between upper-division and lower-division courses.

What Is the Difference Between Upper-Division and Lower-Division Courses?

In colleges/universities, undergraduate courses are categorized into two divisions: 

  • Upper-Division Courses
  • Lower-Division Courses

Lower-division courses are designed for first-year and second-year students, focusing on introductory concepts, theories, and basic skills that prepare you for advanced studies in your baccalaureate journey.

In comparison, upper-division courses are intended for juniors and seniors, which involve advanced and high-level course contents and requirements that further develop your knowledge and skills in your chosen field.

Course Coding

The course number designated to a course indicates its course level. While some universities utilize three-digit course numbers, others use four digits for their course numbering system. Nevertheless, most institutions have similar interpretations for the course number designations. These course number designations allow you to distinguish between lower-division and upper-division courses.

Lower-Division Courses

Lower-division courses are primarily focused on fundamental theories, concepts, perspectives, principles, methods, and procedures of critical thinking that serve as foundations for higher courses. 

The lower coursework equips you with knowledge and skills essential for advanced studies. Furthermore, it exposes you to different fields of study and prepares you for specialized high-level courses in professional areas. Specifically, lower-division courses introduce foundational knowledge in arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, including history and practices of professional fields. It also equips you with the necessary skills in literacy and language. Lastly, lower-division courses will make you more familiar with occupational skills for employment that initially develops analytical thinking and theoretical application.

In universities, the assigned course numbers for lower-division courses generally start with 1 and 2. Courses that have course numbers with 1 as the first digit are considered introductory and beginner courses. On the other hand, those course numbers with 2 as their first digit are intermediate-level courses. For instance, PHYS102 is an introductory physics course that includes essential topics on motion, forces, energy, momentum, etc., whereas PHYS240 is an intermediate-level course in Physics that requires calculus methods to solve electricity and magnetism problems. 

Upper-Division Courses

Upper-division courses involve specialized and advanced coursework that improves your problem-solving and analytical skills and allows you to apply theory into practice. These courses build on basic knowledge and skills learned and developed from lower-division course academic experiences. The coursework allows you to broaden your knowledge and apply theories and methods, refine skills related to your field, and develop intellectual and professional skills for employment, as well as graduate and professional study. 

As course contents become more rigorous in this stage, it requires greater responsibility and effort on your part. In addition, upper-division courses are likely mentored by instructors with specialized knowledge and preparation on the discipline, which allows you to be proficiently guided in becoming an expert in your field of specialization.

The course numbers assigned for upper-division courses have a first digit of 3 and 4. Course numbers with the first digit of 3 are identified as advanced-intermediate-level courses. Such classes are more complex than intermediate-level courses. An example is PHYS371, a study on Quantum Theory with classical physics, wave equations, Schrodinger’s equation, etc. 

In addition, courses with course numbers that start with 4 are the most advanced courses you can take in an undergraduate study within your field of specialization. These courses involve high-level coursework, practical applications of theories, and independent studies, such as PHYS492, which is an individual or small group research course in physics.

Which Is Harder Between Upper-Division and Lower-Division Courses?

In general, upper-division courses are more sophisticated and challenging than lower-division courses. With higher course numbers, the complexity of the study also increases. As mentioned, PHYS102, a physics course that involves basic calculations, is less demanding than PHYS240, a calculus-based physics course in electromagnetic fields and applications. In contrast, PHYS371 is a more challenging upper-division course that requires higher-level critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Ultimately, PHYS492 demands more of your time and effort as it requires you to synthesize theories and concepts in Physics to complete your research paper.

Lower-division courses serve as academic prerequisites that provide foundational knowledge and skills for upper-division classes. For instance, in the field of mathematics, MATH223 (Vector Calculus) requires you to complete MATH129 (Calculus II) before you can enroll in the course. Some courses also have prerequisite courses from other related disciplines, such as BNAD276 (Statistical Inference in Management), a business administration course that requires completion of either MATH113 (Elements of Calculus), MATH116 (Calculus Concepts for Business), MATH122B (First-Semester Calculus), or MATH125 (Calculus I). This system suggests that preparatory courses are necessary for you to gain the required knowledge and skills essential in taking a more advanced course.


In climbing a flight of stairs, you take one step at a time until you reach the top. Similarly, completing your undergraduate degree requires significant steps for you to move from one level to the next. Lower-division courses are preliminary steps that provide you with fundamental knowledge and skills essential for advanced upper-division courses in your chosen field.