Currently, I am preparing a letter of my study objectives for an university application.
I ask myself what is the exact difference between the following terms? Or can I use them synonymously?
- taking courses
- taking classes
- taking lessons
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The uses and meanings of 'course', 'class' and 'lesson' vary considerably between North American English and British English.
North American English
This means a series of classes, on a particular subject, usually lasting a whole semester or year. It does not mean a "course of study"; for this North American English uses "program" or "major". Evidence for this usage comes from American and Canadian University websites in which courses are usually given "credit" values, e.g. 3-credit course, 4-credit course, and listed per semester as the "Schedule of Courses". Example sentences:
- What courses do I need to take to get a degree in English?
- Students must register for 4 courses to be considered full time.
- I'm taking a course on Shakespeare's sonnets.
This has two possible meanings in a university context. First, as a particular instance of a course. Example sentences:
- I can't go for coffee now, I have a class.
- I have classes all day Wednesday.
Second, as a slightly more informal term for 'course'. Example sentences:
- I'm taking a class on Shakespeare's sonnets.
- How many classes are you taking this semester?
In a non-university context, 'class' substitutes for 'course', i.e., 'course' isn't used in these contexts very much. It still has the two meanings above, though.
Example sentences: For a series of individual classes on pottery,
- I'm taking a pottery class.
For a particular instance of a class,
- In my yoga class today, we did back bends.
The word 'lesson' isn't used much in the North American English higher educational context except as part of the compound noun 'lesson plan', which is a technical educational term meaning a plan for a single class. It also appears in the context of individual instruction, especially for musical instruments, e.g. "piano lesson".
In British English, a course refers to a course of study, i.e. a series of lectures, tutorials or exams taken over a number of years, usually leading to a degree. Neither 'class' nor 'lesson' is used in the context of Higher Education in the UK, as far as I know.
Notwithstanding the fact that people will be sloppy with their language and use these terms synonymously:
Course is the broadest term for the study of a subject. It could be used to refer to an entire degree program, but it is most appropriately applied to a specific subject such as First Year English Literature.
Class is more specific and is most properly applied to a section of a course taught by one instructor to one group of students at a certain scheduled time.
Lesson is the most specific and implies a particular unit of instruction, such as would be delivered by a particular instructor to a particular class on a given day.
Each word paints a different image through association in the reader's mind. Here are some meanings associated with each:
Course is at the highest, most abstract (macro) level. Lesson is at the most specific, micro level. Both course and lesson are independent of time. Both are dependent on goals. Class is the least abstract, most tangible of the three. It is dependent on time. It is a process level word.
You know what image you want to convey to the reader. It may not matter which country the reader hails from. What will matter is the other words in the sentence.
When we want to talk about a period of time when we are taught something, we say we have a lesson. For the same occasion, especially as part of a group, we can use the term class: We have a History lesson/class at nine.
When we want to talk about a series of lessons or lectures we attend, we say we take a course. The same term applies when we want to talk about a period of study at an academic institution which leads to an exam or qualification, as in postgraduate courses.
According to OALD, class can also be used to describe a series of lessons on a particular subject (as a synonym of course), for example we can say pottery class and mean a series of classes/lessons.
It all depends on the context. In the UK, for instance (I'm presuming you're talking about an American university), neither "class" nor "lesson" is ever used in the context of higher education, and the "course" one studies is likely to be the overall subject, e.g. Computer Science/English Lit/whatever. Then again, the terminology varies widely from one institution to another within the UK, as I'm sure it does in America.
It is easy to understand when you know what you are talking about and how to define the words.
Lessons are considered as chapters filled with a certain amount of assignments. It can take several classes to finish one lesson, but also several lessons can be done in one class.
- This lesson was very hard.
- We've learned a lot today, we finish many chapters → lessons.
- We will continue this lesson next week.
Classes are certain, every day you attend classes, therefore also the lessons. Although classes can be a group of people, mainly that word refers to the daily classes/lessons.
It's not always certain how many lessons you have in one class. This is individually decided.
— What class do you have?
— What lesson are you in?
— We have to calculate the value of light measurement for cameras and before that we learned what ISO means and what it does.
An unknown bundle of classes, but the lessons what to learn/teach are known. Right now, we either finish and understand the lecture or we don't understand it and have to redo the whole course since we could not keep up with other students, or we have to take extra classes to polish the lessons we already have had.