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University lingo 101

September 5, 2023
Author: Samantha Allan

University jargon can sometimes seem like its own language

As you start university, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the unique language and terminology used in academia. Let’s demystify the common terms and phrases you’ll encounter at Vancouver Island University. By the end of this guide, you’ll be well-equipped to converse fluently in university-speak, making the most of your time and the opportunities at VIU.

Course versus program

A course refers to an individual class or subject, typically spanning one semester or term. A course focuses on a specific topic within a broader field. The standard undergraduate academic semesters at VIU are:

  • Fall (September to December),
  • Spring (January to April) and
  • Summer (includes shorter intersession courses lasting six weeks).

Courses consist of lectures, tutorials, labs or a combination of those three, and are assigned credits based on the workload. An example of a course at VIU is University Writing and Research, which is a first-year required course for many of VIU’s academic programs.

A program is a collection of courses designed to provide comprehensive knowledge and skills in a particular area of study. VIU offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate programs in popular areas of study. Programs are structured pathways that outline the required and elective courses you’ll need to complete to get a specific credential, such as a degree, diploma or certificate. Electives are courses you choose yourself, required courses are those you need to take for the program you are in. Electives are your chance to take subjects that intrigue you and maybe even discover new passions.

Degree versus diploma

This is an important distinction to be aware of when it comes to university studies. A bachelor’s degree (such as the Bachelor of Business Administration) is usually four years of full-time study or 120 academic credits. It may be longer if there is an internship or work placement component required to graduate.

A bachelor’s degree is a higher level of education than a diploma (such as a Criminology Diploma), which are usually two years of study or 60 course credits. You may get a diploma on your way to completing a degree. This level of study is called your undergraduate education. Some countries or institutions may use the term baccalaureate degree to refer to an undergraduate degree. 

A certificate is the shortest credential you can earn at the undergraduate level. It is often designed to support certain careers, like the Animal Care Aide Certificate or the Welding Certificate. An advanced diploma is more specialized than a regular diploma and requires prior completion of a degree or diploma, like the Advanced Diploma in Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

Once you have completed your undergraduate studies, there is the opportunity to study at the graduate level. We’ll cover all that next.

Graduate studies

Graduate studies offer the opportunity to delve deeper into your chosen field, develop specialized expertise, and expand your professional and academic horizons. Most graduate programs need an undergraduate degree for admission. In certain cases, a person may qualify if they have enough demonstrated career experience.

Graduate-level credentials include:

  • master’s degree (typically 2-3 years),
  • post-baccalaureate degree/diploma and
  • post-graduate or graduate diploma/certificate.

VIU offers master’s degrees, advanced diplomas and post-degree diplomas like the Master of Education in Educational Leadership or the Graduate Diploma in Project Management. These programs often emphasize independent research, critical analysis and advanced problem-solving skills. Once completed, graduate programs prepare you for doctoral and PhD-level studies. This is the highest level of study and involves several years more learning, concluding with a thesis.

Credit hours and units

You will most likely need a certain number of credits to complete your program. Most courses have a certain number of credit hours or units associated with them, which indicates the amount of time spent studying and completing coursework.

One credit hour or unit is equal to one hour of lecture time per week plus two hours of study/homework outside of class. Although some VIU courses have more than three hours of lecture, laboratory and seminar instruction, most courses carry three credits. The academic advisors at VIU can help you plan each semester of your program and your faculty degree advisor can help you ensure you’re meeting the credit requirements of your program.


A pre-requisite is a requirement that students must meet before enrolling in a specific course. Pre-requisites are designed to ensure students have the necessary foundational knowledge and skills to succeed in a particular class. They can include the completion of certain lower-level courses, a minimum grade in a specific subject or admission to a certain program.

It's essential to review and meet the pre-requisite requirements for your desired courses. Failing to do so may prevent you from registering or delay your academic progress. Remember to plan your course schedule to smoothly navigate your academic journey at VIU.

Samantha Allan is a first-generation learner of Indigenous and British ancestry with home roots across the province of BC. She graduated from VIU in June with a Bachelor of Business Administration, major in Management. She is currently in the Joint Degree Program in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders at the University of Victoria. Her long-term goal is to work in law and economic development.

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