American professors are part of a subculture that may seem strange to students. We mostly work on beautiful campuses, where we help students learn. And we also talk to each other and our students. A lot. As with many subcultures, we have a specialized vocabulary that may seem foreign to new students.

Many professors will take time to define such terminology—or try to avoid these terms entirely—but this is a quick guide to some terms that professors and classmates might use as soon as the first day of class.


First, a few words about books.

Some books are required, meaning the instructor considers them necessary to succeed in the course. Recommended books are probably helpful, but not necessary. Optional books are related to the course material, and they may be helpful for some students with certain topics. Books are available in the campus store, or the ISBN is a number that can help you find exactly the correct book online. Sometimes, the publisher, the company that sells the book, has additional online resources available to supplement and enhance the book. Common publishers are Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cambridge University Press, and many others. OER books are Open Educational Resources, which are often available for free online. Finally, instructors sometimes place books on reserve, which means that library copies of the books can be checked out for a brief period of time. Book requirements (and much more!) can be found in the course syllabus, the course policy and planning document.

Technology also inspires academic vocabulary.

The stewards of campus technology work in the Information Technology department, often shortened to the abbreviation IT. Course materials are posted on the Learning Management System, or LMS. At UMHB, our LMS is called MyCourses, our customized adaptation of Canvas software. Students can schedule appointments with many professors using the Navigate app.

Professor meeting with a student in his office.

Some words relate to special academic rituals and resources.

Office hours are times that professors set aside to meet with students. Students often visit office hours to talk about class topics that are particularly difficult to understand, study advice, or to discuss course assignments. Most often, no appointment is necessary to meet with a professor during office hours. At UMHB, the Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) has staff, facilities, and tutors to help students improve their academic performance. Supplemental Instruction, extra assistance from a student SI leader, is available for certain courses. Core courses are courses or categories of courses that are required for all students, whereas electives are courses that students can choose from many options.

Another academic ritual is advising.

Advising is a process in which professors or CAE staff meet with students to discuss academic progress and discuss the student’s plan for future courses. Advisors clear students after a productive advising appointment, giving the student permission to add courses to their schedule, or register. Semesters are roughly the same things as academic terms—portions of the year during which courses are meeting. At UMHB, the most common academic terms are Fall (late August to early December) and Spring (January to early May), but we also offer summer terms: a brief May minimester that begins just after the spring semester, Summer I (mostly in June) and Summer II (mostly in July).

There are also offices that have special names.

These names can often be confusing but are vitally important for students. The Registrar is the office that organizes the academic records and procedures of the university. At this important physical office and website, students can find their degree plans—the listing of all the requirements for their specific degree. The Registrar’s Office also guides students with transferring coursework from another university, manages who is able to participate in commencement (the graduation ceremony), or handles requests for transcripts (the official document stating one’s grades).

The Bursar is an office similar to the university’s bank, but it is not a bank where students can keep a savings account. Instead, this office is in charge of sending semester bills to students, collecting tuition money, and making sure students in the work study program receive their paychecks.

Professor speaking with a group of students outside

Finally, a few words about degrees and life after graduation.

Undergraduate students first earn a bachelor’s degree. The bachelor’s degree can be a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a Bachelor of Science (B.S.). The B.A. degree is not necessarily a degree in art classes! Instead, it is a broader degree that includes foreign language. Likewise, the B.S. is not necessarily a degree in science. Instead, it is a more specialized degree that typically includes more courses within the academic major, or focus area. Some students go to work after earning their B.A. or B.S. degree. Others attend graduate school to earn another degree, often a master of arts or science (M.A. or M.S.) or doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Yet other students may attend a professional school, a highly specialized school for certain careers like physical therapy, medicine, or physician assistant.


Of course, this is not a comprehensive guide to college vocabulary, just an introductory sampling. In class, make note of words or acronyms you do not recognize, and look those up after class—a strategy that works for general college terms and the specialized vocabulary of each subject area. As you learn, academic vocabulary will become less overwhelming. Just remember that new students will not know as many strange words as you do! Help the new students as they adapt to this exciting new world.

UMHB is the university of choice for Christian higher education in the Southwest. If you are looking for a place to receive an education for life and an experience of a lifetime, UMHB would be a great fit for you! Check out our website for more information, or stop by any time for a campus visit to learn more!