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Graduate Course Definitions: 500- vs. 800-Level Courses



This policy defines the distinction between 500-level (research-oriented) and 800-level (practitioner-oriented) graduate courses.


Academic Goal

The Graduate School recognizes the unique goals and values of a Research Education versus a Professional Practitioner Education. Therefore two, parallel course designations are defined to distinguish between research-oriented and practitioner-oriented graduate courses.



This policy applies to all graduate programs.

Graduate education includes the development of skills related to critical analysis and creative thinking. These skills are, in part, developed via participation in classes. The high level of understanding and analysis expected of graduate students means all graduate courses should build on advanced undergraduate and/or graduate courses, should be based in current knowledge of research in the field, and should include significant and regular instructor-initiated interaction between students and the instructor(s). Students with a focus on research degrees include classes with content providing the necessary background for expanding the frontiers of knowledge, while those in professional preparation degrees include classes related to the application of theory or research findings to address needs in professional practice. The program of study of students with either focus, may incorporate classes from the other focus (for professional degrees at least six credits must have a research focus). These designations, research and professional, reflect approaches to graduate education which are equal in merit but with different intended educational outcomes.

Features of Research Education typically include:

  • Deep scholarly investigation of a significant problem, question, or issue in the field of study, which could include original primary research.
  • Understanding of theoretical frameworks, research methodologies, and testing or analysis of evidence appropriate to the field.
  • Analytical thinking and creative skills are typically combined with specific analytical techniques to expanding the frontiers of knowledge in the field.

Features of Professional Practitioner Education typically include:

  • Deep knowledge in a field of study applied to a domain of professional practice.
  • Understanding of research literature to support application of knowledge to practice.
  • Analytical thinking and creative skills are typically combined with application of theory or research findings to address needs in professional practice.

While student work in research-oriented and professional-oriented courses should reflect these different needs, it may be appropriate for 500-level courses particularly in applied fields to include both research-oriented and professional-oriented features and both types of students. All graduate students are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with their field’s professional practices and ethics, including applicable rules, regulations, and laws.

Policy Statement

The distinctions between 500-level (research-oriented) and 800-level (practitioner-oriented) courses tend to be the following:

  1. A 500-level graduate course foregrounds research in the frontiers of knowledge in a field of study. It is grounded in the current research literature, theoretical frameworks, analysis of evidence, and methodologies appropriate to that discipline. The student must engage in synthesis of knowledge and analytical work. The ultimate goal of a 500-level course is to contribute to the student’s ability to expand the frontiers of knowledge, and therefore produce creative scholarly products.
  2. An 800-level graduate course foregrounds the application of theory and research to professional practice in a field of study. It is grounded in use of theories and research findings for the professional practice of that discipline. The student must demonstrate analytical thinking and application of knowledge to professional-practitioner issues or problems. The ultimate goal of an 800-level course is to contribute to the student’s ability to generate creative approaches for improved professional practice.
  3. In classes in which research and practice are intertwined the designation of 500 or 800 level is determined by that domain reflecting the majority of the content.


The definitions stated above should be used when determining and/or justifying an appropriate course number during the curricular proposal process.


P1 - Graduate Curricular Proposal Requirements - Procedure

Revision History

  • Approved by Graduate Council, March 15, 2017. Effective immediately.
    • New policy.
This page was generated on May 24, 2024 at 9:28 PM local time. This may not be the most recent version of this page. Check the Penn State Graduate School website for updates.