Graduate Education versus Undergraduate Education

Difference between the graduate and undergraduate educational experiences

As I prepare to join graduate school, I anticipate a significantly different-and hopefully richer, more fulfilling-experience from the experience I am having in undergraduate school. To begin with, I anticipate being in the company of people with substantial work experience as well as connections. In undergraduate school, my observation is that the large percentage of students are generally younger, meaning they have not been had an encounter with the workplace environment nor do they have connections with professionals in their respective areas of study. In contrast, I am expecting that many of my colleagues in graduate school will be career people taking part-time classes.

Secondly, I think that in graduate school, I will need to be more self-driven and self-motivated. More precisely, I think I will be required to make decisions on my own most of the time. For example, I think it will be up to me to figure out when it is necessary to go to the library and do research about a given topic, unlike in undergraduate school where lecturers often give assignments to students to do research on and submit the results. As Lovitts (2002, p.57) observes, “graduate school is different from undergraduate school in the sense that you have to be completely self-motivated [as] nobody is going to tell you to do anything”.

I am also anticipating a closer, richer relationship with my professors in graduate school as compared to the relationship I have with my professors in undergraduate school. Given that many of the students pursuing graduate education are career people and generally older than those taking undergraduate courses, it follows that professors will tend to treat them like peers rather than students. What this means is that every student is expected to actively contribute in class and share important ideas. Even so, my overall perception about the graduate educational experience is that it will most likely be harder than the undergraduate experience, especially with all the writing and researching that is involved in graduate education. This particularly applies to individuals who chose to study part-time or enroll for open distance learning programs; they will need to develop smarter, tighter study habits. For example, a student who chooses open distance learning will have to work extra hard, researching intensively on the course outline provided by professors and always staying in touch to know when new concepts have been introduced.

Graduate learning communities

A graduate learning community may be defined as a cohort of students pursuing graduate education who gather regularly for purposes of discussing a certain topic while at the same time creating a support network/group (Indiana University Bloomington, 2021). The defining features of graduate learning communities are that students ask questions, try out different teaching innovations, develop new practice models, and reflect on practice effectiveness (Indiana University Bloomington, 2021). In some cases, members of graduate learning communities are required to give feedback to members of other learning communities.

Key components of a graduate learning community

There are a number of core elements of learning communities, whether graduate or undergraduate. These include shared learning together with discovery; functional relationships; overlapping/interlocking networks; and an inclusive learning environment (Brower, Carlson-Dakes & Barger, 2007). In brief, learning communities exemplify an environment that is not driven by authority; this means that all members are free to contribute and learn from one another- no single member is considered an expert. At the same time, learning communities are intentionally designed such that meaningful, reciprocal relationships are developed and nurtured.

Based on these general features, it may be said that the key components of a graduate learning community include critical reflection, peer review, feedback, and collaborative problem-solving. Having defined a learning community as a group of students that regularly meet to explore and discuss certain topics, it goes without saying that in a graduate learning community, students will gather and critically examine certain topics. They will also reflect on their learning experiences, thereby resulting into transformation of practice. This is to say that peer review together with collaboration are important elements of graduate learning communities. In addition, members of graduate learning communities engage in self-analysis via surveys, leadership inventories, and various other indicators.

Graduate learning community vs. undergraduate learning communities

The same way that the graduate educational experience is substantially different from the undergraduate educational experience, there are remarkable differences between a graduate learning community and an undergraduate learning community. The key differences include content and depth of discussions, level of collaboration, membership, and materials/resources used. For example, considering that graduate programs are more specific or narrowed down in scope as compared to undergraduate programs, it is expected that undergraduate learning communities will focus on relatively general topics. This is because graduate students examine topics in greater detail, focusing more on particular subjects.

Another key difference between a graduate learning community and an undergraduate learning community is that the level of collaboration in the former is bound to be higher. The explanation for this is that graduate learning communities are made up of individuals who are in the search for professional evolution. For this reason, students belonging to a graduate learning community value teamwork as well as network exchange, as opposed to undergraduate students who may not understand the need to discuss with their colleagues as they are awaiting their professors to give them lectures.

A graduate learning community may also differ from an undergraduate learning community in terms of structure. As highlighted by Jenkins (2021), graduate learning communities offer opportunities for members to give and receive feedback and also reflect on their learning experiences. What this means is that compared to undergraduate learning communities, graduate learning communities are more structured. For example, different modes of presentation are used to give feedback and learn, unlike in undergraduate communities.

Communication and collaboration experiences

It cannot be overemphasized that collaboration and effective communication are critical components of graduate learning communities. According to Engstrom, Kabes and Lamb (n.d), success in graduate learning community programs cannot be achieved in the absence of peer collaboration. In such communities, members engage in open dialogue and communicate frequently through peer review as well as critiquing of presentations and projects. Whilst communication and collaboration are also essential in undergraduate learning communities, it has been noted that graduate communities comprise heterogeneous as well as homogeneous groups. The heterogeneous group acts as an advisor and oversees peer review, critiques, and dialogues. Nonetheless, students also engage with others of similar teaching levels (Engstrom et al., n.d).

While graduate learning community programs are typically self-directed, meaning that students themselves take charge, undergraduate learning community programs often work under the supervision of professors. A good example is the new graduate learning community at Cleveland State University, which comprises 15 faculty staff members that actively participate in research (Kaul & Pratt, 2010). Through the involvement of the faculty, students get to know the different research methods that are used. From this, it may be concluded that the communication and collaboration expectations in undergraduate learning communities are notably lower than those in graduate learning communities.


Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Brower, A., Carlson-Dakes, C. & Barger, S. (2007). A learning community model of graduate student professional development for teaching excellence.

Engstrom, J., Kabes, S. & Lamb, D. (n.d.). Graduate learning communities: transforming educators.

Indiana University Bloomington. (2021). Graduate student learning communities.

Jenkins, T. (2021). Reshaping graduate education through innovation and experiential learning. Information Science Reference.

Kaul, G & Pratt, C. (2010). Undergraduate research learning communities for first-year and lower-division students.

Lovitts, B. E. (2002). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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