The difference between «lesson», «class», «course» and «subject»
The use of the words «lesson», «class», «course» and «subject» can be confusing because they are often used inter-changeably. Their uses and meanings vary considerably between North American English and British English.
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«.
This has two possible meanings in a university context. First, as a particular instance of a course.
- 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’.
- 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.
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.
This means a series of classes, on a particular subject, usually lasting a whole semester or year. In American English 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».
- 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.
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.
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.
The word «subject» has two possible meanings.
- a branch of knowledge as a course of study:
- He studied four subjects in his first year at college
2. that which forms a basic matter of thought, discussion, investigation, etc.:
- a subject of conversation.
It is similar to the word «topic» .
A ‘subject’ is quite distinct or clearly different from another subject (even if different subjects are related or connected to each other). In high school, each «subject» is quite distinct from the others: «maths», «physics», «chemistry» and «history» are quite different. But in the final one or two years of university, students usually take several units that cover different areas or aspects of the same subject, their major. For this reason, the word «subject» is less often used when referring to the different units that students are enrolled in at university.
What subject are you studying?
In Part 1, when the examiner asks, «What subject are you studying?» it is referring to what general topic (or «major» in American English) you are studying at university. Usually, it’s suitable just to reply by saying the name of your degree course as in «My subject is Computer Science.»
When the examiner is talking to a high school student or recent high school graduate, he or she asks «What subjects are you studying?» (or «What subjects did you study?»)