Best Practices in Coursework (Plan C) Master's Degrees


The University has historically offered Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) degrees under the Plan A (thesis) and Plan B (paper/project) options. Designated professional master’s degrees often do not include these options and may be offered instead with a “coursework” (Plan C) format.

Coursework master’s degrees offer flexibility for professionals seeking a degree in the field in which they are employed and who may already be engaged in related workplace projects. Such degrees provide coursework directly related to the students’ professional focus, without requiring non-course-based components that do not always fit well with this professional orientation.

In recent years, an increasing number of new M.A. and M.S. degrees have included a coursework format. At the same time, some established master’s programs have replaced their Plan A or Plan B options (or both) with a coursework format for degree completion. The growth in coursework master’s degrees has occurred across almost all disciplinary areas, prompting the need to recognize the coursework master’s degree as an alternative structure for degree completion and to develop best practice guidelines with respect to such degrees.

Current Requirements for Completing a Coursework Master's Degree

At the University, coursework master’s degrees require a minimum of 30 and a maximum of 48 graduate-level course credits. They may or may not require a traditional minor or related field, or coursework outside the major field. Coursework master’s degrees may require students to complete a culminating experience, such as a capstone course and/or paper. In some cases, this experience replaces the final examination for the degree. The University’s requirements regarding time to degree, transfer of coursework, and enrolled student GPA apply to coursework master's degrees. See Administrative Policy: Credit Requirements for Master's and Doctoral Degrees.

Recommended Principles and Best Practices

Given the variety of approaches to coursework master’s degrees, the following principles and best practices are provided to guide their development and delivery. These principles and best practices are founded in part on the premise that collaborative student experiences result in enhanced learning and better student outcomes. They are not intended as requirements; however, they do serve as a standard in evaluating proposals for new coursework master’s degrees. Existing coursework master’s degree programs are encouraged to adopt them.

  1. In general, M.A. and M.S. degrees should exhibit the attributes traditionally associated with these degrees: They should offer the Plan A (thesis) and Plan B (project) options for degree completion, and require a final examination (written or oral, or both) administered by a three-person committee. Compelling evidence should be presented to offer M.A. and M.S. degrees in a coursework format.
  2. Admission requirements for coursework master's degrees should not be less rigorous than for more traditional master’s degrees. Professional experience may serve as an appropriate and useful complement to other admission standards.
  3. Programs that offer a coursework master’s degree in addition to the Plan A and/or Plan B options should advise students carefully before they select a degree completion option that best aligns with their academic and career plans. Advising should occur prior to matriculation or in the student’s first semester. Students should select their preferred degree completion option in a timely way, so as not to impede academic progress.
  4. If the coursework degree is intended as a terminal master’s degree (students may not continue from it to the Ph.D. degree), the program should make this clear in its advertising (recruitment brochure, program Web site, catalog, etc.) and in the program’s graduate student handbook. If the coursework degree serves as a possible avenue to the Ph.D. degree in the same field (or a closely related field), program faculty should clearly communicate this possibility to students. In this circumstance, course requirements should be designed to facilitate subsequent Ph.D. study.
  5. A cohort experience, especially in the first semester, may help to create a sense of community among students and provide support as they begin the program. This experience may include common coursework in the initial semester or year of the program, informal sessions to discuss course- or program-related matters outside of class, informal discussions with faculty about issues in the discipline, coffee hours, or other activities that bring first-year students together.
  6. If the program offers degree opportunities in addition to a coursework master’s degree, coursework students should be encouraged to participate in the broader activities of the department or program (e.g., departmental seminars or colloquia). In order to facilitate these students’ inclusion, activities should be scheduled at times when they can attend.
  7. Coursework degrees should include a common introductory course (or courses) that provides a foundation for study in the field.
  8. Coursework degrees should require a paper or project, which may represent either individual or group work, or both. If a collaborative paper or project is required, each student should make a unique contribution that can be assessed as the student’s individual work. (Collaborative problem-solving may be an especially relevant model for students pursuing coursework degrees, as it may reflect the environment in which the students work and live.) Students should be encouraged to identify their projects and papers early in their degree programs.
  9. A culminating, or “capstone,” experience should be required in the last semester or year to give the student an opportunity to synthesize what the student has learned in program courses.
  10. The student should make an oral presentation of a paper or project. In many cases, this will be part of the capstone experience.
  11. University policies regarding time to degree, transfer of coursework, and enrolled student GPA will apply unless exceptions are requested in the proposals for new coursework master’s degree programs, or are proposed as changes to existing programs.
  12. Faculty of coursework master's degree programs should be mindful of the characteristics of an excellent graduate student experience, and should strive to incorporate these in the program. These characteristics are published on the Graduate School Web site:

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