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The Levels Of Learning: What Your Degree Means

The Levels Of Learning: What Your Degree Means
Understanding the expectations and goals of each type of degree can help students and institutions ensure that programs are living up to their standards. Photo by Chalky Lives.

There is an older, more traditional way of looking at higher education. This traditional view may be worth revisiting in this explosion of educational choices now flooding the world of higher education. Proprietary educational institutions are competing with state institutions for student dollars and both are attempting to re-brand and redesign their educational paradigms.

Perhaps a look backward can help clarify a path to the future of education? I see various college degrees as goal-sets that hold an intrinsic specific purpose for both the learner and the teacher. I also think that this way of looking at education can be applied to learners at all different points in their learning path. Each degree level carries with it some assumptions about learner achievement, and I’m going to start with the two year associates degree.

Two-Year Associate’s Degree

The two year associate’s degree can be considered an introduction to higher learning and perhaps to a special field of learning. It may introduce the learner to concepts of more rigorous thinking, even if the individual is already employed in a field and is seeking more education to advance in a career. The associate’s degree could be used to introduce a person to a more mature thinking process related to the chosen area of study.

Four-Year Bachelor’s Degree

The four year bachelor’s degree is many times considered the starting point of a learner’s higher education, with the associate’s degree being considered a bridge. Consider that the bachelor’s degree might imbue the learner with both competence in a chosen field and competence in more rigorous thought processes related to their chosen field. Also consider the bachelor’s degree to be the place where a learner comes to appreciate learner for its own sake; discovering through general education the intrinsic value of gaining knowledge and engaging in more advanced levels of thinking. The content area of the bachelor’s degree is broad ranging with limited depth. This takes us to the master’s degree.

Master’s Degree

Traditional thinking views the completion of a master’s degree as indicative of in-depth knowledge and understanding of a subject or discipline. The learner has acquired a level of knowledge that allows them to teach back what they have learned and experienced. The content of the master’s degree is broad and deep, focusing on one field or discipline or perhaps a sub-discipline. A traditional view would place the focus of a sub-discipline in the bailiwick of the doctorate.


The acquisition of the doctoral degree indicates that the learner has reached a level of critical and rigorous thinking related to a discipline or sub-discipline that they are able to create new knowledge. This is the true level of science in which the learner is focused on acquiring the knowledge that will allow them to investigate specialty areas resulting in contributions back into the knowledge base of a chosen discipline. The doctorate also indicates an even greater depth of knowledge, so much so that the learner practices critical thinking about what they’ve learned and engages in an ever increasing questioning process that leads to original research and investigation. This can happen in art, music, chemistry, or psychology. A person who acquires a doctorate in art or music may engage in research processes or creation processes that result in an expansion of the field beyond simple elaboration of a known musical or artistic concept.

In summary, the two year associate’s degree is an introduction to higher learning and a discipline, the bachelor’s degree conveys competence in a field or discipline, the master’s degree leads to mastery of a field or discipline, and the doctorate leads to new knowledge within a field or

In today’s fast paced higher education world full of online universities, blended class structures, and onsite learning using a simple paradigm such as the one delineated above can help schools develop more precise curriculum. This helps schools and universities maintain the integrity of the learning while still engaging more and more innovative technologies.

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