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Is it appropriate for a student to attend a class s/he is not registered for?

I am a CS student and I am almost done with my degree, but there are some very interesting electives that I will not get to take and I would love to simply attend those courses any way.

Is this inappropriate to do? Should I ask the professor's permission first?

I am not sure what my school's policy on the matter is, since I could not find a single source on the topic online from them.

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    This is country-specific. In some countries, it follows from the law that (state) university lectures are open to the general public. – Angew is no longer proud of SO Jan 21 '15 at 8:04
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    @NateEldredge this is a somewhat alarming comment, when the case in very, very many universities is that this behavior is either tolerated or encouraged. I would be very surprised if any institution's usual reaction to this is more severe than politely asking you to leave the room. Perhaps 'look at the website' would be a more appropriate response than 'ask the registrar'. – jwg Jan 21 '15 at 11:44
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    you might get billed for the full tuition for the course you sat in on — [citation needed]!!! – JeffE Jan 21 '15 at 12:00
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    I removed my comment which I should not have made. I will instead note that some institutions charge tuition by the course, including audited courses, and one might guess they would frown on attempts to evade this. – Nate Eldredge Jan 21 '15 at 15:03
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    My school (a community college in California) forbids this, apparently for insurance reasons, which is not completely unreasonable when you consider examples like chemistry classes with labs. They want auditors to register and pay the (extremely low) fees. – user1482 Jan 22 '15 at 15:12
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In the American system, this is called "auditing" a course. Auditing means that you are attending the class but are technically only listening (auditing => auditory => listening) to the material and not sitting for exams or handing in homework assignments. You can audit a course formally (which often means that this is listed on your transcript) or informally in which you just sit in on the lectures/discussions. For the former/formal, see your local university guidelines. This answer deals with the latter.

Permission of the instructor in all but the larger lectures is always a good idea unless your university has an open classroom policy (as with many European universities). The instructor may have different rules. For example:

  1. In larger lectures, I do not mind auditors (of any ilk) in lecture but they may not attend discussion sections since those are for the paying students.
  2. I allow graduate students to audit my graduate seminars but with three rules: a) They must attend all of the sessions; b) they must do all of the readings; c) they must not be a 'dead body' but must participate in the seminar discussion.

Note that the university itself may have rules on auditing which the faculty member may ignore (for example, I do not mind if local community residents audit my lectures even if they are not registered as auditors through the university).

This is different from PASS/FAIL (also known as CREDIT/D/FAIL) which is another alternative in which you take the class but are allowed a lower level of participation.

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    This answer is highly university specific. Auditing a course has a very strict definition that is defined differently from University to University. – WetlabStudent Jan 21 '15 at 6:10
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    Thanks for mentioning auditing, I was unfamiliar with the concept. – dramzy Jan 23 '15 at 21:47
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Should I ask the professor's permission first?

Yes, this is the polite thing to do. (It's a perfectly reasonable and common request, so no need to be embarrassed about asking.)

As an instructor, it's useful to be able to understand any apparent discrepancy between the number of "official" students and the number of students I see in class. (For example, for determining whether I need to reserve a bigger classroom for an exam, or if I need extra TA support.) So even though I've never turned down a request like this (given that it's permitted in my university), I still like to be asked.

Some schools have an official policy about this kind of thing. If you couldn't find anything relevant, maybe the professor will know and will clue you in when you ask him.

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    also, after receiving permission from the instructor, if the class includes a recitation that you would like to attend, you should, out of politeness, also ask the TA leading that recitation for permission as well. The professor may have no idea how big the TA recitation room is, for example, and you shouldn't assume that permission to attend a lecture = permission to attend a recitation or lab. Especially a lab! major liability, safety and financial issues there. – WetlabStudent Jan 21 '15 at 6:04
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    It's more than just polite; people have paid money for those classes so it's only reasonable to ask given that you shall be absorbing them for free! – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '15 at 17:47
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: Unless the OP narrows down the scope of the question to a specific location or payment model, that cannot be taken for granted. Even if we assume that people have made individual payments for studying (which is not necessarily true, depending on the place), tuition fees can also be structured in a way so anyone who pays for the current term (i.e. including the OP) is allowed to attend whatever courses take place. And if that's the case, it might be the polite thing not to bother the lecturer with inquiries whether or not to enter an essentially open lecture hall. – O. R. Mapper Jan 21 '15 at 19:14
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    @O.R.Mapper: Sure but the inverse can't be taken for granted, either, for the same reason. It bears mentioning as a possibility. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '15 at 19:39
  • Good to hear an instructor's perspective. – dramzy Jan 23 '15 at 21:48
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Other, more qualified, people have answered your direct question, so I will add to it without detracting from what they have to say.

There are some schools with 'alumni audit' policies, in which - as the name suggests - alumni can formally audit courses. Check with the registrar on policies about this. If your school has such an option, find out the rules. Some classes may be auditable and others may not. Some may be auditable online if you are far away from your university...etc.

While you will likely only be able to do this for one course at a time for courses offered at night, assuming you work a day job, it could be a good way to take those elective courses, create & maintain relationships with professors and with your university.

Good luck with your studies, and have fun.

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  • That sounds awesome! If you remained local, a great way to stay reasonably current (assuming work isn't research in that area) or just learn the basics of an area you didn't study as an UG, but now find interesting. Really like the sound of that, but having not heard of it before I doubt I would ever be eligible :( – OJFord Jan 22 '15 at 18:31
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I'd like to add a perspective from Germany:

Fees here are usually paid for the fact that you are registered as a student (typically a general service fee, student union fee, possibly obligatory bus ticket), only very particular courses have course fees (sports, languages, and postgraduate courses that get you certified for sth. come to my ming). And even if you do your PhD without being registered as student or work as post-doc, for general lectures usually nobody checks whether you are technically "allowed" to attend the lecture: many lectures are anyways public. Registration is required if you want to take an exam and get a certificate, but usually not if you are just interested in the knowledge.

So for most lectures it would be totally OK to just attend and listen. That is, unless it is really crowded: then it would be seen as impolite to take away the seat of a student who needs to hear that lecture. So for certain subjects, you'd just not get in in a polite way, whereas in others (SMT) the lecturer may be happy to have one more face in the audience.

In fact, a certain amount of broadening your horizon is encouraged ("studium generale"). For that purpose, lectures that are of interest to students of unrelated subjects or the general public are often offered in the evening hours. For example, I heard some more physics than I was required, plus a bit of philosophy, computer science, economics and law and got an introduction to Polish language (I'm chemist).

For language and sports courses you'd typically be required to register. And you may not be that welcome to more intense courses that are meant for smaller groups such as excercises and lab practica (where there would be questions as to who pays insurance and material as well as safety concerns such as whether you know what you are doing).

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    Yep, most of your German perspective applies also to Italy (and probably also to France). – Massimo Ortolano Jan 23 '15 at 14:05
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As a student who has attended four universities and counting, I can provide a student's perspective on this subject.

Most large state schools require auditing students to pay the same tuition to audit a course as it would cost to actually take that course for a grade. The ethics of this are debatable, but I personally disagree with it strongly.

If your university charges to audit a course, then I would consider asking the professor if you are aloud to sit in on some lectures. The professor may be alright with you 'unofficially ' auditing. However, this will depend entirely on the professor and how strict your university policies are.

If the course is very large, as many entry level courses are in state schools, then you can consider just auditing unofficially and without permission. Be careful though, you would potentially be violating university rules, and may anger the instructor. But, if it's a large class with hundreds of students, chances are you will not be noticed, and your presence will not detract from the course. Learning is never a bad thing, and charging students to audit a large course like this is wrong, in my opinion.

Keep in mind that when unofficially auditing a course, you will most likely not have access to any online material used, and be unable to submit assignments/take exams, unless the instructor agrees to allow otherwise.

Overall, never stop learning. If you want to learn something then it's up to you to seek out that knowledge whatever way possible. No one will fault you for this morally, but Universities don't like missing out on tuition fees. Don't get in trouble.

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    This sounds like a US answer? In UK fees are not per-course, so this wouldn't really make sense at all. I've audited a couple after nothing more than a quick email to check the lecturer didn't mind/the theatre wasn't at capacity. – OJFord Jan 22 '15 at 18:33
  • Various universities have various billing policies. I started that disclaimer clearly in my answer. No two universities are the same policy-wise. – FluffyKittens Jan 22 '15 at 19:25
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Policies vary, from university to university, and even from department to department in the same university.

The first thing you MUST do is to ask the professor for permission. Not doing so, is a form of "stealing." If you have the professor's permission, it's more like borrowing.

The professor will usually know what the university's policies are, or at least be in a position to find out. In some cases, there may be an extra fee involved, for as many credits as the course is worth.

In some cases, there may be "loopholes," that is, there is no problem if you audit for less than half the semester, then "drop out." Some universities will allow you "sit" for three to five lectures early in the semester before having to choose between courses. In other cases, you may be allowed to attend ONE lecture on a particular topic. (I have used all these strategies in my career).

In any event, do what the professor tells you. That is the best guide for "university" policy, as well as his/her own.

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    The second paragraph sounds very strong and absolutely contradicts the first paragraph. As you say, policies vary wildly, and in universities where you can take it for granted that if you're enrolled (or even if you aren't) you are entitled to attend as many lectures of any fields as you like, the accusation of "stealing" has no basis and is downright rude. Moreover, in that case, bothering a lecturer with asking whether you are allowed to attend a particular lecture is not any more helpful than interrupting a class to publicly ask whether you may go to the bathroom. ... – O. R. Mapper Jan 23 '15 at 8:39
  • ... If properly narrowed down to a specific policy scheme found in some places/universities, this can make a good university-specific answer, though. – O. R. Mapper Jan 23 '15 at 8:42
  • Not doing so, is a form of "stealing." - not in many European countries for public universities. They are funded by the state (from our taxes) and are by law required to be "open" (except for some cases where attendance could be too high, or labs) – WoJ Feb 18 '17 at 22:09

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