When faced with literally hundreds of college courses, all of which make a pitch for the student’s attention (and eventually their attendance), how does a student choose which course to take? Course descriptions. Remember course catalogs when you were in college? You’d “shop” through them and see what struck you as interesting, pertinent, or just plain fun. As the University of California at Irvine has stated, “Course descriptions are a driving force behind the enrollment decisions our students make.”
Though there are many cases where a college will write a course description, there will be other instances where you will need to craft your own course description. You need to summarize the content of your course to intrigue students—and get them to sign up—and there are some basic guidelines to do so.
We’ll look at some of those ideas in brief.
The Basics of Writing an Online Course Description
Algonquin College has a helpful page for the writing of course descriptions. Let’s highlight some of the key points.
First off, the whole idea of the “course catalog” as you may remember it has changed. Much of the course descriptions—and this would be something transfer students and incoming freshmen would be privy to—will be online. “Therefore,” the college writes, “information must be clear, current and accurate.”
When you’re sitting down to begin writing a course description, ask yourself three questions: why, what, and how.
First, why are you offering this course? What is its point? The purpose and rationale for the course should be convincing—and also clear. Second, what exactly will students learn? Finally, how will they learn this content? What will be the activities?
Now, take these three points, in this order, and you can write at least a draft of a course description. Keep some style aspects in mind: present tense; active voice; simple sentence structure; avoid jargon if possible. Now, how to refine it?
Let’s move on to specifics.
Length of an Online Course Description
There’s a lot of ways to think about how long your course description should be, but one way that seems unerring is this: less is more.
Like anything else you write, you can certainly start long and then edit down to essentials. A few sentences. Probably less than 100 words. Remember, you want to keep these “bite-sized” for students who are looking to set their schedule quickly and want you to get straight to the point.
You could certainly think of the course description in terms of “marketing.” After all, you are trying to sell your class, really. The goal is to get students in the door. (Even if, being online, there is no door per se!) The course description acts as a kind of “advertisement” from the student’s perspective. Think about what it is you’re selling.
Focus on the Student
Mohawk College in California also offers a few tips on writing course descriptions. They lead off with this: “Be student-centered.”
Write for the student’s sake as opposed to writing “teacher-centered” or even “course-centered” descriptions. It’s not about what you the teacher are trying to get across, or what your meticulously designed course aims to do, but rather what the student will get out of it. What will be the outcomes for the student? What is it they will learn exactly? How will this move them forward?
You can write about what a student might expect from your class, but as the college points out, don’t frame that in cliché language. Avoid sentences like “Students should expect to…” blah, blah. At the same time—even though you are marketing the class, essentially—don’t write it like marketing glop. “This class will change your life…” Well, maybe, but don’t stoop to that level.
“Try to refrain from making yourself or the course itself the subject of your sentences,” writes the University of Notre Dame blog. Stick to how the student will benefit.
Utah Valley University, among many other colleges, offers an interesting take on how to make the writing active in your course description: use Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Your course description draws on course learning outcomes, and those outcomes should be clear, measurable, attainable, and at course level. The action verbs you use will “explain how the student will show their knowledge upon completion of the course.” All of our English teachers, we hope, drove into us the need to write with active verbs, and this is no exception.
Some of the action verbs they recommend include define, interpret, create, summarize, and hypothesize. The “non-action” verbs, by way of comparison, include things like learn, understand, appreciate, and know—these are words open to too much interpretation.
Think of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy of 2001. The action verbs draw from each level of the taxonomy: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and, at the peak, Creating. As teachers, we always want to be aware of using Bloom’s pyramid as we structure the class itself, and we certainly want to use it as we simply describe the class, too.
In considering your audience, and when using verbs that are active and indicate the learning that will happen, you can consider, too, that these course descriptions are read by more than just the students! They are read, as the university points out, by the general public—and that includes parents, other colleges, and businesses.
Where should the verb fall, by the way, in the sentence? Right at the beginning.
Here’s the opening sentence from an example of a Secondary Education Science course description: “Examines objectives, instructional methods and curriculum for teaching science in the secondary school.” Here’s a sentence from a course description of Public Speaking: “Develops competence in oral communication through performance, the development of critical thinking skills, arrangement of ideas, and use of evidence and reasoning to support claims.”
Straight and to the point, in language that any student, parent, or business manager could understand.
The Body of an Online Course Description
The University of Notre Dame, in a blog on writing course descriptions, goes on to point out what should be in the body. Once you’ve got an attention-grabbing, active verb opening, get specific and detail what the learning experience of a student will actually be like in your class.
What are the learning objectives? Tell the student what they’ll take away of value. What will be your teaching methods? You may use close reading or group discussion in your online class. What will be some of the course content? It may be readings, or videos. What will be the final accomplishment? Perhaps a portfolio, or a peer-reviewed essay.
“Keep the lists to a minimum and focus on the bigger picture,” says Notre Dame. And at least one aspect of the bigger picture is how your course will affect your student’s life, both educationally and professionally. Think of it like this, as Carnegie Mellon University puts it: “How will the course help students develop as scholars, learners, future professionals?”
That is the ultimate question—and it is likely the one that students, in the end, will be most concerned with.
What Are Your Adjectives, Anyway?
Before you write a course description, you will have to be clear on the course objectives—and the two shouldn’t be confused, says Dr. Babbi J. Winegarden of UCSD School of Medicine. “A course description simply tells what the course is about,” she writes. “You might consider the GOALS of the course to be linked to the course description; they are broad educational statements fitting the mission and description of the course. Specific measurable objectives, however, tell what the learner will be able to do upon successful completion of the course. Begin with the end in mind…”
Some of her points clarify a lot of what we’ve said here. Active verbs, for example; not only should they fit Bloom’s Taxonomy, making clear to students what they will do, but they will be verbs that are not open to interpretation: active words like write, identify, solve, construct, compare/contrast are specific—a student can generally tell what they will do when they read these words. These are much different than a word that describes your course far more loosely like, say, “You will learn to appreciate…” or “You will come to understand…”
What does “appreciate” look like? Or “understand”? But writing and solving is far more specific.
A second rule is to address these three characteristics:
- Performance; what is a student expected to do?
- Conditions; what are the conditions in which the student will do the tasks you set out (in an online class, think discussion board, for example)?
- Criterion; how well will the student be expected to accomplish the task?
When considering all this, your course description should be unambiguous in the objectives of your class, the activities that will help students accomplish those objectives, and how they will be evaluated in their work.
Bringing it All Together
If you keep a student focus, use active learning words and inviting adjectives, emphasize value and how your course helps students reach their goals, and ultimately arrive at a digestible length, you know you have written a terrific course description! It’s always helpful to look at examples and to use your inner barometer to gauge whether what you are reading is a model of what “to do” or “what not to do.”