Skip to content Skip to navigation

Important Information Regarding COVID-19

See the Registrar's COVID-19 and Academic Continuity page for information for students, faculty, and staff relevant to classes and academic activities and administration. (updated August 21, 2020)

Course Descriptions

What is a course description

A course descrption is a short, informational statement of the approach and content of a course. Anyone browsing the course catalog should be able to determine very quickly what the course is about.

  • Course descriptions also form a permanent archive which can be accessed by students, prospective employers or graduate schools, and other information consumers such as enhanced transcripts and ePortfolios.

  • Course descriptions are frequently consumed on mobile devices. Some applications truncate lengthy descriptions to better serve users.

  • Information services frequently use course descriptions to aggregate and associate courses in new search applications; specific topics rather than non-specific actions serve this end effectively

Your course description, if current research is a guide, will have about 3 seconds to draw in a reader. Good descriptions therefore have the following elements:

  • A snappy topic sentence often in the form of a leading question.

  • A list of topics.

  • Prerequisites and other information relating to enrollment and eligibility.

  • A link to a lengthier description is always welcome for students who want to do a deeper dive.

Lengthy wordy descriptions do not work in this environment! In essence, we have traded the physical limitations of a book for the constraints of online reading. So a good description is typically no more than 100-120 words in length. Students choose courses based on interest, needs, and degree requirements. A good course description addresses these perspectives.

Do's and Don't's

Or suggestions from long experience with course descriptions from all over the University:

DO start with a compelling topic sentence or question. DON'T lard up the first sentence with wordy constructions. You have 3 seconds to grab your reader.
DO include lists of topics; you do not need a verb in such a list. DON'T include non-informative verbiage such as "This course will consider topics such as ..." ... Just say "Topics include ..." Keep it simple.
DO create short lists of representative authors such as: Authors include Bob, Mary, and Joan. DON'T use "etc." or "..." or "and so on". Information is better than implying something.
DO include quantifiable prerequisites such a courses or specific activities or background in an area. DON'T tell us how incredible or how difficult it will be as in "Intensive, difficult course only for students with bubbling enthusiasm and a willingness to work 24/7."
DO use flat descriptive phrasing. We're looking for topics. DON'T use flowery words. You will lose your readers quickly.
DO use simple, clear punctuation.

DON'T use double hyphens and dashes and dots and arrows. Especially, do not use smart quotations or end-of-line return carriages as these are garbled in the system

DO describe the nature of the course such as "Seminar" or "Workshop". DON'T describe at length obvious things such as how engrossing your discussions will be or how enriched students will feel.

Most important: PROOFREAD! Stanford University deserves a course catalog without sloppy errors and misspellings!