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What is a Course Description?

A course description is

  • a short, pithy statement which informs a student about the subject matter, approach, breadth, and applicability of the course
  • focuses on content ... we are looking for a list of topics
  • about 80 words maximum.

A course description is used for:

  • enrollment, Axess, and the Bulletin: students need to know what a course is about in a short, content-filled way
  • mobile devices. Our students increasingly use mobile devices for many purposes, and short, to-the-point course descriptions fit this medium perfectly.
  • accreditation and transfer credit: students need to be able to tell prospective Universities and employers what the course was about in a short, content-filled way. This also dovetails with plans for the online transcript that will be linked to the course description for the rest of a student's life.
  • data-mining and searching: as we develop new tools and databases, students, faculty, and staff can use short, content-filled course descriptions to compile course lists for enrollment, reporting, academic studies, etc.

All of this depends upon course descriptions conforming to their purpose!

What the description is NOT: This admittedly negative list has proven a good way to describe what we are attempting to accomplish in a course description.

  • The description is NOT an argument whether for the course or for a point of view presented in the course. That is the work of a syllabus. A student perusing the Bulletin should be able to tell from the description whether the course is relevant to his or her course of study.
  • The description is NOT a marketing piece. The problem here is that a catalog such as the Bulletin would suffer if every item in it was presented as the best of its type. We’re not trying to shout ... we’re trying to provide students with a useful tool for planning their programs at Stanford.
  • The description is NOT a syllabus. We typically do not run an exhaustive list of materials used in the course, though we are willing to run short representative lists of authors or sources.
  • The description is NOT poetry, NOR is it speculation. I say this as a lifelong and credentialed fuzzy, so please do not take offense, but some humanities descriptions sent to us sound more like Dada than data.
  • On the other hand, the description is NOT a technical manual. While we do not expect that the average student should understand everything in a long list of field-specific terminology, the non-specialist should be able to identify the general area under consideration.