Chapter One: Course Plans

Course descriptions

Now that we’ve worked through outcomes and a schedule, let’s write the course description.

A course description acts as the short mission statement of each class. It reads as a value proposition by declaring what students will learn, framed as a promise. Authoring the course description is hard. Like creating the schedule and the course outcomes, this is an iterative process of writing and editing. The goal is to create a two or three sentence summary that succinctly articulates the mission of the class. That means it captures everything we’ve discussed above, in a summary fashion.

For example, in a class focused on creative problem solving, the course description might read:

This course teaches methods of creative problem solving and ideation related to interfaces, including sketching, diagramming, and the underlying approaches of abductive thinking and divergent thinking. Students learn how to quickly visualize ideas, iterating through variations, and allowing an idea to evolve quickly and effectively.

The language used sets up a series of commitments to the student. They will learn methods (and the methods are named); and they will achieve goals (and the goals are named). Just like the outcomes, the purpose of the course description is to set up a frame around the course, acting as an objective container in which we can make course decisions. For example, given the course description, it wouldn’t make sense to teach theory in this class—that doesn’t fit within the container of the class. It would make sense to teach drawing, though, because that supports the commitment of visualizing ideas.

In larger schools, a course description is often the only clues a student gets as to what is taught in the course; prior to the course beginning, they may not be able to view a full course plan. That means the description needs to be specific. Here is an example of a bad course description:

This course teaches students to draw. They’ll learn about drawing and how to do it. At the end of the course, they’ll be able to sketch.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen course descriptions like this. It’s too vague. It doesn’t give students the ability to understand what they will be gaining as a result of taking the course. What will they learn about drawing? What does “be able to sketch” mean—be able to sketch in a certain style? In a certain medium? To a particular level of skill? There’s no clear delineation of boundaries, and so a student is left to make their own inference about the course content. It’s unlikely that their expectation will align with the professor’s course plan, making it difficult for them to be successful in the course.

Putting it all together

Here’s a summary of what we’ve done to arrive at a course curriculum.

  1. We wrote outcome statements
  2. We identified what a student would do in order to achieve the outcome
  3. We identified what we would teach in order to help the student achieve the outcome
  4. We sketched a timeline for the class, assigning durations to our course content
  5. We stubbed out places to assess progress at natural stopping points throughout the course
  6. We wrote a detailed course description that helps a student understand what they’ll learn by taking the course

This is a good starting point for our class. But I can’t emphasize enough that course planning is fluid. Before class begins for the quarter, I’ll revise my course curriculum as many as twenty times. There’s no pressure to get it right on your first try.

At some point, though, we run out of time—we can’t iterate on the course curriculum anymore, because class is starting! At this point, I’ll capture my course plan in a syllabus. While I emphasized iteration on the course curriculum before class starts, I try very hard not to change the curriculum after the class begins, because it’s not fair to the students. In some schools, the syllabus is referenced as a “contract between the teacher and student.” This is a little stuffy, but I think it has the right intent: it says that the student and professor agree that these concepts and ideas are important and will be taught in a certain style and order. Students can plan their time, and their expectations, based on the document you create.

The syllabus has exactly the same elements as the course curriculum, just written in a simple and easy to understand format.

It lists the course description, outcomes, and grading criteria. It may also include things like office hours, assigned readings, and other course policies (such as how you want students to hand in their work—via email, dropbox, etc).