Over the past several years, I have had occasion to talk to faculty on several campuses about both the titles and descriptions of new and existing courses. Overall, course information published in a college catalog or in departmental materials generally serves several purposes, leading to possibly-conflicting motivations, priorities, and goals. This column examines both course titles and formal descriptions from several perspectives, with the goal of clarifying what can and should be stated and what might be consciously omitted. To address various issues, this column organizes these reflections into four sections: terms clarified, audiences, content and style, and contractual obligations. (See Figure 1.)

For experienced readers, elements for the first several sections may seem reasonably familiar and/or routine. Based on recent conversations, however, some faculty and departments may not be aware of contractual and legal implications.

Terms Clarified

To begin, some clarifications seem in order.

Course Titles: Typically, a course title appears both in a school catalog and on transcripts, and both contexts require brevity. Within a catalog, a title must be concise and to the point, and schools may place a limit on the number of words or characters allowed—titles over 8-10 words often are considered too long.

Within a transcript, a course title likely must fit within a single line. Abbreviations may be allowed, but the total number of characters typically seems limited to roughly 30 characters.

Course Descriptions articulate basic course content. Several web sources provide similar notes regarding the purpose of course descriptions, such as the following from Helen Colman in ispring.com [2].

The key questions that we are looking to answer in our course description are:

  • WHY? The purpose or rationale for the course/subject area covered. Why would a student take it?
  • WHAT? The key content/principles/topics to be learned.
  • HOW? The types of major learning activities and student experiences featured in the course.

In addition to these vital elements, a fourth often can be helpful:

  • WHERE? The position of the course in the curriculum. What pre-requisites does the course have, and what later courses will depend upon it?

In my experience, issues of Why and What are regularly included in all course descriptions, including school catalogs. Elements of How often are omitted from catalogs, but usually are part of descriptions in syllabi. Considerations of Where may be included in catalogs, but pre-requisites may or may not be enforced, and sometimes unstated background may be expected.

Clearly course descriptions can appear in several venues. The most restrictive likely is the school catalog where space constraints may be severe, and descriptions must be text based. Other venues, such as program/department Web pages, bulletin boards, publicity flyers, and syllabi, may allow greater content—syllabi normally include student learning objectives, information about course formats and pedagogy, anticipated (types of) assignments, and policies for grading. In addition, some venues may allow images, figures, multi-media, etc. Of course, guidelines for these descriptions depend upon the media used.


As students progress beyond course completion toward graduation and future career paths, a course title and description can help provide a public statement of student accomplishment, background, and experience.


In my experience, descriptions for school catalogs may be restricted to about 75 words or, perhaps 500 characters, although various schools have different policies.

Audiences

Although various people have differing interests and experiences, generally at least four different audiences could be reading course titles and descriptions:

  • General Public (including parents): The general public likely knows relatively little about the computing discipline. To the extent that this group actually reads catalogs for course information, perhaps the main issue relates to a general impression of a program. Course information published in a catalog might be considered advertising or public relations; this group likely lacks background to carefully analyze courses or curricula, but they can observe the scope and complexion of a program. Some reactions might include: Does a program seem appropriately comprehensive, complete, and manageable, is there sufficient breadth and depth, do pieces seem logically constructed, etc.?
  • Prospective Students (before enrolling at the school): Prospective students typically are reviewing a range of schools to determine what school and program they might want to attend. As with the general public, this group may (or more likely may not) have extensive background in a discipline, but they often have heard jargon and read the popular press about careers and opportunities. Also, in recent years, I have observed that prospective students visiting campus frequently have browsed the web to review departmental pages, course options, and program opportunities. With this audience, individuals may not know what various terms mean or how elements of a curriculum support long-term goals, but they may try to identify opportunities and/or limitations.
  • Current Students (who are considering enrolling in the course): When attending a school, students interact with peers, faculty, advisors, and others as they determine what programs to enter, what courses to take, and what alternatives might fit their interest(s). In some cases, school requirements may mandate enrollment in specific courses, but often students can make choices. For this group, a course title and description can help highlight opportunities, expectations, and how the course might fit with future plans. In some contexts, the title and description might be a determining factor regarding whether a student enrolls in a course or program!
  • Students (after taking the course), Graduate Schools and potential employers: As students progress beyond course completion toward graduation and future career paths, a course title and description can help provide a public statement of student accomplishment, background, and experience. For example, employers can determine what material a student can be expected to have mastered and what skills and perspectives a prospective employee might bring to a job. Similarly, a graduate school admission committee or an employer can gain a reasonable understanding of technical background, tools and techniques, lab or team experiences, etc.

Content and Style

At a basic level, course titles and descriptions should focus on the content of the course, using language that is simple, interesting, clear, concise, and understandable to the targeted audiences. A web search identifies many sites that provide recommendations for course descriptions, such as the following from Algonquin College [3]. The following are tips for writing a course description:

  • The course description should be no longer than 100 words.1
  • Write from a student-centered perspective.
  • Use present tense and active voice.
  • Use clear and simple sentence structure and language.
  • Use gender neutral language.
  • Use common terms that prospective students understand.
  • Use industry-approved technical terms and acronyms when appropriate.
  • Use generic terms when referencing software. Only use specific software names if they are the central focus of the course or if they are required for course delivery.
  • Course titles, numbers, and levels in which the course is offered are not included in the course description as they are indicated elsewhere.
  • The intended course delivery mode (hybrid, online, in-class) is not included in a course description.
  • Prerequisites and co-requisites are not included in the text of the course description (GeneSIS [an online system at the school] has functionality for establishing prerequisites, co-requisites and equivalencies). With Genesis [another local system], a student's progression from course to course is driven by the prerequisites, co-requisites and equivalencies entered against each course number.

Similarly, Oregon State University provides helpful suggestions for what to include and what to exclude in course descriptions [5].

Beyond these recommendations, challenges may arise when considering different audiences. In addition, pragmatic considerations may influence important details. These challenges and pragmatics can be illustrated through several examples.

Example 1: A High School Course Title and Description

For 20+ years, I was heavily involved in the placement of incoming students into computer science and mathematics courses. The fundamental question was "in what course in each discipline should a student take?" One important factor in answering the question was to view a high school transcript to determine what courses a student had taken and how the student had performed in each course. For several students each year, the transcript indicated the student had taken the following four courses:

  • Math 1: Mathematical topics and skills appropriate for 9th grade students.
  • Math 2: Mathematical topics and skills appropriate for 10th grade students.
  • Math 3: Mathematical topics and skills appropriate for 11th grade students.
  • Math 4: Mathematical topics and skills appropriate for 12th grade students.

Although these descriptions may be correct, they were not helpful. Colleges might be natural target audiences for high school students, but the transcripts gave no indication regarding what the students might have learned [and additional information may be unavailable online]. Students may have mastered some subset of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, logarithms, elementary functions, linear algebra, and/or calculus, but there was no way to know. From this perspective, the course description failed badly with one target audience.

Example 2: An Introductory Programming Course

Consider two contrasting statements for the same hypothetical introductory computing course.

CS1, Version 1: Programming with Python and Robots

An introduction to computer programming, covering fundamental Python constructs, including variables, assignment, comments, if and case statements, for and while statements, read and print statements, and function definitions. Functions are used to organize code into logical pieces. A lab provides practice writing, compiling, running, and debugging code. Through the semester, the control of robots will serve as an application theme.

CS1, Version 2: Imperative Problem Solving with Lab

An introduction to using a computer to help solve problems, emphasizing top-down design, best practices for organizing and testing solutions, input and output, use of conditionals and iteration, readability, documentation, and the implementation of solutions in a high-level programming language. An application area, such as music, image processing, or the control of robots, serves as an on-going theme for assignments.

Both of these statements include a 5-word title and a 60-word course description, and both intend to describe the same course. However, the two statements take rather different approaches.

CS1, Version 1 focuses on specific low-level elements and components of coding, and constructs of Python syntax (if, case, for, while, read, and print) are identified explicitly. Steps in code development (e.g., writing, compiling, running, and debugging) are highlighted, and a specific application (the control of robots) is promised. Upon reflection, several observations seem relevant.

  • Since the word "programming" appears in the title, a natural question is how this term will be understood by the targeted audiences. Unfortunately, as described in my 2001 Inroads column [6], the word 'programming' has different interpretations by different populations.
    • Graduate schools, industry, and computer scientists often consider 'programming' to include the entire problem-solving process, including the development of specifications, design, algorithm development, coding, and testing.
    • The general public (likely including prospective students) often equate 'programming' with typing at a keyboard, with little connection to problem solving, design, or algorithms.

With such differences in perception, Version 1 may communicate an incomplete understanding or misleading description of the course to prospective students

  • The listing of details may yield a course that is cumbersome to change.
    • A small change in topic coverage (e.g., dropping a discussion of case statements) would require the course description to change.
    • Change of the language from Python to anything else would require changing the catalog.
    • Development of alternative application themes would require rewriting a sentence.
  • The lab component of the course is indicated within the course description with a sentence indicating specific steps. Use of an integrated program-development environment might require rewording a sentence.

In practice, at many schools, the process of changing a course description in the catalog involves a several-step process, including approvals by one or more college committees. Thus, even a small change in the course likely would require noticeable paperwork.

CS1, Version 2 focuses on high-level problem solving. Again, several observations seem relevant.

  • Descriptions focus mostly on conceptual skills (e.g., conditionals, iteration, and solution organization) without reference to specific program constructs.
  • Although a high-level language is promised, the specific language is not mentioned. Further, if "programming language" were replaced by "computing language," then all references to "programming" would be omitted—avoiding possible confusion.
  • Some application area is guaranteed for a series of assignments, but no specific area is promised.

In general, CS1, Version 2 allows considerable flexibility and generally highlights concepts over syntactic constructs. For some audiences, the lack of a specific language or a specific application area might be disappointing. However, this approach would allow an institution's program to experiment with several different approaches for the course without having to rewrite the course description for each variation. Further, underlying emphases of the course might be reasonably clear to all audiences.

Example 3: An Upper-level Theory Course Consider two titles and descriptions for the same upper-level theory course.

Theory, Version 1: Theory of Computation

A review of several distinct models of computation, with an extensive discussion of what problems each theoretical model can and cannot solve. Examples and formal mathematical analysis provide important insights, and practical consequences lead to considerations of Classes P and NP, computability, decidability, NP-completeness, and the Halting Problem. As time permits, additional topics may include RSA encryption and approximation algorithms.

Theory, Version 2: Automata, Formal Languages, and Computational Complexity

A careful study of computational devices, their related languages, the computations they support, and their limitations. Formal proofs together with examples investigate deterministic and non-deterministic finite automata, regular languages, pushdown automata, context-free languages, Turning machines, Classes P and NP, NP-completeness, decidability, and the Halting Problem. Related topics, such as RSA encryption and approximation algorithms, may be discussed as time permits.

Here, although the title for Version 2 (6 words) is twice that for Version 1 (3 words), the course descriptions again are the same length at 60 words. However, the styles and content differ substantially.


For some audiences, the lack of a specific language or a specific application area might be disappointing. However, this approach would allow an institution's program to experiment with several different approaches for the course without having to rewrite the course description for each variation.


The title for Theory, Version 1, Theory of Computation, is widely used for courses of this type, and several books have that as their title. This phrase may suggest likely topic coverage to computing professionals, graduate schools, and companies, but the description communicates few specifics. The course might devote considerable time to proofs and logical reasoning, but general statements and conclusions might be made with little justification. For example, the Classes P and NP will be discussed, but time spent might be short (e.g., an hour) or extensive (e.g., a few weeks). General audiences might understand broad topics, but few would be expected to appreciate the words or concepts covered. Practically, this description allows great flexibility, and instructors could use the title and description to teach various courses with quite different content and levels of rigor.

The title and description for Theory, Version 2, Automata, Formal Languages, and Computational Complexity, contain considerable detail—largely identifying common topics covered in textbooks on the subject. Since many words are technical, elements of the course likely will not be understandable to the general public, but the words and flow of topics might establish solid expectations regarding rigor and depth of coverage to knowledgeable professionals.

Since this material describes an upper-level course, beginning audiences may have insufficient background to truly understand the underlying content and depth of this course, and those writing the catalog copy might want to consider the extent to which the description should be expected to connect with or motivate the general public. With this in mind, the detail of Theory, Version 2 might seem appropriate. On the other hand, Theory, Version 2 also may be reasonably inflexible, and modest changes to the course may require some rewriting (and the corresponding approvals).

Contractual Obligations

Beyond considerations of a course description as publicizing courses and serving multiple audiences may be contractual and legal implications between students and an institution.2 [1,4] As Kerry Brian Melear concludes in "Catalogs as Contracts" in the Encyclopedia of Law and Higher Education [4]:

The contract theory applicable to higher education has undergone an evolutionary process through which it has become firmly ensconced as a viable legal descriptor of the relationship between institutions of higher learning and students. In its nascent period, contracts existed as simple written agreements through which students pledged to uphold the rules, regulations, and codes of their college or universities. Today, these agreements have developed into legally recognized contracts for goods and services established between two parties.

In its contemporary manifestation, contract theory provided students an outlet to seek redress against their colleges and universities that was previously unavailable. Now characterized as consumers, students have certain and precise expectations of collegiate performance and can actively seek judicial relief through contract theory for perceived violations of these expectations.

From what I can infer from [1,4], most lawsuits between students and universities relate to matters of admission, dismissal, and school promises (e.g., regarding future employment for graduates). However, a few cases have been reported regarding promises inferred regarding specific individual courses or programs of study.


Since many words are technical, elements of the course likely will not be understandable to the general public, but the words and flow of topics might establish solid expectations regarding rigor and depth of coverage to knowledgeable professionals.


Note also, the Eleventh Amendment of the U. S. Constitution shields states from suites brought in federal courses, and state schools are considered arms of the state. However, in certain situations apparently, state courts can consider cases alleging breach of contract, when school practices seem counter to published documents. In any case, private schools are open to a wider range of lawsuits, although courts may allow private institutions to have somewhat more flexibility.

Cases I have reviewed (e.g., from [1] and [4]) do not seem to focus on a specific word or phrase in a course description. However, four observations may be helpful.

  • If a student finds that a course offered seems substantially different from an official course description, legal discussions with a student might be possible.
  • Schools should "include modification and disclaimer language in the first few pages of the catalog." [1, p. 31]
  • On a regular basis, catalog content should be reviewed, and addenda distributed. "This not only updates the academic program of the institution but negates the element of surprise and indicates that the university is acting in good faith." [1, p. 30]
  • "Institutions should exercise extreme caution in making statements contained in a program of study relating to job opportunities and qualifications. These could be construed as affirmative factual statements of a contractual nature and be enforced against the university." [1, p. 30]

Conclusion

In my experience, faculty often craft course titles and descriptions to yield high-level, correct, and reasonably-complete statements. Further, since the process for changing titles and descriptions can be considered onerous, faculty may tend to err on the side of generality and flexibility. Changes in course content or pedagogy can occur without modifying broad statements.

On the other hand, target audiences likely want to use titles and descriptions to gain impressions of program content and emphases, to determine whether to enroll in a course or program, and to consider whether graduates have background needed for further study or for jobs. Writing for these various audiences may require balancing several competing priorities.

In addition to being high-level statements, course titles and descriptions, as they appear in catalogs or formal documents, can take the status of contractual agreements between students and a school. Thus, changes in a course may require adjustments in descriptions; if a course evolves to skip one or more topics cited in a description, there might be the possibility of lawsuits for reduced/rebated tuition or even damages (e.g., for employment options).

Altogether, faculty and programs likely should review course titles and descriptions on a regular basis, and each instructor likely should reread a description when preparing for the next offering of a course.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to the reviewer for several suggestions on a draft of this column.

References

1. Cherry, R, Geary, J., The College Catalog as a Contract, Journal of Law and Education, 21, 1 (1992).

2. Colman, H., How to Write a Course Description that Converts: 13 Tips and Best Practices, ipspring, April 9, 2021; https://www.ispringsolutions.com/blog/how-to-write-course-description. Accessed 2021 Dec 19.

3. Learning and Teaching Services, Writing Course Descriptions, Algonquin College; https://www.algonquincollege.com/lts/understanding-course-outlines/writing-course-descriptions/, Accessed 2021 Dec 19.

4. Melear, K.B., (Russo, C.J., Editor) Catalogs as Contracts, Encyclopedia of Law and Higher Education, December 16, 2009, 76–77.

5. Office of Academic Programs and Assessment, Writing Course Descriptions, Oregon State University, 2021; https://apa.oregonstate.edu/writing-course-descriptions. Accessed 2021 Dec 19.

6. Walker, H.M., Resolved: ban 'programming' from introductory computing courses, ACM Inroads, 2, 4 (2011), 16–17.

Author

Henry M. Walker
Department of Computer Science
Noyce Science Center,
Grinnell College
1116 Eighth Avenue
Grinnell, Iowa 50112 USA
[email protected]

Footnotes

1. As noted earlier, other schools I have observed set a limit of 75-80 words

2. I make no claim to be an expert on legal issues, so readers should consult their administrators and school legal advisors regarding implications of course titles and descriptions regarding any contractual agreements with students. In particular, this section of the column is intended to raise issues rather than provide legal answers.

Figures

F1Figure 1. Context for a Course Title and Description

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