September 07, 2016

What's in a course outline?

You’ve received course outlines for all of your classes, but do you know how to use them to your advantage? Mebbie Bell, Director of the Student Success Centre, shares her insights on how to turn any course outline into your tool for success. 

Course outlines are many things. They are guides or maps for managing your course work and learning, calendars, reading lists, sets of rules, and answers to common student questions. In some universities and colleges, course outlines are actually treated as contracts between instructors and students, binding them together and setting out each of their responsibilities. Basically, your course outline — or syllabus — includes everything your instructor wants you to know about your course and thinks is important.

What should you look for in a course outline?
Course outlines can look very different — short or long, elaborate or concise, full of extra information, or just the basic “need to know” facts. However, at the University of Alberta, the Calendar outlines some basic information they should include, such as:
  • Course objectives and description
  • A list of required textbooks and other major course materials (e.g., lab materials, study guides, electronic resources)
  • A list of any additional course fees
  • How and when students can contact the instructor
  • The weighted distribution (or percent value) between term work and the final exam/assignment
  • The weighting (or percent value) of all term work contributing to the grade
  • Whether marks are given for class participation or other in-class activities (and what they’re worth)
  • Dates of any examination or course assignments with a weight of 10% or more
  • How term marks will be translated to a final letter grade
  • How students can access past or representative examples of evaluative course materials (e.g., sample exam questions). (note that a few departments are exempt from this requirement).
  • Information on the Code of Student Behaviour
Even with a few points missing, this is a long list! Each of these points helps you figure out how best to manage your course prep and where to spend your time. And, from the beginning of the term, you have all these details at your disposal. In addition to this long list, experienced students tend to focus on a few key things: titles of lectures and readings; course themes or topics; repeated ideas or concepts (along with how much course time is devoted to them); and, the description of the course and learning objectives. You likely noticed that they focus on repeated themes — the main topics, in other words, that make up the course. Look for these in your course outlines, too: all your course concepts will fit within these main themes.

What should you do with your course outline?
  • Read it. At the beginning of term, go through every section in detail. Regardless of whether your instructor reviews the outline in its entirety in class, you are responsible for knowing the outline inside and out. Identify questions, or highlight any points you want to ask. And, then, follow up with your instructor.
  • Add to it. The outline is just the beginning of what you need to know. So, bring your outline to class (in hardcopy or loaded on your laptop), and add notes as your instructor discusses assignments or provides exam details. You will, then, have all your important notes in one place.
  • Refer to it. Finally, as you go through the course, check the outline anytime you have questions.
With good information, you can make good decisions about how best to manage your course work throughout the term.