Course Outlines and Descriptions

As an instructor teaching a class for the first time, you will need to determine exactly what content must be included in the course before you can begin any lesson planning.  While you will still enjoy the academic freedom to choose the resources and teaching strategies to use for the course, the scope of the content is described and defined in an official document that has been agreed upon by the faculty in your department, approved by the college curriculum committee, and sanctioned by the state.  

example of course outline

Sample Course Outlines:



The course outline of record serves as a reference document throughout the college community and forms the basis for a contract between the student, instructor and institution.  It defines the fundamental, required components of the course that the institution expects the faculty to teach and the student is guaranteed to receive.  On an even broader scale, course outlines are used in accreditation reviews and serve as the basis for transfer articulation agreements with four-year institutions such as the CSU's and UC's.  

CAUTION:  Don't confuse the Course Outline with the Course Syllabus.

The course outline is a "document with defined legal standing".  The course outline is a critical resource that you will use to develop the syllabus and plan your lessons.  The syllabus is, of course, distributed to the students and will likely contain some of the information in the course outline, e.g. course objectives, textbook.  But the syllabus also contains information specific to the class you will teach, e.g. your contact information, assignments.   Building a syllabus that contains information critical to student success is discussed in the next Read section "Building a Learner Centered Syllabus".

Planning Starts Here

Even though every college has an official course outline of record for every course offered, the degree of adherence to the letter of the outline varies greatly by college, department, and even by course.  A course in the nursing department, for example, may require strict adherence to the course outline since specific content may be required for state certification.   In other cases, the course outline may be more like broad guidelines.  Regardless of how strict or how flexible the college or department is... 

Before you can begin course planning, you must obtain a copy of the COURSE OUTLINE from the chair of your department.

Information to Guide Your Decisions

The format and standards for course outlines are defined in Title 5, in the Curriculum Standards Handbook for community colleges.  Course outlines contain the following information that you will be able to use in your planning:

  • Catalog description of the course - a short paragraph as a well developed overview of topics covered
  • Statement of need/justification - degree, certificate, transfer or other need
  • Prerequisite skills - entry skills without which student success is highly unlikely
  • Objectives - in measurable terms what students will be able to do: "upon completion of the course the student should be able to...."
  • Course content - a complete list of all topics taught in the course
  • Methods of Instruction - Types or examples of methods of instruction as well as assignments and how they are evaluated.
  • Assignments - the basis for grading as related to skills and abilities in objectives 
  • Texts/instructional materials - sample texts (with date of publication) and other instructional material

You can readily see that the information you will find in the course outline of record will be extremely valuable to you as you plan your course and make critical decisions about content, strategies and student outcomes.  You can't go too wrong if the decisions you make are guided by this official document.  Carefully review the course outline of record and use it often as a resource to guide your choices.