Elements of an Effective Course Outline

Again, the more explicit and the greater the specificity of the evaluation component provided in the course outline, the more likely students will be able to make appropriate decisions (including whether to take the course in the first place) and so achieve to a higher standard than would otherwise be the case.

Many instructors mistakenly believe that they must keep assessment tasks and scoring criteria secret; that if students knew how they were to be evaluated ahead of time, the assessment would become too easy. This is true, however, only if assessment focuses on the rote memorization of facts, (which is generally inappropriate at the post-secondary level). Any assessment that requires higher level thinking (analysis, synthesis, judgment) is simply improved when students are properly informed. For example, by including the final examination question in my course outline, I no longer have to contend with hopelessly off-topic or vacuous submissions. Instead, I am rewarded with very satisfying essays and have been able to significantly raise overall standards. Students still manage to spread themselves across a normal curve, but the new higher standards not only make marking much easier and more pleasant, but the increased clarity of the task more accurately reflects what students know and can do.

Although it is not a requirement that the expectations for each assessment be included in the course outline (so long as they are distributed to students at the point in the course where students are most likely to begin work on, or preparing for, that assessment), doing so has several benefits:

  • it collects all the scoring criteria within a single document, rather than a series of loose handouts which are more likely to be misplaced
  • it reduces test anxiety by eliminating the element of uncertainty;
  • it allows students to begin thinking about their assignments and so focuses their attention more appropriately when taking notes in class, on readings, and when engaged in other class-related activities;
  • it ensures students have the opportunity to plan and pace their work appropriately;
  • it demonstrates the potential benefits of the course by immediately setting out what students will know and be able to do by the end of the semester.

Where the course outline includes course goals or objectives, it is often useful to explicitly link these to the assignments so that students understand the purpose of the assessment. Although the purpose of an assignment may appear obvious to the instructor, students often have difficulty seeing the relevance of what they are being asked to do. Explicitly linking course assessments to course goals not only provides an immediate and clear rationale for the assignment, but also provides further direction to the student in completing the assignment. Again, if students understand the target, they are more likely to hit it.

The course outline must include the weights (proportions or percentages of the total) of all examinations, quizzes, term papers, essays, reports, projects, presentations, artworks, journals, learning logs, web pages, portfolios, student-directed inquiry, contract learning, group or class participation, self-or peer-evaluation, or other formal assessments used to determine final grades and how these weighted grades are calculated to determine final grades. This will allow students to apportion their time appropriately to these tasks. So that students may make a reasonable estimate of their final standing in the course based on their grades on individual assignments, the relationship between numerical and letter grades established for the course also needs to be stated in the course outline.

Where attendance or other forms of class participation are required, the criteria for these measures must be explicitly stated in the course outline. (Unspecified participation grades are the greatest abuse prevalent in post-secondary education and a primary source of grade appeals.)

Due dates, approximate due dates, or the approximate frequency of examinations, quizzes and other graded work used to determine final grades, and what effect, if any, missed deadlines will have on grades, must be stated in the course outline.

The course outline should also specify what materials, if any, may be brought to examinations; and what, if any, personal effects (cell phones, text messaging systems, notebook computers, calculators, translation devices, and so on) are prohibited to avoid confusion and confrontation at the examination. (Students with special needs may of course seek exemptions to prohibited items through prior arrangement with the instructor.)

Any exemptions to the University's assessment policy or procedures authorized by the Dean that apply to the course should also be flagged in the course outline.