How to write successful course descriptions

Wed, Sep 30,2015 @ 03:06 PM
by Julie Coates |

If you are offering a course that will be publicized through a catalog or brochure, you or the course sponsor will need to write a course description. The course description is vital to getting people to enroll in your course.

A good course description can mean many enrollments while a poor course description can doom your course before it starts. Ideally, you should work with your class sponsor in writing the course description. Find out if you can or should submit a course description, and then follow these guidelines.

Many if not most course descriptions are repetitive, dull or grammatically sloppy. If people do not read your course description, they will not take your course.

Look at a typical course catalog. See how many of the descriptions start out, “This class will…” or “The instructor will...” or “An introduction to...” These openers are uninformative and boring when used over and over again. Following a few simple rules, you can write a course description that is simple, interesting, clear and readable.

Many course descriptions are poorly written because they are:

  1. Dull
  2. Repetitive
  3. Sloppy
  4. Uninformative
  5. Too casual
  6. Too complex

Here are some poor course description sentences.

“Course goals are to learn the basics of Native American beadwork.” (Dull)

“Lee wishes to present his interpretation of oriental philosophies of life and world views. He hopes that it would serve as a mirror to help you understand and appreciate your own culture better. Lee is a perennial student of learning.” (Teacher, not course, oriented)

“Bring your own lunch, spend a relaxed hour with some great ideas, great thinkers and excellent presenters.” (Too casual)

“Bring your own stories. We will relate stories which have a personal meaning to us. Stories may be either from history or experience. We will pursue what our stories mean for life and faith.” (Repetitive)

“This is an opportunity for you to get some challenging experience and to meet new faces.” (Uninformative)

The course description is made up of these items:

  1. The title
  2. Logistics
  3. Course description
  4. Teacher biography

The title. The title should be simple or catchy. Long or complex titles tend to confuse, and dull titles will not capture the reader’s eye. Generally, for skill classes such as home repair or the arts you will want a simple title. For idea classes such as interpersonal relations and social issues catchy titles will attract the reader, turning an average or dull topic into an interesting one. Here are some good course titles.

“Stained Glass” (simple)

“101 Uses for a Dead Poet” (catchy)

Logistics. Logistics include the teacher’s name, class location, day, length, cost, material fees, course number and other adjunct information. The course sponsor normally provides this information, although you should be aware of all information pertinent to your class.

The course description. Every course description should have these elements:

—it should be enticing or interesting

—it should be factually complete and accurate

—it should have solid course information

Every newspaper story has to have the five W’s in the first two paragraphs—Who, What, Where, When, Why. Your job in writing a course description is much easier, since Where and When are in the logistics section, and the Who is irrelevant or a useless gesture (don’t write, “Everyone should take this course.”)

Here are a few guidelines for the description:

  1. The description should run from 30 words to 120 words in length. Fewer than 30 is too sketchy. Too few words make the course look insubstantial and may not allow for enough information to be included. If a description is, more than 120 words, it is too long. Large blocks of copy can be intimidating, and people will rarely read the whole description if it is too long. This wastes space and may lose enrollments, too.
  2. The description should be divided into two paragraphs if it is over 60 words. More than 60 words in one paragraph is too hard to read.
  3. The teacher biography or qualifications should not be mixed in with the course description. This information can be brief, and should appear at the end of the course description.
  4. Do not use abbreviations unless EVERYONE knows what they stand for.
  5. Write in complete sentences. Incomplete sentences should be used infrequently and only for emphasis.

Your description should focus upon the content of the course or the learner, not upon the course itself or you as the teacher. To attract learners, the description should emphasize the benefits to the learner coming from either the results of attending the course or from the value of the subject matter itself. Learners are interested in themselves and in the content of the course, not in the course itself or the teacher, although highlighting the qualifications of a skilled instructor can help sell your course.  Unique or excellent qualifications are seen as a benefit.

In general, the first one or two sentences should be enticing, dramatic or otherwise interesting. The following two to five sentences should be a summary of the scope and content of the course.

The first five words of the description will often determine if the reader will go on or pass to another course description.

Here are six good opener techniques:

  1. A definition
  2. The end result
  3. The outstanding or impressive fact
  4. A question
  5. The quotation
  6. The distraction

Definitions, end results, and impressive facts are used frequently in course descriptions. Questions, quotations or distractions are used sparingly.

Here are some poor openers:

“The aim of this course is to . . .” (course oriented)

“Shirley has been teaching ballet for two years now . . .” (teacher oriented)

“This class will . . .” (focus on course)

“The teacher will explain . . .” (focus on teacher)

Here are some good openers:

“Batik is an age old art of fabric coloring using wax and dye.” (Definition)

“Effective fiction enables the reader to live a story as if it’s his or her own life.” (End result)

“You can be a moral person without following traditional religions.” (End result)

“Baffled, bored or intimidated by Opera?” (The question)

“Lighting is the key to all photography.” (Outstanding fact)

“No man is an island.’ ” (Quotation)

“Does your life seem like a soap opera?” (A question)

“Grr. Hold it Horace! Don’t throw that pillow yet.” (Distraction)

“Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly—and you.” (Content and end result, excellent enticer)

Following your opener you can talk about what will be covered in the course and other content matter. While you should avoid the following sentence first words in the first two sentences of the opener, they are appropriate for the rest of the description IF they are not repeated in the same description.

Sentence first words:

“We will spend time . . .”

“We will . . .”

“Here’s your chance to . . .”

“Learn . . .”

“Topics covered . . .”

“Included are . . .”

“The class . . .”

“This course . . .”

“These questions . . .”

“Participants will . . .”

“We will explore . . .”

“The course is designed . . .”

“The aim of this course . . .”

“Find out about . . .”

Don’t use useless or meaningless sentences, such as “Time allowing we will discuss other areas.”

The teacher biography. The teacher biography should be 15 to 50 words in a separate paragraph underneath the course description. Some organizations run all of their teacher biographies at the end of the catalog.

The biography should have two seemingly contradictory goals —1) to establish you as qualified; 2) to project your image as a peer, not too far above the potential learners. Learners want to know you are qualified, but they also want someone who can relate to them.

Your qualifications should be stated in terms of experience. Use credentials or degrees only as a last resort. By including your interest or motivation in teaching the course, the participants will also see you as a likable peer.

Here are examples of good course descriptions.


Batik is an age old art of fabric coloring using wax and dye. This workshop is open to beginning and advanced students. It covers preparation of cloth and dyes, some design principles and sources, effects of different wax techniques and mixtures, color theories related to the craft, and the various finishing methods. Individual attention will be emphasized. Students can expect to complete four to six works.

Political Advertising

The battlefield is the minds of American voters—and the ultimate weapon is television. With each election video politics has become more and more a prevailing force in American government.

Gary Yordan will present some examples of political advertising and the strategy and methods used in developing the ads.

Why Are There Mountains?

Why are there mountains, anyway? Why did the old earth go to all the trouble? Why doesn’t the whole planet look like Nebraska? We will examine the revelations of plate tectonics and explore the old and new theories of mountain formation. We will also take a Kodachrome journey to the Himalayas. Depending on class wishes, a field trip may be scheduled.

Do I Choose Motherhood?

The “biological clock” ticks away, causing a sense of urgency in many women to decide or re-examine their decision to bear a child, “before it is too late.” This class sheds light on what remains of a hazy, mystical area to many women. There is no right or wrong in this class. Come explore your own solutions in a warm, supportive group of women.


This post was written by Julie Coates, LERN Senior Vice President for Information Services. 




Video: How to Get the Most From a LERN Membership
Video - The LERN Program Review: Position Your Unit for Success
Cancellation Rates and New Programs: A Lesson From Netflix
Kathryn Lynch-Morin
Ready for Liftoff: Drones and Drone Courses are More Popular Than Ever
Kathryn Lynch-Morin
Working with the University of Nebraska - Omaha