Three questions to help you create a better Subject Outline


It’s Session 3 and maybe you have a bit more time than you usually do. Consider using some of it to make sure your Subject Outline provides optimal support for your students.

1. Does it model effective language and referencing skills?

‘Small’ mistakes matter! If we want students to care about improving their own skills, we need to show that we value accurate and effective language and referencing. Check for:

  • typos
  • poorly-structured or sequenced sentences
  • indecipherable sentence fragments in rubrics
  • imprecise word choices or unnecessary synonyms
  • textbook or URL references which aren’t formatted exactly according to the conventions of the chosen referencing system

All of these are easy to identify and fix: some just take careful proofreading; others might warrant a conversation with a colleague or your ALLaN Faculty Liaison. Subject Outlines which model desirable academic and professional skills are doing some of your teaching for you!

2. Does it identify useful learning and literacy activities?

Students don’t arrive at university with all the knowledge and skills they need – if they did, we’d all be out of a job!

Reading and listening skills, for example, are fundamental for success. Does your Subject Outline, especially if it is an early subject, reflect this? Use the notes section of the schedule to identify and provide a timely reminder of resources that build these skills or activities that will assist their learning. For example:

  • Week 1  Critical Reading video –
  • Week 2  ALLaN Academic writing tutorial
  • Week 3  Make notes as you read the assigned text to prepare for Assessment 1
  • Week 5  The importance of essay planning video –
  • Week 6  Developing an argument video –
  • Week 8  Turn your Weeks 1 – 7 notes into a mind map
  • Week 11 Review all notes and mind maps in preparation for the exam

The “Learning, teaching, and support strategies” section is an ideal place to make an explicit statement about the value of attending to literacy and learning skills in this subject, this discipline, and this profession. It should also include an explanation of, and encouragement to use, ALLaN services.

3. Have previous students questioned expectations or grades?

This might be a sign of a lack of clarity, consistency, currency, or alignment of learning tasks, assessment instructions, and marking criteria.

Subject Outlines are modified over time by many different people. Have you checked yours for outdated links, references to documents and processes that are no longer relevant, or words that reflect the ghosts of assignments past? Do your learning outcomes, assessment instructions, and marking criteria align? Ideally, the same words could be used for each: a well-written learning outcome becomes the task instructions and at least a recognisable part of the marking criteria. Assessments are not the place to use synonyms: consistency in vocabulary assists students to understand expectations. Unnecessary repetition of information can also have an impact on consistency and clarity: write it once, but write it well and in a logical order.

Performance descriptors which are clearly differentiated and explicit about expectations can be used by students to evaluate their own submissions. They are instructive in themselves and can do much to assist with learning, teaching, and assessment (and avoiding arguments about grades!). Writing effective performance descriptors is not a one-person job; nor does it happen in one hit. Use this link, your ED, Assessment Lead, and colleagues to get the content and levels right, and your ALLaN Faculty Liaison to get the words right when all the decisions have been made.

If you’ve taught the subject before, reflect on what surprised you when you last did the marking:

  • what mistakes were common, but unexpected?
  • what had you not addressed or allowed for?
  • what was not understood?
  • what was the cause of unrest?
  • what could be done better?
  • where was the greatest divergence between the markers?

Use these questions to inform your modifications.

And, whatever else you do, remove these words (and others like them) from your performance descriptors:  appropriate, adequate, sound, satisfactory, basic, good, very good,  excellent. It is the task of the performance descriptors to identify exactly what constitutes satisfactory, good, and excellent performance: do this by unpacking the observable characteristics. You may be too close to your subject matter to do this easily. What you need is someone with a novice’s perspective to ask the right questions. Give me a call!

A little time spent now to adjust your Subject Outline will benefit both you and your students when teaching recommences.