It's easy to confuse a course description with a syllabus because both offer details about specific academic classes. However, a course description is generally written to help students decide if the course is one they want or need to take. A syllabus lists the specific course requirements a student must complete, once she's actually registered for the class.

Author

Teachers and professors often help draft course descriptions, but much of the writing is done by administrators and department heads. Course descriptions help students determine whether prerequisites are necessary for particular classes and if they need certain courses to fulfill their academic or degree requirements. They also help students choose electives that suit their interests or goals. A syllabus is written by the teacher, instructor or professor and details specific dates, assignments and coursework that is necessary to obtain a passing grade.

Logistical Details

A course description provides a basic overview of what a class offers. A course description includes a course prefix, course number, course title, lecture and lab contact hours, semester credit hours, description of the class and prerequisites, according to Texas A&M University. It usually denotes what department is offering the course and what semester or quarter it's being offered. Some course descriptions list the professor or teacher and room number, but not always since those details often change from semester to semester. A syllabus is much more detailed and lists textbooks and reference materials necessary for the class, important test dates, projects and points or grades necessary to pass the class.

Structure

A course description is usually written in paragraph form with complete sentences. A syllabus often contains timelines, calendars, outlines, bullet points and tables or infographics that quickly and concisely relay important information. Teachers and professors might include some commentary, such as the purpose or focus of the course, but most of the content is detail-specific. In addition to course objectives, required texts, assignments and grading criteria, a syllabus might also state the instructor's policies on late work, incomplete assignments, missed classes and make-up work or tests, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Long-Term Benefits

Once you read a teacher's or administrator's course description and determine whether you want to take the course, you don't usually need to refer to the description again. There's not enough specific information to help you complete assignments or accomplish academic tasks. On the other hand, a syllabus is your study guide throughout the entire course. You'll continually refer to it to remember important test or quiz dates, project deadlines and course requirements. You might need to double-check the instructor's policies or look up the teacher's office hours so you can schedule an appointment or tutoring session. A syllabus might also help you budget how much you need for textbooks and reference materials.