Redesign Your Syllabus!

I think that many of us have experienced the frustration of reading a course syllabus. Why not make it more readable, interactive, and visually engaging?  A very interesting Blog Post from Inside Higher Ed mentioned the following techniques for integrating our teaching style into our syllabus.

Having Your Syllabus Reflect What You Value Most

  1. Foreground what’s essential by asking ourselves about the most important thing that we want our students to get out of our class.
  2. Anticipating pitfalls and designing around. An example of this is writing about levels of class participation in a narrative that was set against the metaphor of “diving deep” which helps with putting expectation for participation in very concrete terms and assisting students in understanding how this translated into a grade.

Other great practices can include:

1. Starting from a Template: There’s no shame in using a template in order to start your new syllabus with a solid layout. I’ve personally had a lot of success adapting two-column newsletter templates in Microsoft Word and Pages (Mac). Templates can include great options like a table of contents to make your syllabus easier to reference.

2. Getting Visual: To the right is a page from my redesigned syllabus explaining my grading philosophy and expectations for class participation. Since my writing class factored participation as a significant portion of student grades, a visual metaphor (in my case, a scuba diver) helps to reinforce the larger outcomes of the class, especially in how students were expected to collaborate in peer review. A visual doesn’t have to be elaborate, but strategically using images, shapes, or flow-charts can be an equally effective way of drawing attention to the most important parts of your syllabus.

3. Being Accessible: While it’s great for your syllabus to make an impression, you also want to make sure it’s readable for all students. This can include providing your syllabus in multiple formats (both analogue, digital, color, and grayscale), and also using easy to read fonts and high contrast colors. If you don’t have the resources to spring for color printing, make sure to preview how your syllabus will look in grayscale.

4. Building Your Design Knowledge: Taking on a design project can be a great way to educate yourself on effective design practices and visual rhetoric. If you’re just starting to dip your toe, you might want to consider taking a look at The Non-Designer’s Design Book and Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students.

Beyond the First Day of Class
If you devote time to making a thoughtfully designed syllabus, make sure you keep using it after the first day of class! Below are two suggestions that can help you reference the syllabus so you can keep driving home important concepts and outcomes.

1. Using the Syllabus at Key Moments: A great time to ask students to take out the syllabus is when you transition between major units or assignments of the course. You can lead students in a conversation about ways the work they just completed addressed some of your broader course learning outcomes. You can even turn this into an in-class activity such as having students write a short reflection about how their work in the previous unit helped them develop competencies or achieve course outcomes.

2. Reinforcing Concepts from Your Syllabus in Assignments and Grading: You can reinforce the concepts from your syllabus by using them consistently in other course documents including assignment prompts and grading rubrics. For example, it’s great to reiterate course outcomes, especially as it provides context and purpose for the work students will be doing. In my case, I reused my “diving deep” metaphor when I wrote my grading rubrics.


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December 22, 2015 · 12:00 am

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