Monday, May 9, 2011

Time For An Extreme Syllabus Make-Over?

"The Syllabus"...the single most important document a professor shares with her students.  Professors spend hours perfecting each syllabus through rigorous revisions and each semester stress the importance of reading it to their students.  But how closely do students read it? How effective is it at communicating critical details, as well as high level information about your course?  And are you leveraging the maximum learning potential of a syllabus -- can it be more than just a reference resource?

The Value of Visual Communication
A syllabus is a reference resource that can easily span 5, 6, 7 or more pages.  Most reference resources produced today outside of higher education are designed with a blend of text and images.  Compare a college textbook published in 2011 with one published in 1995.  You'll find a significant increase in the visual diagrams, colored call out boxes, and icons used throughout the chapters.  These often function to summarize main points and weave information back and forth through a text, in an effort to facilitate connections between ideas and foster critical thinking. Images and icons are also utilized to communicate information in a secondary way, guide the eye through the content, and call out important details.  Would your students consider your syllabus a more meaningful, helpful resource if it too integrated thoughtful images and graphics along with text?

Several years ago, I transformed my 10-page, black-and-white, text-based syllabus into a visual gem.  Students responded with gratitude.  One student wrote to me on the first day of class, "I can tell you really care about your teaching."  I found it was quite amazing how quickly my careless typos were found too (evidence that they were reading it!).  

More Than Meets the Eye
But aside from the aesthetically pleasing qualities of designing syllabi with images and text, the National Center on Universal Design for Learning encourages "providing multiple means of representation" in the design and development of learning environments:  "[L]earning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used, because it allows students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts." 

In my syllabus redesign, I integrated images of my students at art galleries and museums -- standing in front of art works of all shapes and sizes -- in an effort to make their entrance into the class more relevant.  I also included thumbnail size images of artworks that we'd study throughout the class.  By referencing the syllabus throughout the term, students would realize and reflect on what they had learned about the images, gaining a deeper understanding of how context informs interpretation.

If you'd like to consider a syllabus make-over, you may enjoy the following shared resources:
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