A Visual Syllabus

One of the first documents I revisit at the start of any school year is the syllabus. After all, it’s the first thing I hand out to students. The syllabus provides students with their first overview of what they’ll be learning in the upcoming year. It’s the “first impression” they have of the class and, by extension, of me.

Each year, I update my syllabus to reflect changes in the curriculum. But aside from swapping out a book title and changing the dates, the syllabus usually stays the same. Recently, however, I came across an interesting idea on Dr. Curtis Newbold’s blog, The Visual Communication Guy. In a post titled “Would a Course Syllabus be Better as an Infographic?”, Newbold shared his experience changing his syllabus from a traditional text into an infographic. He received an overwhelmingly positive response from his students and colleagues.

I decided to try it out for myself and spent some time updating the course syllabus for my AP Lang class. I used ease.ly to create the infogaphic. When I was finished the design process, I could then download the infographic as a PDF as well as JPEG file.

So here’s what my syllabus looked like before:

AP Lang traditional syllabus combined

And here’s the infographic version I created last week:

APLangSyllabus 1

 Just looking at these two documents, it’s not hard to see how the infographic version is much more attractive of the two. If I were a student, I know which course I’d rather take, and honestly, as a teacher, I know which course I’d rather teach!

So what did I learned from this exercise?

For one thing, moving to a visual syllabus meant that I had to cut down on text. . . and cut down substantially. My original syllabus was two pages long. I made a decision that when I made the infographic version that I would limit myself to a single page. Because I had this limit, I was forced to really think about every piece of content I wanted to include and decide whether or not it was really necessary. What was essential information and what was nice-to-know-but-not-necessary?

Doing this also forced me to think about my audience—my students—in a way I hadn’t before. In deciding what information was essential, I had to put myself in my students’ shoes and think about what they needed to know. My previous syllabus had all the information my students needed, but they didn’t necessarily need all of it. Then I had to frame the information in such a way, using words and pictures, that they could best understand it.

Finally, creating a visual syllabus made me rethink the course itself. What is the course ultimately about? How can I convey this information using pictures and other visual elements such as font and color? How can I then arrange the information so that it’s both attractive and easy to read? In thinking about these issues, I wasn’t just writing a syllabus, I was designing one.

Applications / Implications:

  • In what ways can other information be revised to be more visually appealing and interesting?
  • What opportunities can I give students to not just gather information, but to also design it?

On a related note, Newbold has another great post titled “10 Lame Documents that Would Be Better as Infographics” about . . . well, you can probably guess. 🙂