Pimping the syllabus

Most colleges have some requirements for course syllabi.  We have to list office hours, contact information and assignment calendars, but increasingly we have to tack on federal attendance guidelines, institutional grievance procedures, academic honesty policies, even assessment measures.  Lots of dreary stuff.

Add to this our own lawyerly and idiosyncratic boilerplate (much of it hard-won from tedious hairsplitting with past students), and a syllabus becomes one damned unattractive document.  Worse, it may set the entirely  wrong tone for the first class meeting:

"Welcome to Whatever 101.  Now allow me to frog-march you through 17 pages of rules, caveats and the codicils.  Hope you enjoy the class."

For the past few years I've been trying to avoid the first-day syllabus frog-march.  I've tried to start day one with a big question, or an in-class exercise where students stake out a position by occupying a place in the room.  Sometimes I'll focus on a poem or a quote that resonates with ideas we will return to throughout the course.  Anything to avoid slogging through the syllabus (I mean really.  It'll keep until day two). 

I've also been rethinking the syllabus itself.  It has to include a lot of boring stuff, but it doesn't have to be boring.  Above is a redesigned front page for my Introduction to Humanities course that lays out the big question of the course, the payoff students should expect and a few promises I make about my approach.  I want page one to be as inviting as I'm trying to make day one.

I also like the way you can break out the fine print with information graphics, flow charts and outlines.  So much that we do with grades is numbers, but students don't comprehend how assignments are weighted.  They don't do the math.  A simple pie chart can quickly show them which assignments are high stakes and which low.

Even making sure they buy the right editions of the text is helped by going visual.

Jazzing up a course calender is pretty fun, too:

We often complain that students don't read our syllabus, but look at most syllabi.  Would you want to read them?  So why do we buzzkill the first day with a document that looks more like an indictment than an invitation to an intellectual adventure?  


Alan Peel said…
I'm still messing with mine. Too much boilerplate, but whaddya gonna do?
www.astro.umd.edu/~peel/ASTR230 for instance. Plus we now use a Canvas system for grading which allows students to get all their info about their classes in one place, but it doesn't allow for much freedom in designing the format of "pages" (a.k.a., wiki style pages) beyond sticking in photos and text. I'm stuck between porting my publicly available webpages into the Canvas system (and losing much of my freedom at layout) and not using Canvas for anything but grades (and having students miss out on the syllabus...)
Tammy Hammack said…
Information Design is all about how the visual drives home the information. One thing I hate is calendar items as lists only. Why not include a traditional calendar pullout sheet. This allows the user not only to see what is due for you class but allows them to transfer other event dates to your calendar. Since your information will already be font perfect and displayed in a memorable way, it will take priority in placement. It should allow the user to snapshot the calendar to their smart phone.
Professor Quest said…
I agree that good design should inform our syllabi and assignment sheets. Funny, though, few of us learn the lessons we teach. I've seen gray pages of type on syllabi for a graphic design course. I suspect, too, that there are more than a few cognitive psych or education professors who stand in front of the room lecturing in a monotone on the subject of how best to teach or learn. We are our own worst enemies.

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