When I was looking for books on teaching to read this summer and fall, I found Linda Nilson’s The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course. Almost anyone who reads about education is familiar with Nilson, but I was not familiar with a graphic syllabus. I didn’t really want to read an entire book about the concept, though, as I had other books that looked more interesting to me, but I did do some reading on graphic syllabi.
Essentially, a graphic syllabus is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a visual representation of the material you’ll cover in the course. It’s designed to help students see how material relates other material in the course (and, in the case of Nilson’s book, outcomes of the course). It’s especially helpful for visual learners, not surprisingly.
Here’s a great example from an Engineering course from Clemson (made all the way back in 2000), which I got from this helpful blog post:
Here’s a much less elaborate example from a graphic design course (taken from this site):
Now, I’m not a very visual person, and I’m not an artistic person. In fact, when I told my wife I was going to try my hand at this, she was quite surprised. I admitted that this approach wasn’t my strong suit, but I wanted to try it to help students get a better idea of how material fit together in my classes, something I’ve always struggled with. Most of us teach literature in a chronological fashion, so the only structuring device we use is that of time. Our classes become like the joke definition of history: “Just one [insert expletive of your choice here] thing after another.”
My goal when I started out was to do one closer to the engineering syllabus above. However, given my skills and my courses, that didn’t work. What I produced ended up simply as being busy, not visually appealing at all. I was still too reliant on text. Thus, I compromised. I handed out a top 10 list of what students needed to know about the course, then I focused on making the course schedule more visually appealing.
This is what the first two pages of my schedule ended up looking like. It divides the class into clear sections of material that relate to one another, while providing a quote or two in the margin that helps define that era of literature we’re talking about. We’re only a couple of weeks into the semester, but I like the way the schedule is helping to frame the course so far. As we’re about to change from one section to another this week, my job is to make that clear in class and to reinforce what I have on the schedule.
I know what I have is not ideal, but it’s better than what I had before. I’m hoping to focus on the rest of the syllabus for the spring or next fall and see if I can make it more visually appealing. I don’t know if I’ll ever know what the students think about this, as they almost never comment on a syllabus, but at least I can evaluate what I think about it.