Crafting Your Syllabus
Shortly before the beginning of each semester, the Senior Associate Dean sends out an email reminding faculty of Seaver College’s syllabus requirements and suggesting specific language for special circumstances. Beyond the content of the syllabus, you’ll also want to think about the tone and appearance. Here are some tips to help you make your syllabi more learning-centered, accessible, inclusive, and inviting.
Try to ensure that your syllabus is focused on student learning. Michael Palmer, Lindsay Wheeler, and Itiya Aneece (2016) found that “When students read a learning-focused syllabus, they have significantly more positive perceptions of the document itself, the course described by the syllabus, and the instructor associated with the course.” Learning-centered syllabi place learning objectives front and center, align assessment activities with learning objectives, guide students through the learning environment, and invite students to engage in and take ownership of their learning. The Office of Faculty Development at the California State University, Northridge (CSUN) provides a helpful checklist of learning-centered syllabus components. Working with Dorothe Bach and Adriana Streifer at the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence, Palmer developed a rubric by which professors can grade their own syllabi for a focus on learning.
We typically prepare syllabi as visual documents, but some of our students may require accommodations to read our syllabi. Tulane’s Accessible Syllabus website can help you make your syllabus accessible to all students. As you think about syllabus accessibility, don’t limit yourself to the categories of accessibility typically supported by the Office of Student Accessibility. In particular, ensure that your use of color does not obscure important information from your students with narrower ranges of color vision.
While the Seaver Dean’s office does not require any particular language regarding gender or other aspects of students’ personal identity, you might choose to include something like the following: “Professional courtesy and sensitivity are important with respect to individuals and topics dealing with race, culture, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender, and nationality. Class rosters provide students’ legal names, but I will gladly honor requests to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun if advised.”
In years past, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog has showcased creative syllabus designs. Unfortunately, the posts themselves haven’t aged very well; as happens in internet-land, some of the link targets have gone missing. Nevertheless, some inspiring examples remain.
Additional resources along these lines include:
- How to turn your syllabus into an infographic by Curtis Newbold, a.k.a. the Visual Communication Guy
- How to create an infographic syllabus with piktochart by Will Fanguy
If you’d like to see my own efforts in this regard, my Fall 2017 syllabi for Religion 101 and Hebrew 151 are still available for your consideration. I’d also encourage you to take a look at Javier Monzón’s syllabus for BIOL 311: Introduction to Ecology, featured in volume 7, issue 1 of the journal Syllabus (“a peer-reviewed publication of course syllabi and other learning materials”).
You might not have the time or inclination to “go deep” into the page layout features your word processor offers. Even so, consider using a simple mind mapping tool like XMind to create a graphic display of student learning objectives, as modeled by Billie Hara on the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog way back in 2010. To go deeper, find Linda B. Nilson (2009), The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course in the Center for Teaching Excellence collection.
Fanguy, W. (2015). How to create an infographic syllabus with Piktochart. Piktochart [website].
Jones, J. B. (2011). Creative approaches to the syllabus. Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog.
Jones, J. B. (2012). Creative syllabuses. Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog.
Newbold, C. (2017). How to turn your syllabus into an infographic. The Visual Communication Guy [website].
Nilson, L. B. (2009). The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course. Hoboken: Wiley.
Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. (2014). Measuring the promise: a learning-focus syllabus rubric. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 33 (1), 14–36.
Palmer, M. S., Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48 (4), 36–47.