Syllabus: extreme makeover

cc licensed / flickr user eye of einstein

cc licensed / flickr user eye of einstein

If you are creating your very first syllabus, there are a number of online resources and tutorials that will guide you through the process, whether it’s creating the actual syllabus document or designing a course from scratch.

But if you’ve been teaching for a while, it’s more likely that rather than start from scratch, you’ll be pulling out an old syllabus and revising it.  Whether you’re teaching the same course or not, most syllabi include some consistent information:  how to contact you, your course policies, and so forth.  When you’re busy (and who isn’t), it’s time effective to just reuse chunks of policy text from last time.

I’ll confess to having used the same basic syllabus design for over a decade, before I finally changed things up last year.   I’d been laboring under the fairly commonplace directive to “put everything important about the course into the syllabus.”  Thus a document that could help you explain the content and rationale  of the course to students, in practice often winds up accreting more and more policy:  if you have a disruptive group of students one term, then you add another policy about student behavior.  Maybe your institution adds some new requirements about how academic honesty policy has to be explained.  My syllabi had just kept expanding until a typical one was three or four pages of small font and tedious prose.

(I do want to acknowledge, however, that because at many universities the syllabus functions as a kind of contract, many of us are required to include any policies that could affect student grades (academic honesty, late work, participation, etc).   Or even if it’s not required, it certainly helps, you should you ever have grades contested through a university appeal process.)

But thinking about web design principles,  and changes in student reading habits, led me to take a good look at my syllabus as if I were actually its reader rather than its writer.   I realized it was like a typical family room: you start out with a couch you like well enough (or maybe it was handed down to you if you’re a grad student/junior faculty). And then you gradually add other stuff to the room.  Things get kind of worn down; maybe there’s a pile of clutter on the coffee table. Until finally you look around and think this needs a serious overhaul.   My favorite moment on the redecoration shows is when they clear everything out of the room. What was a frumpy, crowded space suddenly looks full of possibility. Maybe it will become a home office, or a meditation room, or some amazing modern combo of the two.

So, here’s how I approached an extreme makeover of my syllabus.

First, print out a copy of your old syllabus.  Sit down and try to imagine seeing it for the first time.

  1. What does your syllabus suggest about you and your course? A syllabus serves as one of the few pieces of information students have during the first day with which to assess whether you and your course will be a good match for them.    The appearance, tone, and style of your syllabus is inevitably already telling your students something about your approach to them and to the course.  Is it saying what you want?
  2. What information or format, if any, does your institution require? Setting aside debates about the wisdom of such policies, it’s definitely worth knowing if there are guidelines you’re supposed to follow.
  3. What course policies are truly important to you?  Can they be simplified or distilled into a few key principles? For instance, a lot of specifics about student behavior (no cell phones, no walking in 20 minutes late, etc) could be grouped together under Community Respect, Professionalism, or Responsibility, depending on your teaching style, the student population, and the type of course. Identifying your key principles will help you clarify (for yourself and your students) why  your policies exist, and what they’re intended to do.
  4. What information is essential for the first day? What might be better absorbed later on, or in a separate document? My syllabus always includes information about how the course grade will be calculated — 25% for this assignment, 20% for another.  But specific grading scales or rubrics for each assignment are handed out separately on another day.

Then it’s time for the makeover.  Start with a blank document and work from scratch to rebuild your new syllabus.   Using a different font, type in all of the information you’ve decided is absolutely essential. Doing this from scratch helps you become more aware of the value of each element you’re including and encourages rewording and distilling them down as much as possible.  It also helps ensure that you’re creating something new.   Resist the urge to just copy in huge blocks of text from your old syllabus.

Once you’ve put in the essentials, take a look at it from a design perspective.  Most of us don’t read huge blocks of text online very easily or willingly.  Even if your syllabus is paper-only, it’s still worth considering breaking up the text with headings, columns, tables, or graphic devices.   Good design can help readers find the information they need, and focus on what’s important.

If there are sections of information you’ve decided to move to a separate document, go ahead now and create those documents or put a reminder in your calendar to do so. You don’t want to be caught short later in the term without them.

Yes, it takes a little time to do a makeover.  But clearing out the clutter and refurbishing the space does a lot for both your family room and your syllabus.

How do you makeover your syllabus? Let us know in the comments!

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