Today’s blog topic is The Syllabus. We’re mid-semester and probably not thinking about next semester, but should you? This is a good time to have this discussion so you can take some time to think about and play with this approach!
This is my third year as the CETL Instructional Designer embedded at the College of Law, and it’s been a fun ride. You may not run into law faculty or students around campus regularly because they go into the law school building and rarely come out, but they’re a sweet, well-meaning bunch. (If you see one of these wonderful people around campus, buy them a cup of coffee and guide them back to the law school…they’re most likely sleep deprived and lost.)
All joking aside, one of the first complaints I heard from my faculty after starting at the law school is that the students don’t read their syllabi. It is frustrating for everyone. Many faculty have reacted by adding more important details to a document that students are not to reading, and then penalizing them when they don’t know those important details. Students get frustrated when they try to ask a question and the response they get is, “It’s in the syllabus.” I get the disappointment as an educator, and I get the annoyance as a student. I started thinking…how could I put a spoonful of sugar on top of the syllabus to make it something students want to read?
Over the past decade I had seen samples of innovative syllabi created by creative educators at all levels of the educational spectrum. It was running into one of these samples that made me realize how easy the problem was to fix:
Let’s dress up the syllabus.
I can already hear the arguments coming…but is this worth fighting a battle over? Imagine creating a syllabus that prompts students to ask for clarification of details because they read it that closely. Imagine creating a syllabus that keeps everyone on track because it’s clear, concise, and pleasant to look at. Imagine the angst you’ll save yourself by creating something that students will actually read.
I was sold, but my faculty wasn’t…at first. I needed to sell my law faculty on this idea of a syllabus covered with a layer of desktop publishing. I started by working with the faculty that were building out hybrid and online courses with me and additional faculty I had worked with closely on other classroom techniques.
One of my faculty members, who I will call “Roy,” was frustrated by this very issue. He wasn’t my first “test” but my second one. I showed him the gorgeous syllabus we created for a hybrid advanced writing course and promised him the professor was inundated with questions because students had actually read the syllabus. Roy was willing to play, but skeptical. We put a link in the syllabus to a document that students needed to print out and bring to their very first law class. “This will be the test; we’ll use the document as a litmus test to see how many students found the link and printed it.” We went with it. I started the syllabus and then Roy edited and tweaked it to make it perfect and made it available to our incoming students. It took a week after classes started for me to reconnect with Roy. “So what happened?” I asked, “How many students showed up with your document signed?” “Oh,” Roy replied, “about seventy of my seventy five students brought the document, so I’m gonna say they read the syllabus!” Needless to say, it was even easier to convince Roy to create syllabi that are visually pleasing after that experiment.
While not all faculty nor all courses have bespoke, beautiful syllabi, we’ve made progress. More classes each semester get a syllabus face lift. The process of beautifying syllabi has also improved the general relationship between our faculty and their students, who are no longer fighting over reading the syllabus.
So…how simple is it to create insanely great syllabi?
If you can copy, paste, drag and drop, then you’ll be able to build a fantastically visual syllabus.
The main content of your syllabus is dictated by the GSU Faculty Handbook, and I trust that you’ve fine tuned your own policies and language, so let’s talk about organization.
Usually, on the front page of the syllabus I place course title and professor contact information, an image related to the course, required book information, course outcomes and a welcome statement. That’s it! Keep it simple. The next couple pages are all the fine print—the policies required by Georgia State as well as professor-specific course policies. Then I build a table and place a pacing guide inside the table to keep course assignments and readings easy to read, easy to find, and easy to organize.
Templates are built into both Microsoft Word and Pages to make you look good by enabling you to just add your content and change out the sample images. Templates that work best for syllabi are Newsletter templates, which are designed for large amounts of text, and you can easily add or subtract additional pages and move objects around. Microsoft Office Support webpages have many additional templates you can add to your collection to keep you from getting bored.
I like things to look good together, especially course materials! I also like to use color theory to boost cognitive skills. Every course that I assist in designing has an established theme, including at least two colors and at least one or two applicable images. These images and colors weave through the course, from the syllabus to the banners and pinned courses in iCollege. This way, when students reach for their Civil Procedure materials, for example, everything is subtly color coded with orange. Evidence is been color coded with gray and black. The course I’m currently designing, Professional Responsibility, is color coded with spring green (it’s a spring course; it fit nicely). When you pick out a newsletter style that you like, keep the use of color in mind.
Bringing it All Together
Normally I find the newsletter style I like first, then use those colors to drive everything else. Use these colors to help you find high resolution copyright friendly images If you’re a novice at this, just keep it simple until you get comfortable using templates. Copy, paste, drag and drop are your best friends.
Resources and a Few Last Thoughts
- White space is your friend, so don’t be afraid to put less on a page rather than more.
- Keep it simple.
- Interested in learning more about templates? Check out the courses in lynda.com “Word 2016: Templates in Depth” and/or “Pages 6.0 Essential Guide”.
- Bored with the newsletters available through Microsoft Word or Pages? There are tons out there on the Internet that can be purchased for nominal fees.
- There are a few sample images of syllabi pages at the top of this post for you to review as part of this blog post.
- I’m looking forward to seeing your new and improved syllabi! Your students will love them, and they will help you connect to your students and let your syllabus do its job.
Questions? Brags? Kudos? Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Enjoy the rest of this semester, because January will be here before we know it!
Jill Burdo is an Instructional Designer with the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning at Georgia State University, presently embedded with the College of Law, and an Apple Distinguished Educator. She’s on a quest for the perfect clean chocolate chip cookie.