While the syllabus forms the foundation of a course, it doesn’t always reach it’s full potential. By nature, the syllabus is linear. The daily plans start at the beginning and work their way towards finals week. Other information starts with the basics and becomes more specific in both details and requirements. It makes sense to design and use a syllabus this way. But there are ways we can use our syllabi that can help students visualize the course, its content, and our approach to teaching in a different light.
As instructors, sometimes we forget (or can’t do much about) how intimidating, boring, or overwhelming a syllabus can seem to students. I believe a part of this comes from how students don’t often see the intricate connections and careful planning that goes into the readings, activities, learning outcomes, and requirement that structure our courses. If we don’t know why we’ve been assigned a task, its difficult to be motivated to do it. And knowing why a teacher asks them to read or write or follow certain policies helps motivate students to do so. Taking some time to encourage students to see existing connections and construct their own can make a difference in how your syllabus is used.
Flow charts show progression, and this makes them ideal for reflecting on a series of lessons, readings, activities, or other processes. The most obvious process in writing-based classes is that of writing as a process, but we can take this a step further and have students list in their own words the steps they have or will take for a specific assignment. You could link the writing process to a number of elements in the syllabus such as rubrics, assignment requirements, and student learning outcomes (see the example below).
Imagine disassembling your linear daily plans and grouping like lessons, moments, and experiences together. What would that look like for you and each of your students? You can use your syllabus as a starting point for compiling and comparing core concepts, patterns, strategies, moments, events, or even places.
Below is the start of a mind-map based on places where students engaged with their coursework throughout the semester. Analyzing the tasks they performed in each space (physical and digital) while looking at the lessons planned around them (as listed in the daily plans) can connect activities, experiences, and coursework in ways that give insight into why and how we do what we do as teachers. Not to mention how it leads students to reflect on how they engage with tasks and requirements.
Student learning outcomes or objectives (SLOs) are the pillars we structure our courses on. From assignment descriptions to rubrics, from policies to homework, we can see these SLOs in any number of elements in our syllabi. The wording may be different, but the ideas are the same and we can use colors to see where and how these ideas reappear. You can have students do this in preparation for an upcoming assignments or as a reflective activity as in the example below.
At first, students might resist these activities a little as they won’t be familiar with using syllabi in this way or, for some, using them much at all. But hopefully these activities will quickly demystify this sometimes overwhelming document and encourage them to see how each aspect of your course connects and reinforces the others.
The visual aspect of these activities naturally encourages discussion when shared with peers. And it also provides you with a better understanding of how your students interpret and use both the syllabus and key elements of your course.
For more about enhancing your syllabus, read Creating a Usable Syllabus.