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4 Ways to Improve Your Syllabus: A Mini-Case Study

Guest contributor Andrew Davies gives professors something to strive for with his beautifully redesigned syllabus

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by Andrew Davies in Blog
July 27, 2019 8 comments

Imagine if your students showed up to class prepared and ready to learn. There were no surprised looks when you break out the quiz that’s been on the schedule for 4 weeks, or panicked faces when you remind them of the project that’s due next class.

That was the dream I had when I was dropped into the deep end of teaching college for the first time. But what they didn’t tell me was that in order for my teacher’s utopia to materialize I first needed to get my students to read the syllabus. The challenge, I discovered, isn’t that students don’t know they should read the thing, it’s that it’s seen as a chore. And which college-aged adult wants to do chores?

That’s when I found Dr. Norman Eng’s Teaching College and the companion ebook Create an Engaging Syllabus. They shifted my perspective on what a syllabus is meant to do. I went from seeing it as a mandatory dumping ground for class policies and grading information to a marketing tool. My class became a product I needed to sell to my target audience: the students, and the syllabus became the first chance at making my pitch. With that in mind I realized my tired old syllabus needed a significant facelift in four particular areas. 

Change #1: Answer student questions upfront.

When you look at a brochure for a shiny new product, they don’t put all the specs on the cover. They save that for after they’ve answered your most fundamental questions like “Why should I even care about this product?”  Likewise, in the first few pages of my syllabus, I need to answer students’ most pressing questions about my course… and in plain English.

01_page1_before
1st page: BEFORE

In previous versions of my class, the first page of my syllabus inherited the format and language of typical syllabi: starting with “learning outcomes” and “prerequisites” complete with a stodgy course description. 

02_page01_after
1st page: AFTER

Now the section titles have a more conversational tone, starting on page one with “Why should you take this course?” and “What will I need?” followed by “How can I succeed in this course?”, “What does success look like?” and “What will we be doing in this course?” on the subsequent pages. The learning outcomes are still there, just further back in the syllabus under the heading “What should you be able to do at the end of this course?”

03_learning-outcomes_after
Learning outcomes

Change #2: Use more visuals.

As a designer I’m almost ashamed to admit that this hadn’t crossed my mind before reading Eng’s books, especially since I’m teaching a class full of Illustration majors. They’re all about visual stimulation so it’s vital that their first impression of the course actually impresses. Using infographics, icons and pictures, I took as many opportunities as I could  to show as well as tell making it easier to scan and more enticing to come back to. This is most noticeable in the main heading on page 1, seen above, as well as the project descriptions below.

They were straight-to-the-point, boring blocks of text. Perfectly un-scannable.

04_projects-01-02_before
Project descriptions: BEFORE (click floating bar at bottom for page 2)

Now each project gets a thumbnail which makes the content easier to skim, but also gives the students a taste of what the project entails even before they read the description.

06_projects-01-02_after
Project descriptions: AFTER (click floating bar at bottom for page 2)

Change #3: Intersperse important information.

There are some key habits and behaviors I want to encourage in my students that make for a smoother, more successful class experience. But you could only find them in the fine print oblivion I labelled “Evaluation and Grading Policy” which sounds about as enticing as iTunes’ “Terms and Conditions.”

08_policy-page1-2_before
Class Policy page: BEFORE (click floating bar at bottom for page 2)

With the new approach, I’ve scattered the most important tidbits throughout the syllabus, and in light of Change #2, made them more visually interesting. 

10_grading-chart01-02_after
Class Policy page: AFTER (click floating bar at bottom for page 2)

These call-outs break up the content on each page making it more magazine-like, with various bits of content on the same page, and therefore more likely to be noticed.

Change #4: Rename lectures topics as plain questions. 

When you’re knee-deep in pedagogy it’s easy to get caught up in using teaching nomenclature and forget that most normal people, and certainly my students, don’t talk that way. They need more approachable on-ramps into the material so I reworded the lecture topics using simple questions that clearly tell them exactly what we’re going to cover in that class without the jargon.

15_class-schedule_before
Class Schedule: BEFORE

16_class-schedule_after
Class Schedule: AFTER

So  the “Type History and Classification” lecture becomes “Where did all this type come from and how do we organize it?” 

“Type Anatomy & Terminology” becomes “How do we talk about Type without looking stupid?”

“Visual Hierarchy” becomes “How do we properly arrange type on a single page?”

“The Typographic Grid and Paragraph layout” becomes “How do the pros deal with text across multiple pages?”

Your syllabus is the best place to make a great first impression and get students excited about learning in your class. Plus it shows them what kind of professor you are; the kind that cares enough to make what could otherwise be a boring policy document, into an engaging magazine-style masterpiece that they’ll want to hang on their walls. At least that’s the dream anyway. 

Of course this is an ever-evolving creature (e.g. I’m missing a section where I introduce myself to my students), but here’s a link to the syllabus as it stands right now.

Please share your thoughts (and syllabus if you can!) in the comments below.


Andrew is an adjunct professor in the Communication Arts Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also leads the creative team at Paragon Design Group, a multi-disciplined design studio, where, in addition to presenting on matters of design & creativity, he straddles the worlds of print, web and motion graphics media. He’s won numerous awards working for clients like American Express, CNN, Linkedin, the National Geographic Channel, Samsung, UNICEF, WordPress.com and Xerox. For details, visit his website: https://teachingtypography.wordpress.com/

 

8 Comments
  1. C.L. says:

    Wow Andrew! Really love your redesigned syllabus. It’s inviting and and I love how you used graphics – would you tell us what program you used and where you got these graphics? Esp those on p. 2 and 7. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Andrew Davies says:

      Thanks C.L., I used Adobe Illustrator to create the icons and graphics, and Adobe InDesign to put it all together with the text and imagery.

      1. Norman Eng says:

        For a lot of profs who don’t have the software or the design background, they can use Canva–a popular tool to design presentations, media, etc. That’s the next best thing!

  2. Pam Mork says:

    Outstanding syllabus renovation! You have inspired me to do better. Thank you for sharing your work.

  3. Anelyse Weiler says:

    Hi Andrew, thanks so much for sharing these extremely helpful tips! I hope it’s okay that I drew inspiration from some of your sub-headings and visuals in my draft syllabi for this fall. I used Canva, as Norman suggested. My syllabi aren’t nearly as professional and polished as yours, but they’re uploaded here: https://anelyseweiler.com/teaching

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Love the difference between your new syllabus (SOC 1) and the 2018 stuff. It’s a great start!

    2. Andrew Davies says:

      That’s awesome Anelyse! Glad you got something from the post.

  4. Gilberto Marvez says:

    Dear professor NORMAN ENG, I bought your book create an Engaging Syllabus, It changes my mind about syllabus, I now train to design the syllabus for my next quarter course. However, I would like to have some example or model, I tried to download the template and the example you gives as a reference at the end of the book, but it was impossible. Could you help me to get the template and example, I would really appreciate your help. Best regard

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

A Quick-Start Guide

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