During the first week of class, as any Professor would do, I take time to review the syllabus with my students. We walk through it together, answer questions and do an activity to make sure students are aware of how to use the syllabus as a resource and the expectations and goals of the course. All very simple basic items right? That is what I thought when I first started teaching as well. That was before I took a step back and looked at what seems like a basic template and realized the power behind it. The syllabus is the first thing students see, the first impression, the document that sets the tone of the course and is a critical tool to support students throughout the semester.
Once I realized this I took a good hard look at my syllabus from the perspective of a student and thought, I would not be excited about this course. I probably wouldn’t even read this syllabus, I would just skim the parts I thought I needed to know and move on. I wanted the syllabus to feel welcoming, to encourage students, to create a sense of community, provide valuable resources and make students excited to learn! I started by thinking of a resume, another first impression document, for ideas on how to make the format more inviting and easy to read. I tried a few different templates and language, thought about ways the syllabus could be helpful and interactive throughout the course and came up with several categories to creating an engaging and inspiring syllabus!
The first item in creating a powerful syllabus is creating a simple, logical, engaging template. I started with simplifying the layout to make it easy to read and grouped together in a way that allowed the syllabus to build on itself. I ultimately landed on a two columned approach to allow me to keep similar material together on one page. This minimizes going on a treasure hunt each time to put all of the pieces together. Next I laid out the different items I wanted to have and grouped them into categories. Once I had my categories I ordered them by priority and within those priority groupings by complexity and a logical path to build on each other.
Once I had a simple and clear layout I then started looking at the content. We tend to create long heavy text syllabi and after really reviewing the language I realized how much of it really just felt like filler text. For each section I highlighted the “Must Haves” and looked for ways I could convey some of those messages visually. Some language I really just had to have as text, but others gave me an opportunity to present the material in a more visually appealing manner. I generated some graphs, tables, infographics and icons to really draw attention and explain things in a clear easy to understand manner. For example a timeline suggesting how students should approach each week for success. With visual arrows and icons portraying each step. Using quick bullet points that are easy to remember and follow, but provide a valuable tool in helping students manage their time, encourage them and show my openness for questions and to prepare them for dealing with complex material.
A good syllabus provides transparency and clarity of expectations. When we think back to the tools we have for creating inclusive content transparency and clarity are two of the easiest concepts that we often fail to include. When we provide clear expectations we empower students to be in control of their academic progress. They can use these benchmarks to understand how they should progress, what they should expect and how to measure their progression. Additionally, by understanding the purpose of assignments or discussions or certain skills we are working on they find value and purpose in their work. They know an assignment is not just there to fill time or create a grade, but rather a tool that is helping them progress towards their ultimate academic and career goals.
Once I had my layout and content in place I thought about how that content could be displayed in a way that made the syllabus interactive and a resource for the students. I thought about different approaches to studying, organizing, note taking and access. The first thing I thought of was a check list! We use those all of the time in the field and not only would it be helpful in the syllabus, but it would also give them an idea and a skill they could use throughout their academic and career journey! So I converted the class schedule into a checklist that students could either print out or use electronically as a PDF with annotations. For each week students could clearly see the topics, clearly stated outcomes that showed students exactly what skills they should have by the end of the week and a checklist of all assignment and requirements that week. This would ensure they did not miss an assignment or forget to watch a video or read the required reading that week. It also gave a reminder of due dates for each item.
Your mindset is a very powerful thing and can ultimately effect your academic path. In my first week of a course I include an activity and discussion around growth mindset to help students understand the power behind how they approach challenges and their abilities. We also talk about the importance of asking questions and supporting each other. They start the semester off knowing they are in a place that fosters and encourages learning, growth and curiosity without judgement but rather support. I wanted to put this encouragement into my syllabus as a first impression and as a reminder they could carry with them through out the semester.
So this semester I launched my newly remodeled syllabus! I was a little nervous because it was such a radically new format and I wanted to be sure I was giving them an easy to use tool that also conveyed a positive and exciting message. During the first week students were given assignments to introduce themselves and discuss specific topics within the syllabus (including classroom etiquette to help us create the guidelines for our online community including the ideas and voices of the students). I was so excited to see comment after comment (completely unprompted) about how wonderful the syllabus was. Students commented on how they felt excited and empowered, safe and comfortable, able to grow and ask questions. They commented on how easy it was to navigate and read. One student even pointed out (the inspiration behind this article) that the syllabus gives them the first impression before stepping into a class and this syllabus made them excited to start the semester based on that first impression.
So as you go through out your semester this year give the syllabus the credit it deserves. Break it down to its most basic core and take a moment to put yourself in the students shoes. Follow the steps above and view this important document like a resume for an interview. Think of ways to make it engaging, create excitement, provide important information in a clear and simple way while also making it a useful resource.