The Visual Syllabus (2019 National IBL Conference Poster)

“If my teaching is ‘different,’ my syllabi should be too.”

About three years ago, concomitant with my wholesale switch to standards-based grading, I also set aside the well-worn course syllabus template that I’d used for all my courses and set out, from a blank page, to design a syllabus my students would find worth reading. The result is a colorful, four-page visual syllabus that is now the key artifact of my teaching.

Why go visual?

Few college teachers are trained in how to create a syllabus as a pedagogical tool. I, like most, first understood the syllabus to be a matter of legal, not educational, obligation. List your contact information. Required textbooks and chapters. Dates, especially of exams. A breakdown of grade percentages. And every policy — both your own and your institution’s — that will come between support your students and their learning process. And so my education in syllabus design produced an 8- to 10-page document that, however organized and well-intentioned I made it over the years, was a document that most of my students just did not find valuable.

What a missed opportunity.

What if, instead, my syllabus could be an actual learning tool? Could I find a way to communicate not only what my course was supposedly “about,” but also how I designed its learning tasks to support higher-order thinking? And why I think students will find the experience enjoyable, even useful? And, in as little space as possible, also convey the features of my standards-based grading system, with which they are not likely to have had much if any prior experience?

Can I convince students that, and how, my course is “different,” and that they might actually enjoy that difference, in the space of four pages?

Ceding the Field

Show me your syllabus, and I will show you what you value as a teacher.

Clearly, moving to a shorter syllabus would mean giving up on some things. But how important are those things really?

My old syllabus was so clearly framed around the notion that the syllabus must be a contract that its final page was actually a contract, detachable and with space for students to sign, stipulating that they understood the information therein and would abide by its policies. Especially with my lower-division and developmental courses, I made a point to collect these signature pages every semester.

I suppose my thinking was that, if a student were to run afoul of a policy, I could triumphantly produce their signature on a document that could “win” my side of the argument. The adversarial view of teaching – which counterposes instructors and students on opposite sides of a pitched battle between “rigorous learning” and “easy grades” – permeates many conversations about teaching in general, and syllabi in particular. Most of us know faculty who will describe the evolution of their syllabi as an iterative closing of loopholes, designed to prevent clever students from getting one over on their professor.

The clear assumption: that students are not deserving of trust.

That was not the relationship I wanted with my students. But my syllabus, as a crucial first impression of my course, was setting me up to have that relationship. It had to go.

My syllabus did not, in fact, have to look like a contract.

So, I summarized only the most important course “policies:” really, the ones that relate to ensuring all students have access to the necessary information and resources for success – from tutoring services to basic needs security – then put on my graphic design hat, opened the unlikeliest possible tool for graphic design (Microsoft Word) and got started.

My visual syllabus

(See the bottom of this post for a downloadable template.)

A visual syllabus for abstract algebra, laid out in full color using a newsletter template. A large graphic and headline dominate the page, along with short paragraph summaries of what students will learn and how.

Visual, or “graphic,” syllabi, can take many forms. Mine was designed starting from a newsletter template in Microsoft Word – definitely not my favorite tool, but one that lends itself well to re-use and sharing. (You can find editable templates on this page below.) It inhabits four letter-sized pages; I print it as a bifold ledger-size page, exactly like a newsletter. This also makes it a convenient jacket for holding other first-day handouts.

The Outside: Selling the Course

On the outer pages of the syllabus are the things I want my students to see and know first:

  • A banner title, graphic, and slogan. Students know what the course name and number are — what they don’t know yet is how they can relate to the course. The dominant graphics and slogan are a way for me to show how I make the course my own, hopefully giving students hope of doing so themselves as well. This abstract algebra photo is my favorite teaser for, well, a million reasons. For other courses, I’ve used clip art or other CC-licensed imagery.
  • “My own” course description. Prominently on the front page, I explain to students what the course is really about, something institutional catalog descriptions rarely endeavor to do, and why it will matter to them. This is the place I try to be most sensitive to audience: how I sell my majors’ courses to math majors is quite different from how I sell my general-education courses or business math courses, for instance.
  • Brief summary of overall course goals. These are spelled out in more detail on the learning outcomes / standards list in the Learning Plan on the back page. (Occasionally, I have just used the catalog description for a course here if that description is illuminating enough.)
  • Brief summary of my grading philosophy. Getting the words “standards-based grading” on the front page is important to me, since it has come to characterize my entire approach to assessment.
  • Learning Plan. One part course calendar, one part list of learning objectives, and one part assessment crosswalk, the learning plan dominates the back page of my syllabus.

The Inside: Progress Checklist

In its ledger-print size, the inside of my syllabus becomes a double-page-wide spread that, for students, is both the most memorable and most instrumentally valuable part of the document. It includes:

  • Specifications (left page). These are brief summaries of the assessment criteria for each type of assignment in the course. There’s not enough room for a twelve-point rubric here – not that I use one anyway! – so it contains just enough information to convey to students the standards to which I will hold their work at each of my four mastery levels (E/S and P/N). The visual design was inspired by a similar design that Kate Owens has used in teaching standards-based linear algebra.
  • Assignment types (bottom to top). Each type of assignment forms a row spanning both pages of the document. At left is an explanation of the nature of the assignment and its specifications for grading; at right are checkboxes for students to tick as they receive credit for assignments of each type. The arrangement follows:
  • Bloom’s taxonomy (bottom to top). Including an actual copy of Bloom’s (modified) taxonomy in the syllabus provides a visual reference both for what types of thinking each assignment type requires — from lower-order on bottom to higher-order on top — and also for why some assignment types have more impact on students’ grades than others. (Most of the credit for simpler assignments goes to establish students’ progress toward earning D’s and C’s. The more significant assignments, such as projects, differentiate the B’s from the A’s.) Using Bloom’s to organize this chart has been my favorite design idea so far.
  • Grade progress checklist (right page). This is a visual summary of what is often called either bundle grading or contract grading, and was inspired by one of Robert Talbert‘s standards-based calculus syllabi. Because it tracks their progress and computes their grade, all in one piece of paper, students spend a lot of time looking at this over the semester, which is exactly what I want for my syllabus!
  • Lists of course resources (bottom), including textbooks, websites, and online tools. Contact information for other course personnel, such as peer assistants, tends to go here as well.

What’s next?

It gets bemused looks from our campus copy center staff every semester when I get it printed, but for me there’s no question that my visual syllabus is a far better representation of how I teach than was my old, wordy, paranoiac contract syllabus. I also like that, because its pieces all interconnect so tightly, there aren’t many places where I can make isolated changes from one semester to the next unless I’m totally redesigning a course.

My next goal for these syllabi might be to rethink the “What You’ll Learn” and “How You’ll Learn” boxes on the front page. Do they really add value to the writing on the front page and the matrix on the inside, respectively? Or could I use this space for another purpose, such as a better introduction to my course tools and how students will interact with them (such as Slack and Twitch)?

Materials to Download

  1. The Visual Syllabus: A Platform for Inquiry and Mastery Learning (PDF) (Poster, National Inquiry Based Learning and Teaching Conference, Denver, Colo., June 2019)
  2. Editable MS Word template file:

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