An Approachable Syllabus Writing Style
A syllabus serves many functions in a class. In The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach (2008, 2nd Ed.) Judith Grunert O’Brien, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen identify at least sixteen elements of a learner-centered syllabus:
- Establishes an early point of contact and connection between student and instructor
- Helps set the tone for the course
- Describes your beliefs about educational purposes
- Acquaints students with the logistics of the course
- Contains collected handouts
- Defines student responsibilities for successful coursework
- Describes active learning
- Helps students assess their readiness for your course
- Sets the course in a broader context for learning
- Provides a conceptual framework
- Describes available learning resources
- Communicates the role of technology in the course
- Can provide difficult-to-obtain reading material
- Can improve the effectiveness of student note taking
- Can include material that supports learning outside the classroom
- Can serve as a learning contract.
The syllabus often sets the tone for the course. Making sure the syllabus is readable, uncluttered, and accessible is a good place to start. If you are providing the syllabus in a PDF or Word document there are some easy things you can do to improve readability and encourage students to actually read the entire document. Participants in Motameni, Rice, and LaRosa’s (2015) study indicated that “the more visually separated and accentuated a syllabus is the more students see it as most usable. They want a syllabus that is more visual than textual and more structured with separations than with block text: (p. 83). Since you are not printing and stapling these syllabi or working with a limited printing allotment there is no longer a reason to use a small font, reduced line spacing, small margins, and no white space.
Whether your syllabus is written in Word or directly in the Canvas Syllabus tool, writing in second person form rather than third person, academic-style form will make it more approachable. This is true not just in the syllabus but also when describing your activities, assignments, concepts, and evaluation criteria. Using “you” and “your,” “me,” “we,” and “us” helps students to think about the course as an active connection between people and not as a separate, inanimate object. When in doubt, run your text through a Readability Checker.
In addition to a personal introduction and a course introduction many faculty like to provide a brief teaching philosophy or teaching style statement in their syllabus or introductory materials. If you have one or are working on one for promotion and tenure you already have a starting point. Student-facing teaching philosophy statements should be written in the first person to feel friendly and welcoming.
Following is an example from a School of Education faculty member Jessica Nina-Lester for her graduate-level qualitative research methods course:
In this course, my primary goal is to establish a safe and inclusive environment that will support your learning. Throughout the semester, I invite your questions and critiques, desiring thoughtful dialogue to be central to our learning experience. In this course, we will work to understand a variety of positions and practices associated with the qualitative inquiry process, pushing one another to question taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions.
Throughout the course, we will remind each other that there is not “one right” way to carry out a qualitative research study. Rather, there are many theoretical and methodological positions from which to work when considering qualitative research. As such, we will work to understand a variety of positions. This does not mean that you may not disagree with one another or with me about these varied perspectives and approaches. Yet, in order to facilitate our learning environment, we will each work to cultivate a classroom space that generates respectful, thoughtful, and empathetic understanding. What we come to learn is a shared experience; thus, we will all work to cultivate a community of learners.
In our learning community, I will position myself as a co-learner, as well as a teacher. Hence, if I am teaching and you are not learning, then I am not teaching. Please let me know! Throughout the semester, I welcome your feedback and will encourage your participation in an informal mid semester evaluation. In addition, throughout the semester, you can expect feedback from me, with this feedback designed to support your growth as a qualitative researcher.
Graphic Syllabi Examples
You may have heard of Linda Nilson’s book The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map which recommends supplementing a text-based syllabus with graphics showing the structure and organization of the course and its learning outcomes. Providing a graphic organizer is also recommended as a good practice in Universal Design for Learning as a method for visualizing the connections between the outcomes and the course content, activities, and assessments. Clearly aligning outcomes with assessments, activities, and content are critical standards in Quality Matters and it is easy to show that alignment through a diagram, infographic, or flowchart. Keep in mind that images should not replace listing the outcomes and modules in text – they provide an alternative way of seeing the structure of the course.
If you are thinking about creating an infographic-style syllabus , it is a good idea to keep a plain, non-graphical version that contains any boilerplate/policy language required in your syllabus which you would want to omit from an infographic and also for accessibility purposes. If you are required to use a standardized syllabus consider using a graphical version as a “course overview” document instead of an actual syllabus. If you are considering using additional graphics in formatting to gain attention and promote motivation you’ll also want to make sure that your syllabus is accessible.
Portions of the content found here was designed by Indiana University and adapted for use by the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University. This material is offered under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license and should be considered under this license unless otherwise noted. The original content was imported from “Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses” from within Canvas Commons. Excerpts have also been taken from – Riviere, J., Picard, D., & Coble, R. (2014). Syllabus Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/syllabus-design/.