Thursday, May 17, 2012

Books We’re Talking About: The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map

So during winter break, I caught wind of an interesting idea with regards to syllabus.  What if you made a more visually-oriented syllabus to emphasize information and step away from the text-overload that syllabi (particularly mine) tend to be.  Having finished my syllabus with hours to spare, I decided to spend those hours visually re-creating the syllabus. I liked the finished product, but it wasn’t much more than just adding glitter and flare, but not necessarily doing much with how I used the visual dynamic to enhance learning and the student’s experience.  I planned on still using it, but wasn’t feeling the full potential of the visual syllabus.  But then I read The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map:  Communicating Your Course by Linda B. Nilson (Jossey-Bass, 2007).  

Within the first chapter of this book, I already had a clearer picture of just what I should be aiming to do with a graphic syllabus that I was missing before.  Nilson’s premise is clear and easy to understand (albeit, challenging to fully execute).  Given that many people absorb much information visually and contextually, it doesn’t make entire sense to have a syllabus that is segmented into its different silos of:  objectives, goals, assignments/assessments/readings.  Her goal is to help the reader consider the ways in which one can depict how all these parts of the course fit together in the syllabus.  

This is useful for two reasons.  The first is that it helps the faculty member have a clearer sense of what he/she is assigning in terms of work and make sure it explicitly connects to objective and goals.  This grants a clearer vision of what the instructor is doing.  The other reason is that it gives students a stronger context of how it all fits together.  Beyond just the “why do I have to take this course” questions, a graphic syllabus can instantly connect the student with context that clarifies questions of why as well as better understanding how information fits together for their growth within the course.  

Nilson delves into a variety of issues and concerns about how to go about it and illustrates that there is good variation about how to do it.  She provides readers with thoughts about how and why one might do it, but shows there are many ways to go about it.  In particular, she provides dozens of graphic syllabi from previous courses (her own and others) in various disciplines to help stimulate ideas across departments.  To help readers better envision their own syllabus in a new light, she regularly compares what a text syllabus looks like in contrast to the (same) graphically-enhanced syllabus.  

Within the first two chapters, she already had me hooked and thinking differently about my own courses.  I’m imagining a comic-book syllabus for my comic book course that would be “teaching” as one progresses through the different elements of the syllabus.  But immediately, it helped me to reconsider that American Literature course I had created my first visual syllabus for.  I’ve found that I like doing American Literature 1 by addressing different types of writing and moving through the significant pieces in chronological order.  This works in many ways but is limiting because students will lack context (or forget) of how the different types of writings fit with one another.  By thinking about Nilson’s ideas, it allowed me to craft something more meaningful for the students as you can see from the impromptu outline below.  

And that’s probably the other element that I like about Nilson.  She emphasizes that one does not need to be an artist to creating a graphic syllabus—nor does one need numerous programs and equipment.  I did the image below in Excel.  Both MS Word and Powerpoint have outline/mapping tools that you can utilize and master very quickly.  You can go high-end (and she shows examples of such), but you can still be graphically rich and simplistic in the types of visual you use (Good thing too—I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler!).  

One final consideration with approaching a graphic syllabus (beside, “read the book!”).  I would still recommend gathering the material together in a textual format initially.  That is, first create your standard textual syllabus and save a copy of it before proceeding to create a graphic syllabus.  One big reason and one small reason for this.  The big reason is that you want to make sure your syllabus is accessible to all students.  Therefore, a student who cannot access the visual syllabus might need the text made available and the graphic elements may not be useful.  The other reason for composing it as text before moving into graphics is that you’ll have a great “before” and “after” examples to share with your colleagues (and maybe even us here on the blog!).  
  • Have you tried a graphic syllabus?  How did it go?
  • Are you interested in attempting a graphic syllabus?  What would you need to do it?