May 2nd, 2012

A Graphic Syllabus Can Bring Clarity to Course Structure


Not being a visual learner, I always struggled with ways of graphically representing course content. I was never very successful until I discovered that students could do what I couldn’t. During those summary times at the end of a class session, I often asked them to show graphically their sense of how the ideas related. I was surprised how clearly those visual representations showed whether or not they understood. Even more surprising, they sometimes depicted relationships I hadn’t thought of or positioned ideas so that they highlighted different aspects of a relationship.

My students were creating concept maps, or probably more accurately mind maps. Concept maps, according to those who study them, are created according to certain rules. Mind maps are more free form. Both offer visual learners (and those of us who aren’t) a way of understanding structure, and seeing how things relate and fit together.

While editing a manuscript chapter I ran across a related idea attributed to Linda Nilson. To encourage student thinking about the overall structure of a course right from the start, why not include a concept map or mind map in the syllabus? When I looked at Linda’s work (in the two references listed below) she actually advocates what she calls a “graphic syllabus,” described as a “flowchart, graphic organizer, or diagram of the schedule and organization of course topics, sometimes with tests, assignments, and major activities included.” (2003, p. 31). Her book on the topic contains all sorts of amazing examples which aren’t designed to replace traditional syllabi text but to supplement it. If you are a visual learner and good with graphics, there’s a real opportunity to get creative here.

I can’t see myself designing something as imaginative as most of the examples in the book, but the idea of putting some sort of graphic representation of content in the syllabus is a good one. How the various topics that make up a course relate to one another is obvious to teachers—at least it should be—but I don’t think we devote much, if any, time explaining those content relationships to students. We finish up one topic or unit, summarize it, maybe there’s an exam at this point and then we start on the next content chunk. If there was one of these graphic representations in the syllabus, on the course website or in a PowerPoint, it would be so easy to haul it out at every major juncture in the course to give some context to where we’re going and how it relates to where we’ve been. It could be used in a very literal sense to help students see the “big picture” rather than experiencing the course as a collection of seemingly separate topics.

Students aren’t the only ones who would benefit from a graphic course organizer. I can see great value in faculty having to go through the process of creating one. Those of us who are “spatially impaired” (how my husband describes my condition) would struggle because we don’t see relationships visually. Still other some faculty may be challenged because they haven’t really thought through how the content in a course is related and would be surprised at what their “big picture” ends up looking like.

I know it’s the end of the semester and who wants to be thinking about next Fall’s syllabi, but preparing a course concept map could definitely be an interesting course planning activity. In fact, this exercise need not be about just one course. Say there are two courses in a sequence or that one course is a pre-requisite to another. Rather than just saying that the courses are related, those relationships could be shown. It’s a way of getting students to understand that courses make artificial boundaries between content areas that are inextricably linked. It might also be a way of increasing the number of connections faculty could build between what students learned in one course and what they are studying in the next one. The possibilities are quite intriguing.

Nilson, L. B. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 2nd ed. Originally published by Anker, now available from Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Nilson, L. B. The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

  • e.!

    Oddly, this article is void of any images.

    • Cheikh

      Thats right

  • Roman Savate

    LOL, I was thinking the same thing!

  • cynthia Hoffman

    Oh dear. No supporting graphic for this story?! Cynthia Hoffman, Art Department Chair, Concordia University WI

  • arnold karpoff

    I am a visual learner, show me an example.

  • greeny

    I have to agree.. a post highlighting clarity in graphics… with no graphics. I too would love to see an example..

  • DJ Stansfield
    • Patricia KS

      Thanks for posting the link. It was very helpful.

    • SCBrown

      Thanks. I appreciate the link for the example. The idea has merit.

    • June Carter

      Thanks for the graphic examples, I needed them.

  • jane Williams-Hogn

    This article needs visual images to show the concept!

  • finleyjd

    I do a participatory version of this in my classes. This has the most impact as a facilitated "Chalk Talk" where students, with guiding questions, create the mind map. The instructor then goes back and fills in missing relevant information about the course.

    This not only serves as a graphic syllabus for the students, but as a great formative assessment of where the course participants are at in their prior knowledge/understanding.

    • Jacqueline Chan

      I agree with the comments. where are the examples of how this is used?????? Great article with lots of information but as a visual learner it needed the graphics.

  • Jono Miller

    The examples provided above by DJ Stansfield are graphic in the sense that text blocks are connected with arrows in a chronologic order, but not graphic in the sense that a graphic novel is. I'd love to see a syllabus laid out that way.
    Our Intro to Environmental Studies class sometime involves students choosing three out of eight possible field trips. I use simple icons to help them make choices: an alarm clock for early departures, a sandwich if they need to bring lunch, a wallet if there is a fee they will be paying or a retail (gift shop) opportunity, etc. I can't prove it improves their choice-making, but the idea could be imported into syllabus design — icons for unusual class locations, field trips, bring supplies, alternate meeting times, etc.

    • Sandra

      Hello Jono and everyone else, I am interested in creating a visual syllabus for a statistical methods on-line course I am developing. I will be using Prezi (a sort of electronic canvas screen, which you can then save it as a .pdf file) – it is free and quite intuitive to learn to use,

      I will then post the url to this website for others to see.

      –Sandra A. Lewis, SUNY Fredonia

  • ProfSharon

    I started this semester formatting my syllabi as newsletters, so this is a great addition. I think it would work as well as a great in-class hands-on review process for students at certain stops such as chapters, articles, etc.

    • Lisa

      In my undergrad experience, syllabi were boring, wordy, jargon-filled and often disciplinary & frightening documents. Not to mention mystifying. But your syllabus-newsletter hybrid sounds intriguing. I'd love to hear more about it!

    • Prof Mary

      Newsletters…like this idea very much!

  • André Séguin

    I have used a mind map to teach my course for the last 3 years with good success according to the students. For me using a map tends to create a more discovery approach to learning. It also provides a non linear approach to teaching. With a good dose of colors and images, it is also very nice…

  • Helen Gordon

    I teach in a school of nursing at Duke and students in the maternity course each student develops a visual mind map based one one of two case studies that they are assigned at the start of the course. There are many layers to the assignment and the mind map is the final part. What students tell me is that they could "be called to the front of the room and lecture on the particular condition, cold…..with no prep." This is how most of them comment on the assignment and how well they remember the content.. I now use a graphic flow chart of the first few class meetings along with several other supports. I am now using a book by Toni Krasnic called Concise Learning and I also use Brain Rules (#4,5,& 6) by John Medina in my course. We simply must stop lecturing to students and begin to help them make links to the relationships in the material and then the application.

  • Andrea Kreft

    Thanks for the tip. I think a mind map is a great way for students to understand how the various concepts of a given course fit together. I will use this in my composition class. What a great way to start the summer semester.

  • abriteguy

    Hi Maryellen,
    I enjoyed your article. Can I take it even higher?
    Syllabi can be EXCITING Learning Documents with Linked videos for discussion, Graphics, Links to resource materials, demo lessons and MORE. We post our syllabu ONLINE. Here is an example:
    Anybody out there doing this? Want to learn how?
    Email Professor Daniel Stein, Touro College
    Subject line: Syllabus Learning Document
    Please include your name, organization and position
    Note that I am NOT a business nor is there a charge.
    I would like to see Technology take a major role in education.

  • Lisa

    Love the idea– thanks for sharing! I'll be passing this along.

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  • Hi Maryellen,

    Here's a 4-minute video on creating a "Course Activity Map" (CAM): CAMs are instructional design documents that allow instructors and course designers to visually view the layout and pacing of a course. CAMs can also be shared with students, particularly visual learners. CAMs are created in an open-source program from Tufts University– VUE.



  • Great collaborative Web2.O tools to use with students for mapping your class: Popplet, Prezi, SpiderScribe, Gliffy. Google Drawing isn't as pretty, but it offers an instant collaborative option for schools using GoogleApps.

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  • write4life

    Wow! This is exactly what I need for my communication technology course. Students (and even me sometimes) have the hardest time seeing how all 4 segments connect with each other and result in the final project. THANK YOU! might be the tool I use for this.

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