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.