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In the world of academia, the syllabus has long served as an essential roadmap for professors and students alike. This sacred document outlines course objectives, expectations, and university policies, which sets the tone for the semester ahead.
However, some critics believe the syllabus is dead. Their argument? Many students don’t read syllabi because they’re lengthy and lack value.
A notable revelation came from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2021 when a professor hid instructions to find $50 within his syllabus. The experiment revealed a startling truth: not a single student discovered the hidden treasure.
This experiment highlights a clear problem, but the problem doesn’t lie with students, it lies within the document itself. The syllabus has transitioned from what was once deemed a valuable guide to just another contractual obligation—void of the humanity and empathy that helps students connect with you and the material.
While the traditional syllabus may have lost its luster, it’s not a lost cause. If you want students to read the syllabus, you must breathe new life into this often templated and uniform document. In this piece, we offer five creative strategies to keep your syllabus fresh, so students will receive the information they need to succeed in your course.
Create a “Quick Start Guide”
To address syllabus disinterest, take a cue from technical documentation. Just like a comprehensive user manual often comes with a quick-start guide, your syllabus can have a condensed version. This quick-start guide should contain only the most vital information necessary for students to navigate the course effectively.
Some items to prioritize in your quick-start guide include:
- Contact information
- Course map
- Assignments and readings
- Essential resources
- Link to LMS page
When creating your quick-start guide, the key is to keep it brief and easy to skim. Students often have multiple classes with multiple lengthy syllabi. If you want your syllabus to stand out, make the most critical information readily accessible.
Place information from your quick-start guide in multiple places so students have various opportunities to access the information. Consider including key points from your syllabus in daily PowerPoints, in your LMS, and in an email.
Go Over it in Class
One effective way to ensure students engage with the syllabus is to discuss it in class. When planning your first day of class, create a PowerPoint presentation that accompanies the syllabus and highlights its crucial details. After class, make the presentation available to students through your learning management system. That way, they can reference it throughout the semester.
To make your syllabus a more interactive part of the course, try to:
Reference the syllabus regularly: Remind students where they can access the syllabus and emphasize its importance.
Plan an in-class activity: Engage students with the syllabus through interactive activities such as a syllabus scavenger hunt, a syllabus annotation activity, or by having groups review the syllabus and formulate questions.
Students may dismiss a lengthy document full of university policies and standards if you hand it out and never mention it again. But if you invest class time in exploring the document, students are more likely to remember the information and refer to it later.
Stephanie Speicher, Associate Professor of Teacher Education, wrote an ebook on “Creating a Syllabus Your Students Will Read,” in which she suggests implementing a syllabus annotation activity.
To use this activity:
- Split the class into small groups.
- Have each group review the syllabus together.
- Encourage students to ask each other questions and clarify content in the syllabus.
- Come back together as a class and debrief common questions.
Add Visual Elements
Visual elements can transform a bland, text-heavy syllabus into an engaging and memorable resource.
Research shows that students strongly prefer an infographic syllabus and describe it as easy to use, memorable, organized, and engaging. Students also reported reading the infographic syllabus more completely, feeling less anxious about the course, and feeling more comfortable with the course requirements.
One way to make your syllabus more visually appealing is by using a tool like Canva. With a free account, you can add graphs, tables, or other fun elements to make your syllabus stand out. If you’re struggling to condense your syllabus to one or two pages, extract the key parts of your syllabus—like the assignment schedule—and use graphics to make them pop.
In addition to printing your syllabus for students on the first day of classes, you’ll likely have a digital version that students can access online. To enhance your digital syllabus, make it navigable with a clickable table of contents.
Try this free course map template
Here’s an example of what a course map might look like in practice:
Try adding a map to your syllabus that shows how learning objectives connect.
When drawing your map:
- Think about your learning objectives as a hierarchy.
- Start with the most broad learning objectives before branching out to related concepts you’ll cover.
- On the lowest branches, add any corresponding assignments and activities.
- Make a copy of this free template to create your own graphic display of learning objectives.
To take it a step further, have students create the map themselves in class. When students create their own maps, they’re more likely to conceptualize the flow of the course. They can then reference their maps throughout the semester.
Humanize Your Syllabus
Humanizing your syllabus involves making the document relatable to students, and as a result, making yourself more relatable. Research shows that students respond positively to learner-centered syllabi. Students who receive learner-centered syllabi also rate faculty as more creative, caring, receptive, and reliable.
To humanize your syllabus and make it more learner-centered, consider the language you use. Stephanie Speicher suggests the following in her ebook:
Be human, be vulnerable: Authenticity matters! When students relate to you, they are more likely to come to class and connect with you and their classmates.
Be experience-focused: Be intentional about constructing the syllabus to convey how students will engage with you and the content.
Be equitable and accessible: Meet your students where they are (and where you are)! Apply Universal Design for Learning principles to meet the diverse needs of students.
Use the template below provided by the IDEA Center to self-assess your syllabus. This assessment will tell you how learner-centered your syllabus is.
Use the following tips from Stephanie’s ebook to make the language of your syllabus more inclusive:
- Welcome students to the course in a standout message at the beginning of the syllabus.
- Tell them your course is “student-centered.”
- Use personal pronouns (I, you, we) instead of “the professor” or “the students.”
- Actually state “I am committed to…”
- Use language and slang students will relate to.
- Be deliberate in using terminology that paints a picture of a welcoming community and space.
Think Outside the Box
Spicing up your syllabus can differentiate your course and encourage students to engage with the material. To truly reinvent the syllabus and make it a valuable resource, consider these innovative approaches:
Make it a living document: A unique take on the syllabus is to make it an editable and evolving document. To do this, create separate Google docs for each section you teach. You can then incorporate student-created learning objectives or class norms and adjust assignments or due dates as the class progresses.
Incorporate videos: Recent research suggests that students increasingly expect video content as part of their learning experience. To modernize your syllabus, try filming yourself for an introductory video. Here’s an example of Dr. Stephanie Speicher’s welcome video on her syllabus.
Use multimedia elements: Multimedia elements will make your syllabus more interactive and engaging to students. Try creating a custom Google or Adobe Site. Here’s an example from one of Stephanie’s courses at Weber State University. Adding relevant YouTube videos or using memes to emphasize key points can also help your syllabus feel more personal.
The language you use in your syllabus matters. Earlier, we provided tips for using inclusive language, but it’s also important to be clear and concise. Use the examples above from Oregon State University to inject warmth into your syllabus.
Explore Syllabus Resources from the Course Hero Community
While the traditional syllabus has faced challenges in engaging students, it remains a vital tool in the educational journey.
If you need further inspiration when reinventing your syllabus, check out the Course Hero resource library, where you can browse thousands of documents and curate content from professors in similar fields.
About the Author
Morgan Westling is an Associate Content Specialist at Course Hero. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of the South. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing for over 7 years. Find more of her work at http://www.morganwestling.com.