Using the Syllabus to Jump-Start Your Course: A Picture’s Worth a 1000 Words

August 14, 2017

Once upon a time, a Syllabus was written.  It was beautiful and contained most of nearly 50 possible information elements that every Syllabus could have.  It was reviewed by the curriculum committee, revised and finally approved.

It waited anxiously for the semester to begin.

The first day of class arrived and the Syllabus was proudly revealed to the students.  The students stared at the Syllabus, flipped through it, after a few minutes put it aside, and turned to the instructor to explain it.   A few questions were asked about grading and assignments.  The first class session ended.

And the Syllabus was never heard from again.


A syllabus is the result of countless decisions you (or whoever originally taught the course) have made regarding the structure, content, pace, and desired “spirit” of the course.  It is a key element of the students’ knowledge journey.

A syllabus for a course today can contain upwards of 50 elements.  There’s the core set of elements (see, plus a growing set of policy-related sections (Nilson, 2007).  If you are using digital elements, there are additional expectations and guidelines concerning the learning management system (bCourses), communications and troubleshooting (Boettcher and Conrad, 2016).  It’s no wonder that it was suggested long ago that a Table of Contents might be needed for a syllabus! (Gross-Davis, 1993)

I think most of us will agree that today’s students are more visual than text-oriented.  We also know from neuroscience research that an image is more memorable than text (Miller, 2014).  We can recall information connected with a picture more easily than text.  With that in mind, here is a suggestion and process to start developing and utilizing a more graphic syllabus:

1 - Develop a graphic that links topics, assessments and learning outcomes to present as a guide to the text-based syllabus on the first day of class.  Use the graphic to tell the story of the course.  Discuss how there may be disparate concepts and ideas that are actually all interrelated.  Focus on why the course is important beyond degree completion.

2 - Use free charting tools such as Lucidchart ( or Word or simple paper and pen drawings to produce the graphic.   

3 – Discuss this graphic again at major junctures in the course (i.e. when you move to a new topic).

4 – Ask students to use the graphic to rate how well they think they are doing at the junctures mentioned above so that you can clarify areas of concern.

Whether you use a graphic or not, consider the following suggestions:

1 – Provide the opportunity for students to explore the syllabus and reflect on it before you discuss it in class.  So DON’T discuss the syllabus the first day.  Instead, talk about what the learning experience will be and WHY the course is important not only to their degree but to their careers.  Assign students the task of accessing the syllabus on bCourses and asking clarifying questions in a Discussion thread.

2 – Give a syllabus quiz in bCourses --- perhaps several throughout the semester --- particularly when you are approaching major course milestones/assessments.  Sample questions might be:

  • When is the first draft of your assignment due?

  • What table contains the grading criteria?  [assuming the rubric is included in the syllabus]

  • Where will you submit the assignment?

  • When should you expect feedback from your instructor?

3 – Put the syllabus on your course site but break it into separate bCourse Pages that are titled with the syllabus topic so that students can quickly reference information from the syllabus when they need it.

 If would like to discuss your syllabus with a pedagogical consultant before your course begins, send an email to or attend “Strengthen Your Syllabus” from 11:30-12:30 on August 17th or August 21st in the Academic Innovation Studio (117 Dwinelle).  

If you have already developed your syllabus and are ready to embed it in your bCourse site, consider scheduling a consult on the Teaching and Learning Services Calendar.  We’re here to help!


Boettcher, J. V. & Conrad, R. M. (2016).  The online teaching survival guide. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Gross-Davis, B. (1993).  Tools for teaching.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

Nilson, L. B. (2007).  The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.