Inclusive Teaching

The Graphic Syllabus

by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

The syllabus is a fraught document. It needs to do different kinds of work, for different kinds of audiences, and often these differences seem downright contradictory. Although a dominant metaphor for the syllabus is that of a contract, other metaphors also apply – and often resonate more with faculty: the syllabus as promise, invitation, roadmap.

A tension always exists between the practical matters of a course and what matters most in that course. For many of us, what “matters most” has little to do with the policies and procedures portions of a syllabus; rather, we care deeply about the arguments being made in the course, the story being told about our discipline or some aspect of our field. For students, it can be difficult to see the things that matter most to us. Certainly, they struggle to really understand the underlying structure of a course. As Linda Nilson explains in The Graphic Syllabus and Outcomes Map [LINK], these things are “usually hidden, at least to the novice, by the linear, piece-by-piece way that students encounter the topics throughout the semester” (28).

To help students better understand the deeper structures of a course (and by extension of a topic of study), Nilson recommends the graphic syllabus — a visual representation of some portion of the syllabus that can convey structures and connections between/among course material and that can spark student engagement in some new ways. Finding alternative ways to represent a course can be as simple or as complicated as an instructor wishes to make it. Concept maps offer nice schematics, as do graphic organizers and what Nilson refers to as “visual metaphors.” Here are links to some examples:

Concept Map:

Graphic Organizers:

Visual Metaphors:

As you can see, there’s a kind of “mapping” of the relationships and interconnections of course content, though none of these examples will fully replace, say, a linear course calendar. You might think of the graphic representation as a supplement to your overall syllabus, not necessarily a replacement for a detailed accounting of what’s-due-when. The graphic offers students a way of conceptualizing the course and its contents. (Click these links to see a Before version [LINK] and an After version [LINK] of a text and graphic representation of a course calendar.) Some instructors even ask students to “map” the course at the end of the term, as a way of helping students see – and represent – their learning in the course.

If you’re feeling the need for a new way to talk about or represent what matters most to you in your courses, consider adding a graphic representation.