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Syllabus Design: Ideas and New Approaches

The syllabus is a longstanding formality of higher education, and it is perhaps the only specific piece of genre writing that every instructor in every discipline works within. But, despite its significant role in the articulation of course design and delivery, it receives little attention as a source of possible change and innovation in the classroom. Beyond its basic communicative form, how can the syllabus be used to enhance the learning process? To answer this, we might need to conceptualize what the syllabus does, what it can do, and what it should do.

What is a Syllabus?

In essence, the syllabus is formulated as a textual guide for the course. It is typically comprised of several aspects that culminate in an 8–10-page narrative that ostensibly serves as an authoritative source for all matters pertaining to the course. Jay Parkes and Mary B. Harrispoint out that the basic informative functions of the traditional syllabus fulfill the first two parts of their theoretical triad—the syllabus as “permanent record” and as a “contract.” While information regarding due dates, required texts, and assessment descriptions serve as permanent record, the premise of “the syllabus as a contract” is intricately related to the relationship between instructor and student, and thus corresponds to the more policy-based aspects (late submission policy, attendance policy, academic integrity, grading turnaround times, etc.).

The key dimension to viewing the syllabus as a contract is considering the associated “implications for what should be included in its content.” This largely means two things: clarity and consistency. The syllabus foresees possible problems and gives direct outcomes (“what happens if you miss a class?”, “what happens if you submit an assignment two days late?”, “what happens if you plagiarise?”, etc.). Alongside the “permanent record,” the “contract” is the most familiar element of the syllabus, but it is Parkes and Harris’ third dimension—the “learning tool"—that has the least amount of visibility in practice.

The syllabus has status as the point of contact between instructor and student; however, there may be room for further consideration for this document to be used as a source for learning. Parkes and Harris suggest a greater role for the syllabus, contending that "a well-designed syllabus can provide information that assists students to become more effective learners in areas that go beyond the scope of our own courses.” This translates to basing the syllabi design on the instructors’ philosophy of learning in their content area.

Parkes and Harris suggest that syllabi can provide “information about how to plan for the tasks and experiences of the semester, how to evaluate and monitor one’s performance, and how to allocate time and resources to areas in which more learning is needed.” In sum, the type of syllabus they suggest, termed a “learning-centered syllabus,” not only offers an answer for “what is the course?’, but for "how to succeed in this course.” Thus, it is filled with tips for education and success, mapping out how to develop a plan for one’s own achievement, how to self-measure progress, and how to manage time. For a more specific visualization of this method, Parkes and Harris provide a sample syllabus. However, their theorizing has one slight pitfall, as this article is from 2002, the integration of online course delivery is not engaged with.

How to Design a Syllabus for the Digital World

With the points from Parkes and Harris in mind, it might be useful to consider how to bring these ideas into the digital learning world. While the syllabus still serves the same function, gone are the days when the instructor prints out a copy for each student on the first day of class; it now exists as a PDF file on a learning management system such as Brightspace or Blackboard. But with this comes opportunity, as we can now revitalize the syllabus genre. There are three common options for interventions into the syllabus, ranging from minimal to radical:

  • Collaborative edit syllabus - As a simple, yet reasonable, alternative to a pure PDF syllabus, instructors can offer their syllabus on a collaborative editing software (Google Docs, for example), which allows for comments and questions to be directly asked on the text. Students can ask questions (even anonymously if they prefer) and engage in a back-and-forth that is visible to everyone, almost mimicking the time-saving features of an FAQ. Moreover, if scheduling, deadlines, or other permanent record elements are changed, they can appear updated on the syllabus instead of via email or announcement. With this also comes the potential for collaborative curriculum design, an interesting model gaining popularity in certain disciplinary areas due to its popularity with students.
  • Infographic syllabus - Many instructors grow frustrated as students continue to ask questions that can be found on the syllabus. But what if the students’ confusion is not their fault? Syllabus organization is not always logical, and many times important information is hidden within pages of other materials. In these instances, it may be helpful to create an infographic syllabus as a companion piece, distilling the more crucial components of the syllabus into one clear visual. Some considerations from the learning tool function could be used here as well. There are many easy-to-use software platforms that specialize in the infographic.
  • Website syllabus - The most significant syllabus redesign idea involves crafting a website rather than a traditional document. This approach requires the instructor to organize class content with a profoundly digital mindset since a web-based syllabus allows for interactivity and a different type of user navigation. Blending the traditional syllabus with an infographic, the website maximizes and combines informative rigour with visual flavour. This approach does have some traction, and while it might seem scary for instructors without web-design experience, there are many simple-to-use tools that will help.

Sources for Innovation in the Classroom

The syllabus is not exactly a raging hot topic in pedagogical debates, but thinking through its importance and design in a digital world will reward those who understand its important place in the instructor-student relationship. Keep in mind that the syllabus is also a key determinant in how students decide which classes to take, and some institutions make syllabi public, allowing them to be sources for students deciding which program to select. Applying some creative thinking to the syllabus will go a long way.

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