How to Make Your Course Syllabus More Engaging

What is this assignment? When is that paper due? What is the late policy? Do you have office hours?

Despite having advised students to review the syllabus in order to understand basic course expectations and requirements, I found that I was continually fielding questions like these.

It’s not that I minded answering students’ questions, but I was somewhat perplexed by why they were not reading the most essential document associated with my class. A syllabus is standardly used in virtually every college course, so its purpose and contents shouldn’t have been a mystery. Yet, it seemed as if they would rather ask me than find the information for themselves. What was going on? Shouldn’t students be taking responsibility for their learning experience, with reading the syllabus being high on the priority list? I certainly believe so. Despite this belief, I couldn’t help but wonder whether something was amiss with my syllabus. It occurred to me that perhaps the style of my syllabus could be part of the problem. Was it possible it was not worthy of being read?

With these thoughts in mind, I took stock of my syllabi for several courses. As I had the pages-upon-pages of black and white text strewn about my desk, I had an aha moment—each syllabus looked like a legal document, giving the impression it contained customary technical verbiage that wasn’t necessary to read. I didn’t want to read the pages, so how could I have expected my students to read them?

Eons ago when I started teaching, I inherited typical-looking syllabi and adopted their format. But viewing them with fresh eyes, I realized they seemed antiquated. We live in a fast-paced, visually-rich, information- overloaded culture. Attention spans are short and there is an overabundance of stimuli clamoring for consideration. If I wanted to increase the likelihood that students are reading my syllabus, I realized it should stand out as something worthy of their attention. If I wanted them to use my syllabus as a resource to answer their questions, I realized it should be arranged in a student-friendly way. Hence, I concluded it was time for a change.

My goal for this “syllabus makeover” was simple: to create an engaging, attention-getting, user-friendly document. Accomplishing this would hopefully increase readership and have the added benefit of reducing the frequent questions I was receiving about information covered in the syllabus. Moreover, I hoped the new syllabus would set a positive tone for the course—making a favorable first impression and conveying the excitement I felt about the class.

To guide the makeover, I used “The Five R’s”, a framework I developed to promote reexamining content and how it is presented:

1) Remove: What content is redundant, superfluous, or irrelevant, and can be removed to help condense the syllabus? Also, what variable information can be eliminated or limited in order to make maintenance more manageable? For example, can the late policy be stated in one place as opposed to multiple spots? Can the assignment due dates be on one calendar page as opposed to within individual assignment descriptions?

2) Reduce: What content can be shortened in order to streamline it? For example, can the course description be abridged? Can an assignment purpose be stated in 1-2 sentences as opposed to 4-6?

3) Redirect: What content can students be directed to find elsewhere? For example, can grading rubrics be on the course site as opposed to in the syllabus? Can links to study tips, library help, or other resources be provided instead of detailed in the syllabus?

4) Reorganize: How can the content be reorganized to present it in a student-salient way? What content can be front-loaded because it is most important to students? For example, can the grading structure be moved toward the beginning of the document and the department policies to the end?

5) Restyle: How can layout and design elements be used to present the content in an aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate way? For example, what visual elements can be used to personalize and organize in addition to capture attention? Word software offers a variety of fonts, colors, tables, columns, shapes, and text boxes, as well as the ability to import images and graphics. No fancy publishing software necessary to make a syllabus look more like an enticing brochure than a legal contract.

Here are some snapshots of my cover page before and after:

Syllabus

Giving new life to my syllabus was surprisingly enjoyable and even more rewarding than I anticipated. I hadn’t expected to feel so happy about the finished product! More importantly, students appreciated my efforts and responded positively to the new design. I can’t guarantee they are actually reading my syllabus from start to finish. However, they must be more easily finding what they need because I’m receiving far fewer questions about the course. I’d say the syllabus makeover was a win-win for all involved. If you are looking to revive your syllabus, give this makeover a try.

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