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7 Steps to a Graphic Syllabus That Clarifies the “Big Picture” of Your Course 

Macroeconomics instructor Dr. Ali Zeytoon-Nejad shares the inspiration and research behind his graphic syllabus—and shows how any educator can create one.


Ali Zeytoon-Nejad, PhD

Visiting Instructor of Economics, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC

PhD in Economics, MS in Economics (Theoretical Track), MS in Economics (Applied Track), BS in Mining and Mineral Engineering, AS in Mining – Exploitation

Several years ago, Instructor Ali Zeytoon-Nejad abandoned the text materials for his courses and tapped into the power of visuals to make the principles of macroeconomics easier to understand. His inspiration came from his own college experience. “As a student, I had found it difficult to understand the relationships between the concepts that I was learning,” he says.

“After I graduated, I found the time to diagram my entire course as a way to simplify it for students. I turned my traditional syllabus into a series of logically connected diagrams showing what I call ‘the big picture.’” Asked how he found the time, he says, “It’s a funny story, actually.”

Five years ago, Zeytoon-Nejad got stuck in Toronto with his wife after applying for a US visa. “Due to some paperwork being held up, we had to wait 28 days in a hotel,” he says. To pass the time productively, he spent hours drawing diagrams of concepts listed on his Intermediate Macroeconomics syllabus. As he finished each diagram, he placed it in relationship to the others until he had a concise, graphic representation of his entire course. (He ultimately published a discussion of this “big-picture” approach as a teaching tool, in the International Journal of Economics and Finance.)

But he did not stop there. In order to provide students with an interactive graphic resource, Zeytoon-Nejad went on to develop a multilayered website—The Big Picture of Macroeconomics—with interactive diagrams, instructional videos, links to additional visuals and resources, and a handy list of common symbols and notations. It currently features 27 diagrams and 100 linked resources, as well as a tool that allows students to hover over interactive graphics to see them in more detail.


“Students tell me often that even after they’ve moved on, they still carry around a printout of the diagrams on the graphic syllabus outline and use it for reference. That makes me so happy.”

— Ali Zeytoon-Nejad, PhD

Course: 207 Intermediate Macroeconomics

Course description: Development of macroeconomic concepts of national income, circular flow, income determination, causes of unemployment, IS-LM analysis, inflation and growth. Emphasizes contributions of Keynes and the Keynesian tradition.

See resources shared by Ali Zeytoon-Nejad, PhD

See materials

The advantages of an interactive graphic syllabus

In his journal article “The Visual ‘Big Picture’ of Intermediate Macroeconomics: A Pedagogical Tool to Teach Intermediate Macroeconomics,” Zeytoon-Nejad mentions evidence-based research that shows that the structure used to convey complex concepts is key to deep learning of material. He says that an interactive graphic syllabus can:

  • Help students clarify complex economic relationships
  • Engage students with all types of learning styles
  • Make it easier for students to interpret and retain material
  • Help keep students on track week by week
  • Provide additional materials for advanced students
  • Help instructors identify areas for improvement in their course organization
  • Integrate easily into an online course management system

Lesson: 7 tips for creating a graphic syllabus

Although Zeytoon-Nejad created his site specifically for intermediate macroeconomics, it is possible to see how the framework of the graphic interactive syllabus might work in other courses, from advanced math to introductory nutrition. For an educator interested in creating a big-picture graphic representation for any topic, he offers these tips as a starting point. (Tackling a whole website at once can be too much, so he advises beginning as he did, with the syllabus itself.)

1. Consider the course objectives

Take into consideration the course description and learning objectives, as well as the students’ level of expertise and your own teaching style. The big picture should mesh well with all of these. Making a note of these items can also help guide you in what to include (or cut).

2. Keep simplicity in mind at all times

“An overly detailed big picture can make matters worse by being too complicated,” he explains. “It is, in fact, against the main philosophy of providing visuals.” Zeytoon-Nejad advises aiming to create visuals that deliver a streamlined overview of the course.

3. Start with simple visuals, one by one

Begin with the simplest concept, or the concept you think will be simplest for you to represent visually. You can use any medium—whether it is pen and paper or computer design software. Remember there will be a learning curve for you, if you have not done much drawing or worked with the computer program you have chosen. (Zeytoon-Nejad simply used PowerPoint, but Appendix 6 of his American Journal of Business Education article outlines various useful software programs for the purpose.)

Dr. Zeytoon-Nejad’s Articles on the “Big-Picture” Approach

Using the Interactive Graphic Syllabus in the Teaching of Economics, American Journal of Business Education, Volume 10, Number 2, 2017.

The Visual “Big Picture” of Intermediate Macroeconomics: A Pedagogical Tool to Teach Macroeconomics, International Journal of Economics and Finance, Volume 8, Number 9, 2016.

4. Add notes as you go

As you create each visual item, Zeytoon-Nejad recommends adding any notes that you think will help students grasp the material. You can edit them when you create the final version, he says. At this point, it can just be a rough listing of the related points you cover in lecture, key terms, textbook page numbers, and so on.

5. Begin to combine the simple visuals

After creating his 27 diagrams, Zeytoon-Nejad merged them all into one document. It took some rearranging—do not expect your first try to be your final one. At this point, you can add notes or arrows as needed (to show how the concepts connect), but keep them short.

6. Use design details to magnify concepts

Use different colors, fonts, or type sizes and weights (such as boldface) to make relationships immediately recognizable. For instance, you might use two colors to differentiate between items of major and minor importance. Or you could use a variety of colors to indicate relationships among the elements (e.g., in a nutrition overview, everything about produce might be highlighted in green, while information on grains is in yellow).

7. Clean it up before going live

“An untidy visual can be confusing and does not help students build a mental framework of the course or that of the field,” says Zeytoon-Nejad. Arrange your items meticulously and neatly, he advises. Tidy up and pare down your notes, and make sure that your design elements are consistent before sharing the materials with your class.

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