Course Hero educator partners show how they move the class syllabus from “read-only” (or not-read-at-all) to a mental playground—and helpful resource.
It is a frustrating fact: While class syllabi are written to be read and referenced, many students simply stick them in their binder on day one, never to view them again. While it may behoove students to peruse their professor’s policies, course materials lists, expectations, and assignment deadlines—because it impacts their grade—that often is not enough to spark interest. For this document to be put to use, it must be engaging.
Making an effort to spice up your class syllabus is well worth it, say educators who have reimagined their own course “contracts.” A well-designed syllabus that piques students’ attention can have the twin benefits of reinforcing an educator’s course goals and keeping students on track as they work toward them.
Here, several educators who are Course Hero partners share their approaches for creating a class syllabus that students will not only read but also return to—again and again.
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1. Do not spell out everything
A syllabus does not have to be completely fleshed out on the first day of class. In fact, Dr. Bradley Seymour, assistant professor of psychology at Syracuse University in New York, recommends allowing some room for adaptation along the way. For example, Seymour likes to give students a choice in the topics or readings that will be included in the course. To allow for this, he leaves some dates on his syllabus designated TBA (to be announced), then allows students to select topics that they deem important and of interest. This approach works well for Seymour’s course Neuroscience and Society, since it is a field that is rapidly evolving in pace with scientific advancements.
“What we’re trying to do is prepare students for the world they’re going out into and how quickly it is changing,” he says. “We focus on the skills and then give them a sense of what’s out there now, because in neuroscience what we know now will be obsolete by next year.”
In addition to allowing the course material to keep pace with progress in the field, this approach gives students ownership over their learning—which is a powerful method for increasing student buy-in and trust.
2. Make YouTube videos to wake up Gen Z
It is no secret that college students are fans of YouTube. In fact, a recent study from Pearson and The Harris Poll found that 59% of members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2003) prefer to learn on YouTube compared to other modalities. This makes a compelling argument for creating a class syllabus that is essentially a YouTube playlist that walks students through major course topics and policies.
Videos engage both visual and auditory learners. They also communicate both abstract and concrete concepts in a manner that can prove less intimidating for students than text-only descriptions, which may be particularly off-putting to those with reading limitations.
Luckily, with little more than a smartphone camera, educators can make their own videos to welcome students to the course, describe course objectives, and outline the progression of topics.
For example, Rachel Merrill-Schwaller, MFA, has created a series of “LARP” (live-action role playing) videos, in which she uses costumes and acting conventions to add interest. In her first-day-of-class video, she is dressed as a flight attendant, announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to welcome you to class this semester. You may experience slight turbulence as we take off, but with hard work and dedication, you should find this trip an enjoyable one, with a successful arrival time of 16 weeks from now.”
3. Include infographics to make stats “pop”
Statistics are ubiquitous. Graphics based on them—such as charts and graphs—are common in news stories, studies, advertisements, and elsewhere. Why? They make complicated material easier to grasp and put into perspective. The same benefits apply when including these types of visuals in a class syllabus. Consider the following examples:
- Pie charts. Consider creating a pie chart to show students how much of their grade is comprised of various components, such as homework, quizzes, tests, attendance, participation, and group projects. (These can be made using Excel or Word, as can the next item: multi-column charts.)
- Multi-column charts. These are common for rubrics, but they can also be used for big-picture ideas. For example, a three-column chart might show the relationships among course concepts, activities, and assessments: If a column 1 goal is to enhance writing skills, an activity in column 2 may be writing a semester-long paper, and the basics on grading and expectations could be displayed in column 3.
- Interactive infographics. A variety of free or inexpensive tools for creating infographics, such as Piktochart, can be leveraged in a way that allows students to navigate the syllabus more intuitively. This particular program can be used to create interactive charts and maps—with no design experience.
- Comics. Tell the “story” of the course using colorful cartoons, created with programs such as Pixton or ToonDoo.
4. Expand the class syllabus into a “living” repository
While many educators post materials on a university’s learning management system, another option is to use wiki software, such as Google Sites, to create a class syllabus that acts as a repository for both clickable digital resources (course readings, supplementary videos, additional audio content, etc.) and student work (which can be added as the semester progresses).
Professors can also link to helpful resources, such as formatting guides, tutorials, or other scaffolds, to help students take advantage of web-based help. In classrooms with video or audio recording capabilities, lecture recordings can be added so that students who miss a course meeting can stay on track.
When nearing the end of the semester, students will have a rich space to review course material for final exams. Another benefit of posting on a public platform such as Google Sites is that it will be available to those students long after the semester ends, so they can continue to refresh their learning.
5. Weave concepts together on a web page
Macroeconomics instructor Ali Zeytoon-Nejad, PhD, of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has created an interactive, graphic class syllabus that serves as a learning tool for students. It not only engages all learning styles, he says, but also helps students understand how the concepts in his course are interrelated. “I turned my traditional syllabus into a series of logically connected diagrams showing what I call ‘the big picture,’” he explains. The current iteration, which he has built and enhanced over time, includes 27 interactive diagrams, videos, links to 100 additional resources, and more.
There is an array of software that educators can use to create an interactive, graphic syllabus, but Zeytoon-Nejad uses PowerPoint, adding symbolic graphics and visuals and annotating them with print-text descriptors, references to page numbers in the textbook, and a list of key topics from course lectures. Fonts, colors, type size, and weights can be used to visually represent linkages among topics. Using this strategy for syllabus development, Zeytoon-Nejad provides his students with a streamlined overview of the entire course on day one.