Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic?

At the college where I teach, professors have the unique opportunity every May to develop a course outside of their typical curriculum. Teachers get to explore their interests in new courses as diverse as “The Chemistry of Cooking” and “Writing a Film Short.” Students are offered a wide variety of four-week courses that provide a break from their typical coursework. These short May-term courses are usually something interesting, fresh, experimental, and in many cases fun.

This past May, I opted to teach a course entitled, “Infographics in the popular media.” As a class, we reviewed numerous infographics in magazines like National GeographicTime, and Popular Mechanics and we looked at scores of infographics that have been produced on the web in order to develop brand recognition, advertise products and ideas, and even sell news. We discussed the ethical implications of visualizing data and how to adapt for editorial-, academic-, and marketing-centric purposes.

Students had a good time experimenting with the development of their own infographics, utilizing common design and communication techniques and playing around visual metaphors and rhetorical devices. Shoot, at one point we were even drawing infographics with sidewalk chalk on a large wall on campus!

As I developed the course, it occurred to me that if the subject matter was going to be on infographics, the syllabus probably ought to be an infographic as well. Not wanting to be accused of doing what has been labeled a “performative contradiction” (talking about one thing, but doing something else), I opted to go this route. This is what I came up with:infographic syllabus

infographic syllabus

infographic syllabusMy typical syllabus for a college course, if I include the course schedule, list of assignments, and other policy information can run upwards of 15 pages. In the version above, I reduced my information to three short pages. Of course, much was cut out, reduced, and, some might argue, lost. And, this was for a four-week course, not a full-semester course.

But I received an overwhelmingly positive response from both faculty and students who viewed this syllabus. I can’t help but wonder, though, if that is because an infographic syllabus is just something novel. Is it cool because it’s new, but really isn’t that helpful? The problem with infographics, as much as I love them and as much as they seem to be taking the media by storm, is that they don’t encourage in-depth reading. In news media, perhaps that is a serious consideration for the potential dumbing-down of society (if we just look at an infographic, are we really absorbing the news?) But in a syllabus, and other documents that aren’t read that well in-depth anyway, is an infographic a better idea? Should we be making our user’s manuals in infographics? Legal policies? Tax filing instructions? Paperwork for buying a home?

I’m not sure how effective infographics would be for all course syllabi. But I do know that there wasn’t a single question during this May term course from students about what was due, when it was due, and what my expectations were. That is rarely the case when I use my much-more-thorough syllabi in other courses. Is more being lost in our syllabi when we give too much information? Should we be reducing content for clarity by using infographic-style communications in the classroom? My initial reaction would be probably.

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15 thoughts on “Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic?

  • July 3, 2014 at 4:36 pm
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    Impressive results. Apart from the obvious problem where the syllabus has to have all of the standard university disclaimers that drag it across its plethora of pages, faculty that are technically-challenged would freak out to have to make one of these; unless, of course, they took your excellent interactive course first :).

  • July 5, 2014 at 5:04 am
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    This looks fantastic and is much more effective at communicating the critical content than the standard outline/text only syllabus. I agree that it requires less in depth reading, but that actually seems like a good thing. It seems like, time being a finite resource for all of us, that the studebts would be best served by having the easiest access to this in information and saving their in depth reading efforts for the actual course content in text books, journal articles, and other reading assignments.

    • July 5, 2014 at 5:06 am
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      A shame i cant edit my typos out of that. Perhaps you can still find what i meant in there somewhere.

  • July 6, 2014 at 6:03 pm
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    I asked colleagues about this same thing, creating an infographic for online graduate courses I teach, and they pointed me here. Frankly, this looks great! You also address many of the concerns I had. What software or infographic-creation site did you use? Did you offer both versions of the syllabus and get student feedback on which they preferred? Were there fewer questions about syllabus related issues than (subjectively) you have seen in the past?

    Thanks,
    gz

  • July 8, 2014 at 7:21 pm
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    This is actually what I am doing for my dissertation. If you are willing I would love to discuss this with you!

    • January 29, 2015 at 8:34 pm
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      @Lynnan: I’m thinking of using this in an Intensive English ESOL classroom (and potentially program). If you end up needing additional data, you could contact me. 🙂

  • August 5, 2014 at 8:19 pm
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    I know there is no way I am going to read every word of a 10-15+ page syllabus especially since most students have more than one class to wade through. I could see perhaps attaching a traditional syllabus to the infographic and covering the high points in the infographic because at least then, students are more likely to read them. Better to have them just reading the high points than ignoring all of it.

  • August 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm
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    This looks great, but I have to wonder about accessibility for the visually impaired. According to federal regulation, every graphic would need a text box describing the graphic. Then when changed to audio, every text box would also be read. Transcript software is a flat, monotone, separate each syllable type of voice. Having just sat through a presentation on what graphics “sound like”, I’m wondering the implications would be?

  • August 7, 2014 at 11:03 pm
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    OF COURSE a viz syllabus would work, because the info would be read!! I wish that anyone who deals with any kind of adult training or creation of training materials for adults would quit thinking that their audience is adult! :). Go find resources on how to make data interesting to 5th graders and run with it! Our attn spans truly don’t change as much as we’d like to think!

  • August 7, 2014 at 11:53 pm
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    What program did you use? Wanting to do this for my high school course!

  • August 25, 2014 at 3:28 am
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    What font did you use for this?

    • August 25, 2014 at 4:28 pm
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      The body text is in Eras (which is on most computers). I installed Aerovias Brasil NF for the main headings and titles.

  • August 30, 2014 at 3:03 am
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    Excellent idea – which software did you use to create this? Is there an open source version or an online service you would recommend?

    • September 2, 2014 at 1:07 pm
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      I used Adobe InDesign. There are certainly open source infographic programs, but I would recommend using a program that is specifically built for graphic design that gives you the freedom to create something completely original.

  • September 29, 2014 at 1:22 pm
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    I really like your choice of graphics for each category of information, and individual items within those categories. Other infographic syllabii that I have looked at seem to try to over-emphasize the ‘graphic,’ i.e., displaying charts and graphs for information that doesn’t need that kind of quantifying.

    Last year when I taught my course using a very modest info graphic approach, students told me they felt like the syllabus was speaking directly to them on a more personal level than the standard syllabus format. Of course, that is partly due to my writing tone, too. But I’m eager to use more along the lines of your example and see how the students respond, including do they read and retain what’s in the syllabus?

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