How to Write a Syllabus Students May Actually Read: Six Quick Tips

On the World’s List of Most Boring Documents Ever, the course syllabus may very well rank number one. It’s at least up there in the same company as a lawyer’s legal dictionary and the engineering specifications of a toaster.

I’ve been creating college syllabi for eleven years now and you know what? They’re not any more fun to write now than they were when I started teaching. But what’s worse than writing a syllabus? Reading one! Oh, those poor, poor students.

As a part of my life history (still not always sure why I choose to do some of the things I do in my career), I review course syllabi for high school advanced placement courses. (It’s not a glorious job, but it’s made me a bit of an unexpected expert in syllabus construction.)  For those of you who may never get the opportunity read over a thousand different course syllabuses, trust me when I say that they’re not the most exciting pieces of literature to delve into. Indeed, the vast majority are dull, confusing, wordy, policy-focused (and border-lined mean), visually painful, and even at times braggadocious. Oddly enough, they’re rarely student-centered.

But one thing I have learned over the years is that the principles we teach in courses like rhetorical theory, usability testing, information design, user experience, technical writing, and business communication–courses that cover audience adaptation, experience, and meaning-making–all directly apply to syllabi. Most instructors, for probably scores of different reasons, just don’t consciously integrate those principles into their course syllabus.

Shouldn’t a syllabus get a student excited about learning? Shouldn’t it empower a student to embrace the content and the challenge? Shouldn’t it clarify and communicate? Shouldn’t it answer what the students want to know? Students are paying for the course, after all. Isn’t it about them? Certainly. The question is, how do we make something so traditionally dry into something students actually care about enough to read it?

There’s no one right way to create a syllabus, but there a many things we can do to make it more engaging. A few years ago, I really went out on a limb and turned my syllabus into an infographic. This was, in part, the result:InfographicsPopularMedia_CourseSyllabus_May2014

Now, that was a course about infographics. It made sense to design the syllabus as an infographic. I’m not saying that infographics (or even a million visuals) are the right answer, but this syllabus spoke to students in ways I hadn’t seen before, and not just because it was unique. It was short and simple and it spoke directly to what they cared about.

I got a lot of back slaps and thumbs-ups with my infographic syllabus (and students thought it was cool), but most teachers don’t have the background in graphic design to create a syllabus  that looks like that. And, truth be told, they’re a lot of work to design and I haven’t done one since.

Is there a better way? Is there a way to create a syllabus that effectively engages students but that doesn’t take the better part of the school year to create? Yes there is!

I don’t have all the answers and the content and design will change dramatically depending on subject matter, but here’s six things you can do right now to fix your syllabus for your next course:

TIP #1: Take the Time to Design
Oh, all right, I just said you don’t have to be a graphic designer to make a good syllabus. And it’s true, you don’t. But you’ll want to think consciously about how the document looks. Make effective use of white space (nobody likes crowded, wordy documents) by reducing text, increasing margins, enlarging line spacing, and adding quotes or visuals. In a digital age, it doesn’t matter if you use more pages; spread the content out. Also, use TWO FONTS. One font for the headings, and one font for the body text, and use two fonts that look completely different from each other. Here’s the cover page of a syllabus I created for a business writing class. You can create this fairly simply using Microsoft Word.

Syllabus_COMM-311_ProBusWritingII_Fall2016

TIP #2: Write Headings as Questions

This is an old web design usability trick. Look at the image above and below and see how I used questions in the headings. The goal isn’t to be cheesy, childish, or leading (don’t say something like “Did You Know Biology Is Used In Every Career?), but to ask questions that students would actually ask themselves. Get into their head for a moment and determine what they care about. Then, phrase your section by what they would ask. This makes the document personable, conversational, and relevant.

Syllabus_COMM-311_ProBusWritingII_Fall2016-2

Tip #3: Write in Second Person, Not in First or Third

Talk to your readers as if they’re in front of you. Tell them what they are going to learn and how they’re going to learn it. Avoid calling them “students” (and especially “pupils”!) as if they’re on some distant planet learning about how humans behaved in the classroom back in 2016. Note the difference between these two sentences in a syllabus for secondary education students and see how the second one speaks directly to the student:

“Students will learn how to apply chaos theory to educational settings, adapting course curricula to meet new trends in academic environments.” [Ugh. This is boring stuff.]

“You’ll get the opportunity to integrate the complexities of chaos theory into your own classrooms; as the educator-in-training, you’ll be at the forefront of changing curricula to meeting the ever-changing needs of students.” [Wow. A few quick changes and now I want to take the class!]

When you talk to the student, they respond better. It’s human nature. You’re writing it for them, they’re the ones reading it, so write it to them!

Tip #4: Make the Tone Engaging, Not Dry

The syllabus is your first chance to get a student excited about the course material. You can always give a dry explanation about what the subject matter is and what students will learn, using all the fancy technical jargon of your field, or you can explain it in plain English like a sales pitch. If you’re teaching the course, you’re probably passionate about it. So write passionately! Note this sentence I wrote about business communication (which is a subject notorious for boring syllabuses) in the image above:

In an ultra-competitive, brand-focused, media-conscious, digitally active world, organizations need business communicators who understand that design is as persuasive as content; that search engines tell consumers what is credible; and that interactivity isn’t just a trend, it’s a fundamental component of a client’s experience. As a communication professional, you live in an age where creativity, flexibility, and adaptability often trump the standards of old. It’s time to take the best practices of the past and mold them to where the future is headed.

I could have just said something like, “In this course, students will learn the fundamentals of business communication in a digital society….” blah, blah, blah. But who wants to read that?

Tip #5: Think Formatting, Highlighting, and Bullets

Bulleted lists aren’t always the answer, but think about how you can simplify and organize content so that it speaks to your audience quickly. People don’t like to read policy documents, so make it quick and useful. Put dates and calendars in a table or timeline. Separate information with rules and highlight what’s important with bold text. Avoid lumping everything together, hidden in paragraphs. Nobody wants to read a syllabus full of long, loaded paragraphs.

Tip #6: Add Some Visual Interest

Don’t go crazy on this one, but if there are images that are relevant, you might include one or two (not 10!) Or consider integrating a relevant quote from someone in the field that students will be reading from during the semester (nothing too boring or weird, though). You’ll see in my examples above, I’ve added a couple of quotes and an icon on the cover. Icon certainly isn’t necessary, but there’s at least some flavor to the syllabus.

 

3 thoughts on “How to Write a Syllabus Students May Actually Read: Six Quick Tips

  • August 17, 2016 at 10:15 pm
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    What fonts did you use for the business writing course?

    • August 19, 2016 at 8:25 pm
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      The body text is Californian FB, which comes standard on most PCs. The heading font is Raleway, which is free on 1001fonts.com.

  • August 18, 2016 at 5:46 am
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    Great summary that is applicable across many other deliverables. Liked the write in 2nd person samples for comparison

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