If there’s ever been a Top 10 List of Most Boring Documents, a course syllabus would most ceratinly be on it. It’s unfortunate, too, because syllabi have a unique ability–as much as a written document can, I suppose–to get students excited about course content. There are a lot of things you can do to liven up a syllabus (check out 10 Reasons Why Your Syllabus Might Suck for a few good ideas), but nothing I have done has received more excitement from both my colleagues and my students than when I have turned my syllabus into an infographic.
Since creating my first one in 2014, I have been asked over and over again: how did you do that? There are, of course, infinite ways to approach such a document, but I want to share a few tips and a five-step process that might help you get on your way.
STEP #1: REDUCE YOUR TEXT!
If you’re ever going to turn a syllabus into an infographic, you must, MUST reduce the amount of text you are using. There are, of course, important things you’ll want and must include, but you can’t think of this document as ten pages of paragraphs. Strip down to only the essential information, with a bit of added info where you think some flare or excitement is needed. Remember: your students are smart people. They can understand documents quickly without a bunch of extra fluff, so remove all the unnecessary stuff.
STEP #2: DIVIDE INTO SECTIONS
You probably already do this when you create a syllabus and insert headings, but think about your syllabus in chunks. What are your major areas that you need to cover? Consider things like Learning Objectives, Required Texts, Assignments & Grading, Policies, and so forth. Once you’ve determined the sections, it’s easier to think about what relates to what and how you might organize your syllabus in a way that makes sense for your students.
STEP 3: DRAW IT FIRST
Before you actually begin designing your syllabus, try drawing it out on sketch paper first. While this will seem like an annoying task for most people, trust me when I say that it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you can get your ideas all on paper first, you’ll have a good sense of how to put it all together later. If an idea doesn’t work on draft paper, just toss it and start over. Believe me, this is important!
STEP #4: TURN NUMBERS INTO GRAPHS AND CHARTS
If there is anything on your syllabus that can be quantified (like percentages for grades or assignments), consider making bar graphs or pie charts to visually represent it. This is helpful, too, so students can visually understand, very quickly, how much weight is given to each project.
STEP #5: USE GRAPHICS FOR EVERY SECTION
Collect pictures and graphics that match in style and that will work throughout your syllabus. Remember to only use pictures that you either created yourself (own the copyright) or that you found through creative commons or public domain websites. Don’t use ugly clipart or images that you don’t have permission to use. A great place to find free icons? Flaticon.com.
A good infographic will be visually heavy. Remember to reduce as much text as possible and supplement what you write with an image. Consider using the images of your required textbooks, for example, and use icons and graphics that relate to each section.
STEP #6: LEARN A PROGRAM THAT IS GOOD FOR PAGE LAYOUT
While this may sound like the most intimidating step, I highly recommend using a software program meant for page layout. While you are most likely familiar with MS Word, it isn’t great for moving images and text boxes around on a screen. For the syllabus I have created in this article, I used Adobe InDesign, which I highly recommend. It’s part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription (along with Photoshop) and it is by far the best and easiest program to manipulate documents like this. There are plenty of books and tutorials on YouTube (and through Lynda.com) to help you.
If you simply can’t get access to Adobe InDesign or if you just refuse to learn a new software program, you can use other programs such as Microsoft Publisher or even PowerPoint (but you would have to set up your slide size to 8-1/2 x 11).
STEP 7: DON’T FORGET THE REQUIRED STUFF!
Undoubtedly, your school or institution has required language that you must include in your syllabus. Don’t get so caught up in designing a cool infographic about your course that you forget to include information about accessibility, Title IX, academic dishonesty, and other related information. I might recommend not going too fancy on the institution-wide policies. You might still keep that in paragraph form, just so that there is no way to misinterpret what your institution wants you to say.