Review: The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course

The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course by Linda B. Nilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Within the first chapter of this book, I already had a clearer picture of just what I should be aiming to do with a graphic syllabus that I was missing before. Nilson’s premise is clear and easy to understand (albeit, challenging to fully execute). Given that many people absorb much information visually and contextually, it doesn’t make entire sense to have a syllabus that is segmented into its different silos of: objectives, goals, assignments/assessments/readings. Her goal is to help the reader consider the ways in which one can depict how all these parts of the course fit together in the syllabus.

This is useful for two reasons. The first is that it helps the faculty member have a clearer sense of what he/she is assigning in terms of work and make sure it explicitly connects to objective and goals. This grants a clearer vision of what the instructor is doing. The other reason is that it gives students a stronger context of how it all fits together. Beyond just the “why do I have to take this course” questions, a graphic syllabus can instantly connect the student with context that clarifies questions of why as well as better understanding how information fits together for their growth within the course.

Nilson delves into a variety of issues and concerns about how to go about it and illustrates that there is good variation about how to do it. She provides readers with thoughts about how and why one might do it, but shows there are many ways to go about it. In particular, she provides dozens of graphic syllabi from previous courses (her own and others) in various disciplines to help stimulate ideas across departments. To help readers better envision their own syllabus in a new light, she regularly compares what a text syllabus looks like in contrast to the (same) graphically-enhanced syllabus.

Within the first two chapters, she already had me hooked and thinking differently about my own courses. I’m imagining a comic-book syllabus for my comic book course that would be “teaching” as one progresses through the different elements of the syllabus. But immediately, it helped me to reconsider that American Literature course I had created my first visual syllabus for. I’ve found that I like doing American Literature 1 by addressing different types of writing and moving through the significant pieces in chronological order. This works in many ways but is limiting because students will lack context (or forget) of how the different types of writings fit with one another. By thinking about Nilson’s ideas, it allowed me to craft something more meaningful for the students as you can see from the impromptu outline below.

And that’s probably the other element that I like about Nilson. She emphasizes that one does not need to be an artist to creating a graphic syllabus—nor does one need numerous programs and equipment. I did the image below in Excel. Both MS Word and Powerpoint have outline/mapping tools that you can utilize and master very quickly. You can go high-end (and she shows examples of such), but you can still be graphically rich and simplistic in the types of visual you use (Good thing too—I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler!).

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