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The Syllabus: Graphic Syllabus


Why a graphic syllabus?

How the syllabus looks affects our students’ perceptions of the class and of us as instructors. Visual elements also help students learn to organize their knowledge in meaningful ways: “visuals communicate the structure and interrelationship among the topics to be covered and the abilities students will acquire. […] They can also be designed to communicate an instructor’s approachability, sense of humor, and caring for the students.” (Nilson, 2007, p.13)  With more and more syllabuses being available online, considerations such as the cost of color-printing no longer represent a barrier to including a variety of graphic elements. Something as simple as separating the calendar of readings into visually distinct and meaningful thematic groups can help students organize their learning over the course of the semester.

There are several research studies that support the use of visual elements in a syllabus:

Everyone with vision is a visual learner (Goswami, 2008)
We talk about learning styles or learning preferences, but Goswami writes that “all learners with vision are visual learners” to some extent

People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone; or the Multimedia Principle (Mayer, 2009)
The theoretical rationale behind the Multimedia Principle is that “When words and pictures are both presented, students have an opportunity to construct verbal and pictorial mental models and to build connections between them” Meyer p. 27

Our memory for pictures is better than our memory for words; or the Picture Superiority Effect (McBride & Dosher, 2002)
The picture superiority effect refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.

A more visual syllabus design can enhance how students perceive their instructor (Nusbaum, et al, 2021)
Finally, a recent study suggests that students have a more favorable perception of instructors who have visual elements in their syllabi.



According to the Visual Teaching Alliance:

  • The brain can see images that last for just 13 milliseconds.
  • Our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour.
  • We can get the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second.
  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.
  • Visuals are processed 60,000X faster in the brain than text.
  • 40 percent of nerve fibers are linked to the retina (via)

Including icons and other simple images as wayfinders in your syllabus represent a relatively easy way to take advantage of the swift visual processing speeds of our students and add graphic elements to your syllabus. Icons allow students to quickly find and understand a section of your syllabus. Rather than searching for and interpreting text, a student can scan for the image of a calendar and immediately locate the syllabus section on due dates.

Small visual elements can also represent a tidy alternative to multiple font sizes and colors by highlighting important components of your syllabus. And of course, according to the multimedia principle, icons can provide a visual memory trigger allowing students to quickly build connections between images and text.

Personalization and Clarification

Images can be an easy way to communicate your personality, teaching style, and educational philosophy. An image of yourself can help online students recognize you on campus while a picture of your textbook can ensure that students order the correct edition.

Some common approaches to using personalization and clarification images:

  • Include your photo (or a photo of your pet or an avatar/bitmoji);
  • Share an image that corresponds to your teaching philosophy or to your feelings toward the class or subject matter;
  • Add a couple of well-placed discipline-specific comics (STEM instructors are lucky to have xkcd as an option!);
  • Use images for any required books to ensure that students get the correct edition and/or recognize it in the bookstore.

Processes and Relationships

A well-designed and clearly rendered chart designed with Microsoft SmartArt or Google diagrams can communicate complicated processes or relationships quickly and easily for your students. Diagrams can also help you reduce space when your syllabus starts getting a little too long! Just don’t go overboard - SmartArt and Google diagrams options can just as easily create visually cluttered and confusing images. Be sure to pick simple and straightforward charts and make sure text is visible and color contrasts are high.

Diagrams in your syllabus can show:

  • Relationships between tasks or topics
  • Effective communication strategies
  • Learning sequences or steps of projects
  • Workflow for assignments

Course organization and outcomes

Linda B. Nilson's book The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course takes a slightly different approach to the graphic syllabus by using flowcharts and concept maps to help students see the “big picture” of how a course is organized.

By visually representing a course's structure and/or student learning outcomes, a syllabus can clearly articulate for students the connections between course content, activities, and assignments while taking advantage of the picture superiority effect (increasing the likelihood that students will remember what is visually represented).

Graphic syllabus best practices

  1. Keep it simple. Remember what role the image is playing in your syllabus - wayfinding doesn’t require complex images
  2. Donʼt communicate important information by image alone. Your syllabus should be primarily text, with images as enhancements. Keep in mind that images (even when they include text) are not accessible to students who rely on assistive technologies.
  3. Keep text and graphics near each other. Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  4. Aim for accessibility. Pay attention to colors and color contrast and ensure that all text is readable, especially when combined with graphics (best practices suggest using a sans serif, 12pt font). And don’t forget about screen readers - alternative text (alt text) provides image information that a screen reader can communicate to the student. [Learn how to add an alternative text to an image or diagram in MS Word]
  5. Use Creative Commons licensed images and provide attribution. Set a good example for your students by citing your image sources! Using Creative Commons licensed images takes the guesswork out of copyright when using others' works in your syllabus. COD's Open Education guide provides some excellent suggestions for finding images with open licenses.


Below are just a few of the tools you can use to create a graphic syllabus.

Canva -
Canva is a graphic design platform, used to create social media graphics, presentations, posters, documents, and other visual content. -
Formerly Build flowcharts, process diagrams, org charts, mindmaps, and much more. Templates include Venn diagrams, timelines, concept maps, cycles, and infographics.

Flaticon -
Select from over 5.8M free icons and stickers for your projects. Resources made by and for designers.

Noun Project -
The Noun Project is a website that aggregates and catalogs symbols that are created and uploaded by graphic designers around the world.

Piktochart -
Piktochart is a web-based infographic application that allows users without intensive experience as graphic designers to easily create infographics and visuals using themed templates.



Extreme Makeover, Syllabus Edition - Tona Hagen

"For a while I have been dreaming of taking the syllabus for the course I offer every semester (US History II) and doing… something with it. I just wasn’t sure what that something was. I only knew that this was not sufficient. I’ve been tweaking the content of the syllabus for a couple of years now, but was looking for a way to arrange or present it that was less linear, less text-y, more visually engaging, more like a magazine or a website."

What a Cool Syllabus...But Is It Accessible? - Faculty Focus

Adding images, colors, and display fonts to your syllabus makes it visually appealing and engaging, but also increases the risk that students with visual impairments may not be able to access the information they need to succeed in your class. In this short article, Accounting professor Teresa Thompson describes how she creates a graphic syllabus that is both fun and accessible.


Using Graphic Syllabi - Texas Center for Teaching and Learning (2 min)

Senior Lecturer in Biology, Jennifer Moon, demonstrates the revision of her "pretty boring" syllabus into a visually appealing FAQ-style document.


What's the Big Idea? - Teach, Talk, Listen, Learn podcast (27 min)

In this episode, Cheelan Bo-Linn (CITL) and Yilan Xu (ACES) join host Bob Dignan to unpack the graphic syllabus. A misnomer of sorts, the graphic syllabus doesn’t focus on classroom policies and procedures, due dates, and a wordy course description, which can create a disconnect with students. Instead, it visually lays out the main learning objective the instructor wants students to get out of the course – or what Bo-Linn calls “the Big Idea” – and how they will go about learning it. It also helps set the tone for the class.


Creating a Graphic Syllabus - Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning [PDF]

This resource guide provides practical suggestions you may want to consider while planning your graphic syllabus.


Guertin, Laura. “Graphic syllabus and outcomes map – new additions to your fall syllabus?GeoEd Trek [blog], 6 August, 2014.

Hagen, Tona. Syllabus Design. Tona Hagen [blog], n.d.

Harrington, Christine, and Melissa Thomas. Designing a Motivational Syllabus : Creating a Learning Path for Student Engagement.  Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2018.

Mayer, Richard E. "Multimedia learning." In Psychology of learning and motivation, vol. 41, pp. 85-139. Academic Press, 2002.

McBride, Dawn M., and Barbara Anne Dosher. "A comparison of conscious and automatic memory processes for picture and word stimuli: A process dissociation analysis." Consciousness and cognition 11, no. 3 (2002): 423-460.

Nilson, Linda Burzotta. The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map Communicating Your Course. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Nusbaum, Amy T., Samantha Swindell, and Anna Plemons. "Kindness at first sight: The role of syllabi in impression formation." Teaching of Psychology 48, no. 2 (2021): 130-143.

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