Using Visuals in an Academic Syllabus

During the academic winter break, I’ve been developing the course Digital History, which takes place in the upcoming term at the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Mostly, I prepared the syllabus, which includes the description and structure of the course, learning outcomes, assignments, marking scheme, assigned readings, schedule of guest talks, as well as additional sources, expectations, and policies.

The preparation of the syllabus was an opportunity to practice the use of visuals in a formal document that needs to be clear, precise, and welcoming. The syllabus, with the course website and the presentations in the lectures, will function as one pedagogical, aesthetic body, which will create a style for the course. I’m planning to utilize colours and icons to connect these three-course components. Repetition of visual cues will help the students identify the conceptual continuity between the course materials and, in turn, the overall coherence of the course.

Adding visuals to the syllabus has further functions. For example, colours make the document surprising and cheerful and thus improve the readers’ mood. As well, the choice of colours and icons can sustain the attention of the readers, who might ask questions about the design of the syllabus beyond its role as a guide to the course. Since the students will work on a creative project in the course, their thoughts about design will be relevant and useful.

The visuals in the syllabus encourage an experimental approach to work. The syllabus doesn’t look like many other syllabi, although I examined several of them carefully and applied principles, I found helpful (including the use of visuals). But the look of the syllabus makes it unique and encourages the students to confidently develop their own design preferences and singularity.

Lastly, there are benefits in explaining ideas through various kinds of communication. Considering the diversity in today’s classes, the probability that some of the students will find the visuals more relatable is high. That relatability would make it easier for them to understand and remember their new environment better and, ultimately, become active and contributive players in it.

The “Netiquette” section of the syllabus is pasted below. Happy new year!

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