Promise and Problems in the Graphic Syllabus

Of all the crazy things to do this morning, I found myself browsing through the latest (print) catalog from Jossey-Bass, publisher of all things teaching-and-learning-related. Among the many intriguing tigtles, I spotted a book by Linda B. Nilson called The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map that I’m thinking about looking into a little further.

A quick websearch turned up some examples of what amounts, essentially, to a concept (or mind) map of the course material that is included in the syllabus, looking a little something like the figure in the clipped image below (from Mark Smille’s samples — .pdf).

I like the idea behind this, as it takes a “big picture” approach to the course, showing the linkages between various elements of the class plan. Obviously, it’s a direct appeal to visual learners who might benefit from “seeing” rather than simply reading about the course design. And because it inherently uses a “map” metaphor to show the pathways between one topic and another, it surely can help students navigate the course and recognize “where they are” in the grand scheme of the course’s landscape…ostensibly, helping them move toward the learning outcomes that await at the end of the journey.

I can extrapolate a few things about this approach.

First off, it could be a very useful way for instructors to make their course design more coherent.  If the teacher spends time organizing the flow of the course — even a course that’s been taught many times before — through a concept map, then they’ll be approaching it much like a writer “pre-writes” a paper, creatively bringing the right brain into the process, and being inherently receptive to new ideas and inventions.  They’ll begin to spot where students might be getting lost, or where topics don’t quite “fit” rationally into the class plan.  By seeing the visual balance of the page, they also might see where they’re committing too much time to one area, or dealing too superficially with another.  It’s a good idea.

I’ve always used a table to outline my class calendar so that every class period has a plan and purpose that the student can see:  I typically use three columns to identify topic, readings/activities planned, and homework due prior to coming to class.  Students report that they like the clarity of this and the way it helps them plan ahead, as many of them use a calendar system of their own that they put all their homework into.  I like trying to crunch my class planning down into as minimalist a summary as I can in the table, while still be useful.  This helps me really focus.

But it’s a very linear class design method, and much of the “flow” between ideas is something only apparent to me.  If I were to start over with, say, my Fiction Writing syllabus, which is organized to cover one element of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc.) after another, and move these weekly elements around in a concept map, might I discover that it makes no sense to start with character and move to plot afterward, and instead start with setting?  Perhaps!  Perhaps I’d also see that some readings work better with different elements of fiction, even if the textbooks I’m using don’t organize things that way.  For that’s another key way that the concept map might assist with class redesign:  to make me own it more, by letting go of the architecture of the textbook design and taking charge of the “flow” of ideas on my own.

On the other hand, there are a few issues or problems I can see with this method.  Students who are unfamiliar with critically thinking about flowcharts might not understand that this design is simply my own, or give it more weight than it might otherwise deserve in their “narrative” of (not the class, but) the discipline.  They might get confused by the linkages if I don’t explain them thoroughly.  Indeed, a flowchart with too many arrows and symbols could only obfuscate the whole thing.  Moreover, the novelty of having a flowchart when other teachers they’re taking don’t do this might make it seem too outre, too idiosyncratic.  And since syllabi are as much policy documents as they are class plans, it might draw more attention from assessors and evaluators than it otherwise deserves.

I think the smartest thing to do is to make concept mapping an important component of the student activity in a course that would include a concept map in the syllabus.  Thus, on the first day of class, the teacher can go over the graphic syllabus orally, narrating the logic of the flowchart in summary, and perhaps then asking students to do their own flowchart or mind map about the first topic under study for homework.  Sharing concept maps can make for fun group activities, and there’s nothing wrong with collecting and critiquing them as actual assignments either (and having examples to show first really helps).  I could imagine also having students write a concept map of their own as a closure activity, describing their journey through the subject over the semester… and then comparing this back to the one on the syllabus, afterward.

Such mapping can be a great creative way to teach any subject, not just creative arts and composition writing class, as it gives students a way to organize information.  And a disorganized syllabus, or one overly cluttered with so many details that the weight over various topics is not clear, hinders students who are trying to organize their thinking.


[See my older post: Alternative Uses for Mind-Mapping in the Classroom]


Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.