How to Design a Syllabus

What's in this post:

An overview of how I redesigned my course syllabi, moving from old-school blocks of text to visually- and graphically-oriented documents that invite student interaction.

Starting point:

Last summer, I surveyed my syllabi and felt a smidge of displeasure. Over the course of designing 18 classes, I had become stuck in a syllabus rut: the impenetrable wall of text.

With each new document, I may have added a cute image on the front page or tried reorganizing the scheduling calendar. But aside from minor tweaks, and new content, each of these syllabi exhibited the same conventional default design for its 5-8 pages.


I knew that these documents were difficult to parse. It didn't feel like students absorbed what was discussed on these pages, and for good reason.

To start, it can be difficult to find the information you want. Where do you look? You'd have to skim all the front-loaded pages on course information, policies, assignments, and requirements to determine where the answer to your question was located.

The documents are static, immoveable, and weighty. They don't change over time.

Most problematically, the blocks-of-text approach reinforces the sense that the power and authority remains with me, the mind that created the document in the first place and already knows what's in there. It's not the best way to engage the recipient.

Redesign #1:

At the same time as I was identifying these weaknesses, I came upon the Accessible Syllabus project, which provides a helpful nuts-and-bolts entry point to understanding universal design. What's important to realize here is that the suggested visual, conceptual, and rhetorical revisions are not just about "disabilities" -- it's about reframing the delivery of information in a manner that truly benefits all users.

Primary takeaways:

  • Serif fonts do not make for easy reading, especially online, and especially in blocks.

  • Electronic documents need to be flexible, not only so text (and images) can be read by screen readers but also so users can manipulate color, size, etc to suit their needs.

  • Images and visual representation can be used to highlight key information. The more multimodal the document, the more likely users are to retain information.

  • Hyperlinks can send users to information available outside the syllabus, such as policies detailed on the school's website, which cuts down on information density.

  • Language that is kind, respectful, and accommodating achieves far more than language which scolds, reprimands, or treats students as adversaries. (My evolution in this arena has been equally inspired by Catherine Denal's writing on A Pedagogy of Kindness.)

Some Solutions:

  • 2 columns of text with fewer words per line

  • Sans serif fonts

  • Light gray backgrounds instead of stark white

  • Clear, consistent headings and subheadings

  • Bold phrases to call attention to key information

My favorite illustration from demonstrates the tremendous paradigm shift that can occur when we don't only think carefully and conscientiously about what information is being delivered in the syllabus but equally about how that information is being communicated to the reader:

For my first round of syllabus makeovers, I adopted this column and bullet approach. I particularly like the breathing room that an extra use of negative space now lends to the pages, and the shortness of each line—you only have to read about 7 words at a time.

Redesign #2:

However, I was not satisfied with this approach for long. I desired something far more visually attractive, powerful, memorable, and—hopefully—useful.

The subsequent semester, I turned to the internet once again. I discovered syllabus makeovers that inspired me both visually and conceptually, and I used Google to find other graphic inspiration.

Principles of Redesign #2:

  • Visual elements create the organizational structure. I use columns, blocks, and images to compartmentalize each page into separate sections.

  • Coloring and shading separates elements and calls attention to key sections.

  • Each section has a large, bold header, with colored subheading titles to divide the text clearly and help provide navigation through the document.

  • Information is represented graphically when possible, such as pie charts that show grading proportions.

  • Icons for things like email and Moodle reinforce visual memory.

The biggest tool was the use of hyperlinks in a number of places:

  • On the first page, I include a table of contents. Each entry represents a major category of information that can be found inside the syllabus (not limited to section headers). Each one is hyperlinked to the spot inside the document where a user may want to go. I created these using the Bookmarks feature in Microsoft Word.

  • Throughout the document, text is underlined and hyperlinked when it brings the user to information outside of the syllabus, such as campus resources or discussions of department policies that are posted online. I used the Hyperlink feature in Word again, only this time adding a web address rather than an internal bookmark.

  • Icons for email, Moodle, etc. are hyperlinked to my email address or our course's LMS site. Repeating information in multimodal forms like this can increase people's ability to access the information, and to remember where it is.

  • Documents placed on our LMS system (Moodle) are linked where they are listed in the scheduling section of the syllabus. I updated and added these links as we went along in the semester.

And, finally, text-heavy paragraph descriptions were cut down as much as possible - edit, edit, edit!


This first design below is my favorite. The best part? It's only 4 pages long!

These sample pages below come from two other syllabi, showing different aesthetic feels that can be achieved for each unique document based on the colors, patterns, and layouts chosen. Full versions of each syllabus can be explored on my website here.

Pro Tip for PDFs:

I was familiar with converting my Word documents to PDFs by using the "Print" function. I never knew that this option, geared for actual print settings (duh), removes hyperlinks! In order to retain all that wonderful linking work that you spend time doing, you have to use the "Save as" function, which gives you the option to save as a PDF "best for electronic distribution." [Mind. Blown.]

Do note, however, that this function will also convert any fonts that are not compatible with digital access, so be sure to check before you get attached to the look of a typeface like Baskerville (speaking for a friend...).

Room for improvements:

1) Serif Fonts

Two of these syllabi still use serif font in somewhat small type sizes. In an effort to appease my own aesthetic sensibility and to include as much information per page as possible (while still being aware of potential information overload), this element of accessibility was slightly sacrificed in the graphic layout (see point #2).

In the future, however, I'll keep working on adopting larger sans serif fonts in even shorter paragraphs. I'm also aiming for website-based syllabi in the future, but for now a digitized PDF is as far as I've gotten towards making my core course documents electronically friendly.

2) Secondary text-only versions

To address issue #1, for each course I did supply a text-only version of the syllabus. Though it took a few extra minutes to create, upload, and update this document (really, just a series of copy-paste steps), it was worth the time to ensure that students could access a more pared-down version of the syllabus in the form of a sparsely formatted Word document that can be manipulated by the user simply and easily. [Although, I need to learn more about screen readers to ensure that each header, section, image, etc., can be processed properly.]

3) Visual clutter

Though I do have some experience working with graphic designers and adapting their visual layouts, I'm certainly no designer myself. It will take some time (and lots of patience and persistence) to keep playing with these orientations and figure out the most effective layouts that can be as user-friendly as possible.

Final thoughts:

Overall, the progression away from traditional text-reliant documents toward graphically-organized ones has, if nothing else, shifted my own internal relationship to The Syllabus substantially. I can see it now as an element of the course that needs to be alive and dynamic, with the potential to be used continually by students throughout the semester, not just something that they'll set aside after the first day.

For next steps, I aim to set up a full F.A.Q. page on each course's LMS site so that students can find the answers to their questions throughout the semester and so that I can offer "live," updated answers as issues come up along the way. This F.A.Q. will complement the syllabus and help me evolve the syllabus so that it addresses common student queries.

I'll also be continuing to evaluate the rhetoric that I use in my syllabi as well as all of my other course documents, striving to find the right balance between setting firm boundaries and expectations and articulating them in an increasingly more welcoming, approachable, and trusting tone.

Challenge accepted!

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