Using Graphic Syllabus as a Valuable Supplement to a Text-based Syllabus – Arash Shahi, CTE Teaching Assistant Developer

A few days ago I conducted a workshop on the use of graphic syllabus for the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE). The participants, mostly graduate students at UW, found the topic very exciting, helpful, and constructive. During the workshop an interesting question came up: “Why is no one using such a practical and useful method in our classrooms here at UW?” It was a question that was in my own mind when going through the literature and preparing for the presentation, particularly because I have been at UW for over 8 years now and have taken many courses in different Engineering departments ranging from undergraduate to PhD level, none of which even mentioned the concept of graphic syllabus or concept maps. These concepts have been around for a couple of decades, or even longer, but have never been systematically studied or organized, until very recently. The first structured look at the use of graphic syllabus was published by Linda B. Nilson in the book titled “The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course”, which was the basis for my recent workshop on this topic.

Nilson (2007) defines a graphic syllabus as “a flowchart or diagram that displays the sequencing and organization of major course topics through the semester. It uses spatial arrangement, connecting lines, arrows, and sometime numbers to show the logical, temporal progression of the course through topics within the subject matter. In addition, it may, but need not, use icons, pictures, and visual metaphors to convey the meaning of words, concepts, and relationships.”

From a close look at the relevant published literature and by going through the background information that Linda Nilson has presented in her book, it seems that many instructors have been taking advantage of the use of graphics in their teaching, while this technique has never been publicly advertised or systematically developed for the particular application of graphic syllabus. This could be one of the many answers to the question posed at the beginning of this entry. I believe many instructors would acknowledge the benefits of this technique and take advantage of it in their teaching, if they had a proper introduction to it, for which case the book by Linda Nilson would be a great start! I am very excited to use a graphic syllabus in my next course and have already inspired couple of professors in my department to give it a try!


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