Book Reviews

Book by Linda B. Nilson
Review by Loni Bordoloi, M. Ed.
University of Southern California


The syllabus is a document intended to communicate, at minimum, course organization, requirements, and grading criteria. Well-constructed syllabi can promote student-centered learning by including assessable learning objectives; guides to readings and assignments; learning tools and aids; and campus service referrals (Grunert, 1997; Smith & Razzouki, 1993). Despite their benefits, some instructors suspect their students do not read syllabi at all. In “The Graphic Syllabus and Outcomes Map: Communicating your Course,” author Linda B. Nilson suggests today’s students are disengaged by text-heavy documents as products of a visually-oriented culture. She proposes adopting the graphic syllabus and outcomes map as a way to reinvigorate the learning process.

The graphic syllabus and outcomes map diagrammatically communicate course organization and learning objectives respectively. Nilson discusses the pedagogical power of graphics to enhance learning, and suggests design elements to help instructors revise their own syllabi. Furthermore, she shows that the syllabus, as artifacts of classroom instruction, communicate “hidden” messages from the instructor to the students. For example, a syllabus lacking a calendar of activities and assignments may indicate the instructor is disorganized, or worse, has no regard for students’ time. Conversely, a graphic syllabus can signal an instructor’s value for creativity and meeting students’ needs. 

Graphic syllabi and outcomes maps will capture students’ attention and provide an overview of the course and its benefits – when they are well-executed. One clever example drawn from an accounting course features a production facility with various icons – office building (decision-making), factory (costing), garbage heap (quality cost management), and so on – to demonstrate the link between production and management. Each icon is accompanied by a circled number to denote the assigned textbook chapter for further study. This example nicely captures the course objective and links the diagram to course materials.

Unfortunately, most of Nilson’s examples do not match the accounting syllabus’ effectiveness or charm. They are often confusing and dense with text, defeating the purpose of incorporating visual aids. Some simply reformat unit topics from a table into a flowchart. Others contain impenetrable “graphic metaphors” (e.g. the white space beneath each assignment in a table approximates the length of time it will take students to complete it). Nilson notes that her proposed format does not necessarily enhance the syllabus’s effectiveness or clarity; it must be carefully designed to have an appreciable impact. Her examples unwittingly show that incorporating visual aids in syllabi will not come easily to all instructors. Moreover, it is unclear how visual representations of course organization and student learning outcomes will strengthen the overall document. At some point, students will need to read the instructor’s policies and requirements in order to understand how to be successful in the course.

Despite its limitations, “The Graphic Syllabus and Outcomes Map” is a worth a look. It contains an exhaustive check-list on the components of a complete syllabus, and serves as a rough primer on student-centered learning. It contains a strong discussion on constructing measurable learning objectives, contextualizing learning in light of student development theory, and utilizing active learning techniques. The premise of the book itself – transforming syllabi so they are more accessible to students – reminds instructors to keep their students’ needs and learning styles in mind when they design courses. 
This book is best for those who need a quick resource on conceptualizing student learning outcomes and utilizing student-centered instructional techniques. Its primary audience is faculty, but it may be useful to curriculum designers, academic counselors or advisers who teach semester-long courses in community college settings, and student affairs professionals who lead workshops for students.

References

Grunert, J. (1997). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Smith, M.F. & Razzouk, N.W. (1993). Improving classroom communication: The case of the 
course syllabus. Journal of Education for Business, 68, 215-221


The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course (2007). Book by Linda B. Nilson. Review by Loni Bordoloi. San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals (Jossey-Bass). 181 pp., $40.00, (hardback), ISBN # 978-0-470-18085-3
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