Imagine signing up to take a really exciting trip. It could be roaming the African savanna, strolling the Himalayan foothills, or diving on the Great Barrier Reef. You are anticipating all you will see and do, learn, and discover. But when you arrive to start your journey, you receive a large tome packed with legalese, warnings, and rules, along with the itinerary and some description of what you will do. Worse, you are told to leave right after you get it and to return another day to really start.
Many college classes are like that. Not only is “syllabus day” still a thing (faculty hand out a syllabus and dismiss class), but syllabi are bloated stacks of paper written in uninspiring prose, uniform in appearance, and teeming with boilerplate language. Not all of this is required, nor does it have to be the only way you get the information across. Try a syllabus snapshot.
Syllabi as we know them have stayed about the same for decades. Rising to prominence after World War I, the name itself arising from a 15th-century mistranslation of 14th-century writing; the Greek sillabos was corrupted to “syllabus” (Germano & Nicholls, 2020). Regardless of its origins, the syllabus at most universities look similar to each other and to syllabi in general. A large part of this is because universities, mostly via faculty senates, mandate that every course has a syllabus. Furthermore, each syllabus is required to include information ranging from the obvious (course name, number of credits) to the more specific (student misconduct policies, statements on resources for students with disabilities).
There is a lot to love about consistency. Many people frequent Starbucks or In-N-Out Burger because each franchise is designed to deliver the same familiar experience. Similarly, students can take solace in knowing their syllabi contain all the key information they need to successfully navigate the course. A syllabus serves as a contract, a permanent record, a communication device, and a learning tool and cognitive map (Richmond et al., 2022). We also know that there are some key ways a syllabus should be written. A sizeable body of research suggests faculty should write warm, student-centered syllabi. But a multipage syllabus may be asking students, especially first-years, to go from zero to 60 too quickly. A syllabus snapshot may help.
A syllabus snapshot is a one-page document that provides the main elements of the course in an easy-to-digest way. Students want to get a sense of who the instructor is and what the course requires of them. How many assignments and exams are there? Are there suggested ways to study for the course? How do they get in touch with the instructor in case they need help? Their first exposure to the course need not have all the gory details of each assignment right then. If they can get a good feel for the course, they may be readier to read the regular or normal syllabi and take in all the details.
Because there is still a full syllabus satisfying all university minimum requirements, a syllabus snapshot provides the faculty member with a way to pick and choose the best information that they think will be a good first introduction to the course. You can abbreviate your standard syllabus, or you can use a completely novel look and format.
A year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I created my first syllabus snapshot. It used clip art and portions of my syllabus (e.g., a table of assessments, points, and the learning outcomes they satisfied). It also had some language to welcome students, offer my help, and provide some key ways to study, complete with a checklist of what would be due every week. This year, I took it up a few notches. A student artist (@paigeh.art on Instagram) created a highly visual, hand-drawn version of my first syllabus snapshot using Clip Studio Paint (see below). I created alternate text for visually impaired students and will make both versions available on the first day of class. Students will also have the full syllabus available on Canvas.
The syllabus snapshot fulfils the promise to give students an easy welcome to the class and may make them more likely to read more of the full syllabus. The snapshot introduces many of the class’s key components in a more digestible, low-stress, appealing way. Do snapshots make a difference? Time and ongoing research will have the answers. For now, the anecdotal evidence from over 350 students who saw version 1.0 last fall is encouraging.
Our classes can be exciting trips. Let’s do what we can to capitalize on the enthusiasm, interest, and buy-in for the course on day one. A syllabus snapshot may be part of the way to do it.
Germano, W., & Nicholls, K. (2020). Syllabus: The remarkable, unremarkable document that changes everything. Princeton University Press.
Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2022). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Model teaching competencies (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.