Thursday, January 14, 2010
By Keli Yerian
Instructor, English Language Institute
University of Oregon
Imagine you are a student on the first day of an ESL class at the college or university level. The teacher hands out a syllabus, which looks something like this:
Which document would most intrigue you?
As ESL teachers, we have all thought about how to make our materials motivating and accessible. But when it comes to that first, serious, administrative document full of official information that must be communicated to students at the beginning of the academic term, most of us have probably assumed it was simply necessary to present it as is.
I also assumed this before I read Linda Nilson’s fascinating book called The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating your Course (2007). Nilson’s argument (which is not written specifically for language teachers but for all academic instructors) is this: when key information about a course, such as its structure, content, and assignments, is presented through graphics, it will be more easily understood and retained by students. In a graphic syllabus, spatial arrangements, colors, shapes, arrows, flow diagrams, and even drawings can allow students to actually see the relationships among different aspects of the course. When they can see these relationships, they can organize them within an overall schema for ‘what this class is about’ or ‘what I will learn in this class’, or ‘what I’ll need to do in this class’, right from the beginning. A supplemental text syllabus can then be given to fill in the administrative details.
Nilson cites research showing that visual material in general is retained and accessed more easily than written material in memory, and is more efficiently processed by the brain. She also points out that although all students would benefit from graphic syllabi, they might be particularly motivating for visual, global, and intuitive learning styles. If this might be true for native speakers of a language, how much might they help our non-native students, who are faced with an even bigger processing challenges in a second language? Although no research has been done yet on graphic syllabi in language classes, I would guess the answer would be ‘a lot’. I have been using graphic syllabi in many of my classes for the last few years, and have had very positive responses so far.
You might be thinking, “Well, that could be true, but it won’t work for me because I’m not artistic”. But non-artists can take heart, for even a simple flowchart, created for example through Word’s SmartArt Graphics templates, can capture some crucial course elements in graphic form. Word’s draw function allows users to easily paste various shapes and lines into a document, including arrows and text boxes for labels. Here is an example using SmartArt Graphics that was made by a new teacher in just a few minutes. The two examples above were also both created with Word.
Try it out! As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.
Nilson, L. (2007). The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.