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Visual Rhetoric in Syllabus and Assignment Sheet Design

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When we think of syllabus and assignment sheet design, we probably think first of what content we're going to include and what policies we want our students to know. However, it's important to take the visual appearance of our syllabus and assignment sheets into consideration as well, since our visuals communicate a lot about our teaching styles and values for our class. While beautifully-designed documents have value, what's more important to consider is designing a document that characterizes the tone of your class and helps your students navigate your particular class' policies and ideas. What visuals and document design can help communicate is a suite of clear class community expectations right from the start of the quarter.

Questions to Consider

Here are some questions to consider as you approach designing your syllabus and/or your assignment sheets:

What is my teaching persona and how do I want to capture that in my document?

A lot of instructors want to communicate their values and personalities right up front. Organizing your syllabus and/or assignments with large blocks of text communicates something very different than organizing your syllabus and/or assignments in a form that is broken up with different images, paragraphs, and spacing.

What parts of this document do I want to emphasize?

As instructors, we're inclined to think that everything we write in our documents is pure gold. However, our students have certain priorities that we can help them find and that we can emphasize not just through the words we choose, but through the design of the document itself. It may even be useful for you to prioritize a small number of things that you want your students to take away from the syllabus and/or the assignment sheet; some writers argue that readers will remember three things the msot effectively (many writers call this "the rule of three!"). "The Rule of Three" can apply well to document design too; that is, picking three things from your document that you most want your student to remember may help you make some design choices as you're drafting your syllabus and/or your assignment sheets.

How do I maintain engagement across the document?

We cannot necessarily expect that all of our students will be engaged with reading every word of our assignment sheets and syllabi from start to finish; most people do not really read instructional documents in that way. Therefore, we can be strategic in our design and visual choices about how to encourage students to pay attention to the most pertinent details and maintain their engagement and use of these kinds of documents to refer back to as they're enrolled in the class. There are several strategies you can use to keep your students engaged in working with the documents that you give them:

What is a visual metaphor or diagram that might capture what I want my students to remember from this document?

A strategy that you can use to help your students remember information and to create some repeated, visual elements to emphasize certain key pieces of information from your course can be to create a visual metaphor or a diagram across your documents. When students see one symbol or image that repeatedly represents some key information in the course, they have a better chance of finding the information they need, particularly in long documents.