Do You Pay Attention to Boring Things? … Re-thinking the Essential Syllabus

This week’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Tom Pickering, adjunct assistant professor, Pierce College, Washington. Thank you, Tom, for this interesting and creative way of thinking about how we communicate with our students. If you have a topic you’d like to write about for this blog, please contact us.

… “The brain is as adaptive as Silly Putty. With years of reading books, writing e-mail, and sending text messages, you might think the visual system could be trained to recognize common words without slogging through tedious additional steps of letter-feature recognition. But that is not what happens. No matter how experienced a reader you become, you will stop and ponder individual textual features as you plow through these pages, and you will do so until you can’t read anymore.”

The preceding quote is from Brain Rules by John Medina and specifically, Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses, wherein we tend to learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.

Ten minutes is about all you get with students in class before their attention span diminishes and the nomadic digital habit takes over in the absence of an interactive instructional focus. You either embrace or compete with iPads, laptops, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, texting, cell phones, and more. I can relate to this, and I say embrace!

If your syllabus, like mine, has too much inefficient text and is boring, maybe it is time to re-think the text syllabus and consider a visual syllabus, one that is congruous with the digital elixir du jour.

We would like to know if you have a visual syllabus or are interested in developing one and what ideas you might have that would make your syllabus a curious read by students.

Data visualization is becoming popular and has allied application to the classroom to supplement and complement PowerPoint and videos. Below are some resources that might be helpful in re-thinking the possibilities to re-tool your syllabus.


  • 3-page visual syllabus example  
  • Many Eyes: IBM site that enables you to create data visualization through data sets, either your own, or existing
  • A fun site and tool for generating “word clouds” from text; color and font choices are extensive, and I have used this site for displaying a course overview and for showing students how to create a cloud resume
  • Good links to information graphics relevant to online learning
  • Data visualization with a global perspective on business and social issues
  • Smashing Magazine: Good source for ideas and resources on data mining
  •  Social Times: Information on how to create a social resume to help students with job search techniques—important considering that employers look for digital footprints of prospective employees
  • Blog with the best examples of data visualization and infographics; subscribing will provide you with a new example every day
  • Mashable: Pictorial summary of how students use technology
  • Pam Dyer’s blog on the use of Facebook and Twitter for marketing, advertising, branding and engagement.
  • Content Maven: This site will take some time, but there are great presentation tools embedded, especially the graphic on Starbucks and Coca-Cola #90—beware of sensory overload)
  • Kawasaki, Guy. Enchantment. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.Print. Kawasaki is a prolific writer and blogger with keen sense of use of social media (see also and
  • Medina, John. Brain Rules. Seattle, Pear Press, 2009. Print. This book has been instrumental for me in course and syllabi development; it explains a lot of behavioral patterns with a few “a ha” moments (see also  

“When you enchant people, your goal is not to make money from them or to get them to do what you want, but to fill them with great delight” (Enchantment, Guy Kawasaki).

Perhaps your visual syllabus will become a great delight, generate attention, and be less boring than the essential text one. Re-think a new type of syllabus and share your results with us.

One thought on “Do You Pay Attention to Boring Things? … Re-thinking the Essential Syllabus

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