That’s what some professors say when I ask why they teach so much stuff. Others say, “Students need this foundation if they want to move on.” So they fill lectures with content and more content.
But research suggests more content does not equal more learning.
One study, for instance, found that psychology students who took an intro class ended up knowing only 8 percent more than those who never took the class. (1)
In another, anatomy and biochemistry students who earned high grades knew no more than students who received a lower grade—after a short period of time. (2)
How about a longitudinal study that found most knowledge gained from a marketing course is lost within two years? (3)
The bottom line? Students don’t remember much after the term ends. Their knowledge is too superficial.
Would that change if we cut down content?
Potentially yes, as one professor found:
Faced with covering a whole introductory biology textbook in his classes, Nelson (1999) decided to cut back content and instead focus on building critical thinking skills. He gave students more examples, and had them interact with the content more. He found that not only did students remember material better, but he did not end up cutting out as much content across the semester as expected. He covered less in class but students could handle more content on their own outside of class. [boldfaced added] (4)
Think of it this way. When students absorb content passively, as they might in a lecture, their knowledge is superficial. Each piece of content is not really connected to other pieces of content (see Image A).
But when students learn concepts more deeply, the connections between and among different pieces of data are denser (see image B). One piece of content can be cross-referenced with another, which makes understanding more nuanced. Knowledge organization is like a spider web.
Will this convince professors to “teach” less? That students will absorb more content when they have the deeper, foundational connections? Hard to say.
Start by cutting out 30 percent from your syllabus. If your course meets once a week, you have about 14 to 15 chapters’ worth of material to cover, right? (assuming you teach a 15-week semester.)
Cut out 4 topics. Stretch out the remaining 11 topics. Some will span two weeks.
And how do you know which topics/concepts to keep? Here are three questions to ask:
- Is this topic related to (or based on) major principles in the field?
- Is it complicated (compared with other topics)?
- Does it have the potential to confuse students?
The more you can answer “yes” for a particular topic, the more likely you should keep it. For instance, the theory of supply and demand in economics can probably fit all three criteria—it is a major pillar in the field; it can be complicated; and students could have misconceptions about it.
Same with Keynesian economics. But what about the theory of optimal taxation? It may be complicated, but is it a major principle in the field? That’s your call.
In the end, there’s no way to meet the Sisyphean task of teaching all the important content in your curriculum, so wouldn’t our time be better spent developing in students, as education expert Grant Wiggins wrote, “a thirst for inquiry”? (6) It would equip them with the ability to build upon their emerging knowledge.
Let me know what you think.
(1) Meyers, C., and Jones, T. (1993). Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
(2) Miller, G.E. (1962). An inquiry into medical teaching. Journal of Medical Education, 37(3), 185-191.
(3) Bacon, D.R., and Stewart, K.A. (2006). How fast do students forget what they learn in consumer behavior? A longitudinal study. Journal of Marketing Education, 28(3), 181-192. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475306291463.
(4) Richmond, A.S., Boysen, G.A., and Gurung, R.A.R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching. New York: Routledge.
(5) Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., and Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
(6) Wiggins, G. (1989). The futility of trying to teach everything of importance. Educational Leadership, 47(3), 44-48, 57-59.