January 28, 2018 12:13 am

Norman Eng

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).

Adapted from Ambrose et al. (2010)

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.

Adapted from Ambrose et al. (2010)

Will this convince professors to “teach” less? That students will absorb more content when they have the deeper, foundational connections? Hard to say.

Action Step

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:

  1. Is this topic related to (or based on) major principles in the field?
  2. Is it complicated (compared with other topics)?
  3. 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.

  • A tall order—to cut out 30 percent! But I understand. Esp the part that students will actually learn more if they have deeper understanding. But what if students have to take a departmental exam to pass?

    • Good question, Bruce. If the dept deems certain content important enough to test, there should be some standardization in terms of what professors teach (i.e., the curriculum). Changing the curriculum should be a collaborative effort when the assessment is departmental. I would talk with the dept chair/program head. Be prepared to defend the argument that “less is more” though. Keep me posted.

  • Good article. Your spot on of course. It takes practice to go over the content and cut, analogous to a producer cutting material to fit the allotted time frame. Like anything it takes practice and prioritizing content. I can’t count the number of discussions with colleagues who insist they must cover every detail, and every chapter in the text. This is nothing more than “checking all the boxes”. Activity is sometimes confused with accomplishment.

    • Nick, I have the same experiences as you in terms of professors who insist they must uphold rigor or cover all the important stuff. What if we taught the top 5 most important/fundamental/rudimentary principles in the field–but REALLY dig into it? It’s like when basketball amateurs practice by playing pick up ball–they dribble, shoot, pass, and bascially do everything that’s in the game. But the experts–the best–focus on drilling on ONE thing at a time. Maybe it’s 1000 free throws. Or just dribbling for hours. Same deal.

  • How do you know which topics to keep? My initial reaction to that was, gee, dumb question. Of course, keep the “most important stuff” and cut the stuff that will take too much time. But your criteria of (1) major principles, (2) complicated, (3) confusing is so appropriate. Of course, spend the bulk of time helping students meaningfully interact with the challenging topics because once they have understanding there, everything else seems easier. And the topics that are the low-hanging fruit will be easily interspersed. “While we’re on tough topic A, glance at this chart on easier topic B, which works the same way but has fewer steps.” The teaching of patterns/connections saves everyone time and deepens understanding.
    Excellent advice. Thank you.

  • B, thanks for your thoughts. There has been a lot of talk about “threshold concepts,” which are major ideas that transform one’s understanding about a discipline. They are necessarily complex and subject to misconceptions. Once we get past that threshold, everything seems to fall into place–or as you said–everything else seems easier.

  • Actually Dr. Eng, I am glad to read this article. I have been thinking on this subject very often in the last couple of months because I teach four subjects on Early Care and Education. Usually, the same students return to all of my classes in order to complete the entire course. Some of the information from one class to the other is repetitive. During one class, students seem to do well and appear to have learned and understand the subject presented. But by the next class in the next semester when I restate information from the previous class, some of them cannot remember it very well. Even with hands on activities, field trips to do observations, small group work that requires them to present their work to the whole class , defining vocabulary to better understand Early Care and Education terminology, etc. One example is two classes (Growth and Development I, which is a pre-requisite of Growth and Development II). In the first class of each class, I will ask the same students which developmental domains are usually the main focus of this class? Each time, they don’t remember what developmental domains a and they can barely name them. If they do, they answer in a question-like tone with no confidence in their response. This is very confusing to me, especially because they did field observations on a preschool child focusing on all developmental domains while using a questionnaire, which was already created for them to help them learn, and one observation tool (a running record) to record what they observed, which they were shown using visuals in class how to use the Running Record form by example and by practicing themselves. It makes me question what am I missing, or what did I not say or do to help them retain what I tried to teach them.

    • Thanks for writing Rebecca. In the end, I think students are absorbing a lot of content in an effort to develop either scholarly or technical expertise, as opposed deep understanding and fluidity of the fundamentals of the field.

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