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Author: Amy B. Mulnix

College professor with students.
students at blackboard

I recently wrote about the need for faculty to up their game on evidence-based teaching practices. Students are coming to us with a wider range of experience and prior knowledge because of COVID disruptions to learning. Our increased use of evidence-based practices is essential to their success. There is no doubt (Handlesman et al., 2022) that active learning is more impactful than pedagogies in which students are largely passive (e.g., lecture, unstructured discussion).

Here I want to address the concern that I know a call to let students do more of the work of learning raises for faculty: reductions to content coverage. While scientists are often marked as the worst offenders when it comes to an overwhelming amount of content, my experience is that all faculty, no matter their discipline, can fall into the cognitive trap that “if I talk about it in class, students will know it.”

I know this trap well. I taught introductory biology for more than 25 years. I told myself I needed to cover material to get students ready for the next course and then for professional school or a career. I was convinced if they didn’t get this content from me, they wouldn’t get it anywhere else. Oh, yes, I’m certainly guilty of having covered at least a textbook chapter per week in many semesters early in my career. But if I’m being honest, there was a deeply personal side to my attachment to content. Sharing my expertise, both its depth and breadth, felt good; I loved the puzzle of fitting the details together just so and then telling that story to the students. And if I’m being really honest, covering content was a straightforward approach I had mastered. Not only would teaching differently take work on my part, but it also involved personal risks. But I learned to make different choices. I love the teacher I’ve become. If you’re reading The Teaching Professor, you’re already on this journey.

Just to be clear, covering content is essential. I’m not asking you to abandon it. But let’s also acknowledge that learning science has not yet grappled with the question of which content is necessary when so much information is available by simply typing a question into a search bar. Passive educational practices arose during a period when books were rare and a school might be the only place information would be available to learn. We all know that isn’t the case now, but we often still teach as if it were.

But if we reduce content, what else do we do? I know from helping faculty in the past two years that most did reduce content in response to the transition to online teaching and learning and the trauma and complications that COVID added to our lives. I also know that many adopted new teaching strategies. Less clear to me are the criteria faculty used to decide what not to teach and how teaching less content and adding new learning strategies were linked, if at all, in their minds. Paul Hanstedt wisely suggests that part of what we need to do is to teach students how to handle confusion, uncertainty, and frustration.

A recent article in Science (Asai et al., 2022) also helped my thinking about making space in a course for active learning coalesce. The authors, prominent biologists, called on faculty teaching introductory biology to “support student development through discovery and reasoning” and “to focus on preparing citizens to engage with evidence to make informed decisions” (p. 1321). I think this is good advice for all of us. It also provides a framework for making decisions about reducing content to improve learning. The focus of learning shifts from what to how, from content to process, from details to discovery and reasoning. How do we accomplish that change?

I’ve got three suggestions to help you think about which content to teach, which pedagogies to select for that content, and how to help students grapple with the enormous amount of content they encounter online. These should also help students learn to manage their confusion, uncertainty, and frustration.

  1. Expand your relationship to content so that it becomes not only the knowledge and skills you are teaching but also, perhaps more importantly, a vehicle for teaching the processes of your discipline. Ask yourself, How can I use my content to illustrate the ways my discipline works? What questions does my field address? What does my disciplinary reasoning process look like? What counts as evidence? How does my disciplinary perspective differ from others on this topic? What active learning strategies let me emphasize the hows and whys? In my own field, this means giving up some of the detail of all those cellular processes I am so enamored with and creating opportunities for my students to practice generating hypotheses, identifying patterns, and evaluating scientific evidence.
  2. Become far more deliberate about scaffolding for learning those disciplinary processes across the semester. No doubt you’ve already scaffolded the materials in your courses to build in knowledge complexity. Now ask yourself which chapters or readings best allow you to also scaffold for reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, and integration of ideas. How can you use your content to build intellectual sophistication? What are the elements of a strong versus a weak case? How do different kinds of evidence complement each other? What happens when you take an alternative perspective? How are conflicts in theories resolved? Again, in my own field, this might mean giving up teaching all the wonderful variations on a theme and instead covering one in depth. It might mean asking students to work their way through another largely on their own, letting them go down dead ends, find gaps in understanding, and resolve why their suggested step doesn’t quite fit where they have it.
  3. Turn the ready availability of information to your advantage and teach students how to access and assess the quality of online content. Not only will this empower them, but it will also let them fill the inevitable gaps or updates in knowledge. Is it an argument or an assertion in that blog? Is that video about something innovative, or is it a scam? Where would I go if I wanted to fact-check that statement? As a cellular biologist, I might select an activity in which students assume the role of an oncologist and use the various scientific databases to learn about testing, diagnosis, genetic factors, and treatment options. I’d definitely include some of those ads and videos that claim to have a cure for cancer as distractors.

In summary, I’m advocating for a reduction in content coverage to allow students to practice the cognitive skills of the discipline. This approach is especially important given the disruptions to learning due to the pandemic. We must be more strategic than simply eliminating chapters or readings so that students can engage with an activity that further probes the details. Instead, we ought to use content’s capacity to teach the hows and whys of our discipline as a selection criterion in deciding what to keep and what to jettison. Then we should organize the activities associated with teaching the remaining content in ways that scaffold development of the cognitive skills of the discipline. Lastly, we should acknowledge that students can find our content in many places besides our classroom and teach them to access its quality. If we shift focus from the whats of our disciplines to include the hows and whys, we will equip students to both fill the inevitable content gaps and discern information from disinformation.

References

Asai, D., Alberts, B., & Coffey, J. (2022, March 24). Redo college intro science. Science, 375(6587), 1321. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abq1184

Handelsman, J., Elgin, S., Estrada, M., Hays, S., Johnson, T., Miller, S., Mingo, V., Shaffer, C., & Williams, J. (2022, June 3). Achieving STEM diversity: Fix the classrooms. Science, 376(6597), 1057–1059. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abn9515


Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.