Most faculty still think of “covering” as something they do to content, and most have lots to cover. I find it hard to be patient and understanding on this topic. We’re past the point where we can teach students everything they need to know about anything. We’ve got technology that makes all kinds of information instantly available. We’re up to our ears in research documenting that students don’t retain much of this “covered” content and can apply even less of it. And the time it takes to cover all this content leaves little room for instructional strategies proven to promote learning.
Conversations about content coverage and discussions of it in the literature agree there’s a problem: we’ve got too much stuff crammed in our courses. The solution seems obvious—teach less stuff—but easy it is not. Some faculty teach courses with the content they need to cover specified. If faculty have control of the content, most can’t delete it without guilt or anguish or both. From the perspective of someone (or some curriculum committee) in love with the content, everything in the course is important—it’s all good stuff, interesting and relevant.
I was heartened by a recent article in Life Sciences Education (Petersen et al., 2020). It’s one I didn’t expect to find in a journal for those in fields rife with content-dense courses. It proposes a more nuanced solution, a way of thinking about content that adds clarity to decisions about what to include. It’s a start-from-scratch approach that abandons the idea of coverage in favor of identifying core concepts and competences. The thinking about what belongs in a course is grounded in the goal of student learning. “We define ‘concepts’ as knowledge in the form of ideas for which students must have a deep and lasting understanding and ‘competencies’ as skills that students must possess to appropriately apply concepts in new situations.” In other words, it’s not a list of topics or book chapters. Core concepts are bigger—threads that can be pulled through a course. “The identification of core concepts anchors students in the ‘big picture’ while they are swimming in a sea of details.”
How are those core concepts and competencies identified? Petersen and coauthors propose faculty answer this question: “Of all the possible ideas and skills I could include in the course, what are the most essential that students should master by the end of the course?” That question moves teachers away from the idea of breadth—the shallow coverage of lots of topics—and in the direction of depth—fewer topics but with much richer understanding. It requires a paradigmatic shift in thinking.
With core concepts and competencies identified, teachers are in a position to “curate” the content—that is, put together a collection of material that represents the field. Those who select work for an art exhibit choose carefully. They pick pieces that illustrate the whole body or period of an artist’s work. They look for subjects and techniques that will connect with viewers, and they select good examples. Those are the criteria faculty use to select content—it’s representative, relevant to students, and exemplary.
What’s next is an organizing framework—something that tethers the core concepts, competencies, and content to each other and makes the course cohere. Students must still learn content details, but they also need to understand “that basic knowledge and facts fit into a larger framework of interconnected principles or ideas that can be used to provide them with context.” These organizing frameworks aid long-term retention, help students integrate new information, and expedite knowledge transfer. The authors propose a variety of frameworks, such as a central question like “How can we feed the world without destroying it?” Throughout the course students return to the question. They’re reminded of its value and the need for answers. They’re asked to relate the course content to the question and explore answer implications embedded in the content.
How much longer can we keep adding content to our courses? It feels as though “coverage” has imprisoned our thinking. Are we in for life, or can we change how we think about content and the role it plays in teaching and learning? This article offers an interesting alternative—an evidence-based, sensible option with the potential to free us from the “tyranny of content.”
Petersen, C. I., Baepler, P., Beitz, A., Ching, P., Gorman, K. S., Neudauer, C. L., Rozaitis, W., Walker, J. D., & Wingert, D. (2020). The tyranny of content: “Content coverage” as a barrier to evidence-based teaching approaches and ways to overcome it. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-04-0079 [open access]
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