How Much (Content) Is Too Much?

African American male looking into microscopeEach of us has at least one pedagogical issue that creates the most anxiety during our teaching career. For me, it was this: Was I trying to cover too much or too little content in any particular class? I never felt that I hit that “sweet spot” that was the perfect amount of content; in fact, I am not even sure there is such a “perfect” balance.

Several of you have written to me about this issue, so I don’t think I was alone in my anxiety. So let’s think through this issue. First, I hope you are not alone as you sort this out, but that you have a group of colleagues who together have constructed a degree program (I’ll use this as shorthand for an academic minor, or a pathway of courses designed to fit together into a cohesive set of learning goals, etc.). Second, as the group dialogued over how that degree program should look, I hope that you have sought other voices than just the faculty’s – your current students, recent graduates, students who recently dropped out of your degree program, employers of recent graduates, and of course, other campus partners like your campus’ student success center/learning support center, advising centers, faculty from degree programs your students transfer from (what makes your program so attractive?) as well as faculty from programs your majors might transfer to (what makes their program better than yours?). Of course, there will also be administrative voices who need to be listened to and consulted.

I also realize that such a collegial approach to degree construction and reconstruction periodically is often non-existent. You might be a non-tenure track faculty who is not invited to curricular meetings or teaching during them (so the tenure track faculty can make the meeting) or you might be teaching online miles away from others teaching in the program. Then it’s just you having to think through these issues. It’s harder on your own, but not impossible.

But here are some questions to consider as you begin to construct a new course or sit down to revise one you have taught before, but you are worried about if you covered enough or covered too little subject matter content.

How should your students’ knowledge increase because they were in your class?

Is your course a part of a sequence? If so, what content is expected to be covered in your course in order to set students up for success in the next course in the sequence?  Put differently, think backwards – what should students know when they leave the course with a passing grade? Then construct your course and the syllabus to build to that outcome. This is what is referred to as “backwards design.”

Think broadly: are there concepts, theories, theorists, lab results, or data sets which must be understood in order for success in future classes? Are there quantitative skills students will need to learn in your class for use in other classes? Are there skills that students should already know but which your course content needs to review?

Is there content which is required for future student success in the program which will only be learned in your course? While hopefully that is not the case, if it is, then you need to think about having the content assessed in multiple ways throughout the course in order for students to master it thoroughly enough to retain it in the future. That content shouldn’t be covered in a “one day and done” manner.

What do these educational outputs require? Depth v. Breadth

Learning goals are usually written expansively, while learning objectives are more narrow, talking in measurable terms about how often students must be able to do more focused behaviors (e.g., solving a quadratic equation, correctly analyzing data from a dataset and finding appropriate results, writing a persuasive paper based on their analysis, writing using a particular professional style, such as APA, etc.).

Just because learning goals and outcomes address one or more specific concepts, that still does not answer the “how much to cover” question. Weaving them together, however, can give you a better sense of whether a concept should be covered in depth (for example, a concept that is new to your students) or if could be covered in a more cursory manner because five other courses which are prerequisites to yours have covered it in substantial depth.

The wording of learning goals and objectives can become signposts as you construct your course. Words like “distinguish between” or “apply the concept to a new dataset” imply different levels of knowledge and skill, and therefore will need different amounts of coverage in the course. In order to apply a concept, it first must be understood well. Then other skills may come into play (e.g., finding appropriate variables in the dataset, how to compare variables, to what level of significance based on the kind of data being used, etc., then seeing how the concept fits with the data under study, and finally writing about the concept and data in a way that is appropriate to your academic discipline).

So what specific content needs to be taught in your course? Which concepts need to come before others, in order for students to best understand them? In almost every discipline, there are related concepts, one building on the other. What content is like that for the course you are constructing? Are there “solo concepts” that need to be covered but are not clearly linked to other concepts? How can you add them to the sequencing of concepts which you are creating? What supplemental resources can you locate to help you to help your students master this new knowledge? Will you use a textbook? A curated set of readings? Open educational resources or will students have to pay for these resources? Are there videos, TED talks, monographs, or infographics which could further assist students to grasp the content of the course?

How will you assess student learning?

Once you know the concepts/theories/skills to be covered, and in what order, you have to plan how and when you will ask students to show their learning. What kinds of assessments will be needed to measure that learning? Can some concepts be assessed primarily on one or two exams? What other concepts will need frequent measurement, in order to be confident that students are mastering them in preparation for their use in other courses? How often will you need to assess specific concepts in order to be assured that students have retained learning enough to carry over past your course? How soon after learning a concept should it be assessed, for the first time?

Who are you as a teacher for this class?

Don’t forget that you are part of the teaching and learning interactional dance. What teaching persona will you construct for this class? One way I differentiate personas is between “speed” and “minimalist” faculty members. Do you know a few “speed professors”? They are easiest to spot when they teach the introductory course to the discipline. They’ll use a big book (say 50 chapters) and cover them all, no matter what! That might mean covering 2 or 3 chapters a day, but these faculty members keep up that pace throughout the term. Students experience the course (and the discipline) as a “tasting menu” – a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Or do you know some “minimalist professors,” who would rather focus laser-like on a few concepts and theories, with lots of assessments to measure student success?

I was a minimalist when I taught Introduction to Sociology. Given that nearly all of my students would not take another sociology course while at college, I wanted them to come out with a small set of key concepts that will (hopefully!) stick with them throughout their life. I wanted them to have a sociological toolkit with which to ask sociological questions about newspaper articles they read, about political candidates and their policies, and about the organizations they will live and work in, for the rest of their lives. While I used the best text I could find that covered the chapters which I would need (only 6 out of 30) and that was low cost, I had to create a lot of online quiz questions which went in much more depth than those in the “canned” quiz library produced by the publisher. But that actually helped students to get used to my style of writing questions, which was a good thing since I constructed my own tests, using lots of real-world scenarios for students to apply to concepts. Students had to show deep learning of the more limited number of concepts that we covered. It took some students a while to master how to learn at a deep level. Many of their high school learning strategies were aimed to accomplish surface learning (i.e., cramming for a test the night before) —but those learning strategies didn’t work in my classes.

But I struggled to design my courses every term: was I covering enough sociological content? At enough depth for what my colleagues and my program needed? I listened to colleagues at our curricular meetings, asked my advisees and graduating students their thoughts, and kept tweaking readings, assessments, and my expectations of my students. But it still kept me up at night, worrying.

So good luck with backwards designing your courses. And stay tuned for a blog post on what might seem to be the best of all pedagogical worlds—being assigned to teach a course on your specialty. Sometimes that is more difficult than you might think!

Want to read more of my thoughts on this topic? See Chapter 3 of In the Trenches: Teaching and Learning Sociology (2016) which I cowrote with Dr. Maxine Atkinson.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.

BACKWARDS DESIGN RESOURCES

Bower, Ryan S., 2017. Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved March 20, 2019 from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.

Hall, Macie. 2018. “Using the Backward Design for Course Planning” (July 30). Retrieved March 20, 2019 from The Innovative Instructor Blog https://ii.library.jhu.edu/2018/07/30/using-backward-design-for-course-planning/.

Sample, Mark. 2011. Planning a Course with Backward Design. The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 31). Retrieved March 20, 2019 from  https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/planning-a-class-with-backward-design/33625.

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