December 8th, 2015

Have You Tamed the Content Monster in Your Courses?


pile of books

In our role as instructors, most of us deal with the problem of too much content. We often embrace a “content coverage” model in designing our courses, in which we attempt to cover all of the material that we deem important or interesting in the area of our course. The result is a course that increasingly balloons out of control each year as more and more content is added, resulting in a harried instructor and frustrated students.

Nicki Monahan recommends a different approach. In her position as faculty advisor in staff and organizational development at George Brown College, she advises faculty members to start with the finish line and design backward from the most important points. She asks instructors to consider this scenario:

The year is 2022. You run into a young person in the grocery store who was a student in a class you teach this year. What would you want him or her to remember about your course?

Most instructors will pick a fundamental concept or discipline-specific way of reasoning rather than a fact or data point. This fundamental concept can serve as an anchor for the course.

In her recent Magna Online Seminar, “Taming the Monster: Rethinking the Role of Content,” Monahan suggests five more key ways to help keep the course focus on the fundamental concepts that are most important:

  • Use threshold concepts: Think about the critical concepts, ideas, and theories that you want to ensure students deeply understand before the end of the course.
  • Shift the role of faculty: Move from being a “content expert” to a “content curator” through the careful selection of “artifacts.”
  • Shift the role of students: Help students shift from being “consumers” of content to “contributors” of content for a course.
  • Reconsider the role of technology: Use technology to allow students to cover content more effectively on their own, saving class time for purposes other than content coverage.
  • Use time efficiently: Shift from “covering” to “uncovering” content through analysis, application, and problem-solving.

The content monster is not likely to disappear any time soon. Instructors will always struggle with how much content to cover in a single course, recognizing that the universe of possible topics continues to expand through new material emerging in the field, the need to cover older content from previous courses that students have not yet absorbed, and the personal interests of both faculty and students. There will always be more content that we can cover. In her highly rated seminar, Monahan shows how to tame the content monster by with careful organization, curation, and use of technology. The result will be a course with greater impact and less anxiety for both students and faculty member.

  • Anthony

    Perhaps university entrance requirements should be tightened so that instructors/professors are not wasting time teaching students how to add fractions, how to punctuate, and where to find Australia on a map. The notion that there is somehow a "content monster" is ridiculous unless the plan is to turn out mediocre graduates.

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