The Three Big Questions Faculty Need to Ask

The growth of knowledge within your discipline is what makes being a professor so exciting, but it also presents new challenges–particularly when it comes to teaching. Because the time allotted for each course remains constant and the content that could be included in any course continues to grow, you may find it difficult to try to cram all this information into a course.

To address this issue, faculty developer Ruth Rodgers, teaching and learning specialist at Durham College, recommends that professors reconsider their roles and re-examine which content to include in order to help students learn essential concepts and skills. They can do so by asking themselves the three big questions:

  1. What aspects of my subject MUST my students learn in THIS course?
  2. What attitudes/approaches/processes are CRITICAL for success in this field?
  3. What lifelong learning habits must students develop to be successful in this field?

In an email interview, Rodgers shared advice on how to discriminate between material that absolutely must be covered, and modules that can be safely skipped

Q: What do you see as the benefits of asking the three “big questions”?

Rodgers: The main benefit of this approach is that it assists faculty in setting teaching priorities based on real student “need to know” criteria, thus guiding the design of the learning activities in the curriculum. It also provides a touchstone for making difficult decisions about content priorities, balance, weighting, and teaching techniques, and helps the teacher think about using learning strategies that build needed skills, rather than focusing only on delivering information.

Q: Can you give an example of how a course was changed as a result of this process?

Rodgers: My own Introduction to Psychology course was redesigned using this approach when I realized that memorizing all the psychological “data” was not effective for my students, and that I needed to focus instead on how to find, analyze, and use psychological research instead. As a result, I have reduced the amount of information delivered, but designed the course experience to build and support the ability to continue learning about psychology. As a result, the course pacing is much more satisfactory, student achievement is better, and student satisfaction has improved—as has my own.

Q: What do you say to teachers who question whether this process is appropriate for their subject matter?

Rodgers: I suggest that any teacher try asking themselves the big three questions, and see what comes out of the answers. In my experience, this approach works no matter what the content area (which I hope to show via my videotaped interviews with profs from multiple disciplines during the seminar). It is not content-specific, but provides a framework for any teacher to examine his/her teaching priorities. I would also suggest that they survey their students before, during, and after a redesign of a course using this approach, to obtain their feedback.

Q: I would imagine that some instructors might feel compelled to get through all the material in a course. What advice do you have for those instructors?

Rodgers: Working through the big three questions helps professors to determine what material actually needs to be in a course. It’s not a question of arbitrarily jettisoning material, but being consciously selective about what MUST be taught.

Q: What effect might reducing the number of topics covered in class affect the students’ experience?

Rodgers: Reducing the amount of content, if done in accordance with the big three questions, will enhance the student experience in focusing the course on real essentials, giving students time and activities designed to support their mastery of these essentials, and helping them develop the skill and ability to continue their learning beyond the course. This approach will also ensure that the experience becomes more active and student-focused, as opposed to (primarily) lecture based and teacher focused. Typically, students prefer more active engagement in their learning and find it more effective.

For more on this topic, check out the seminar titled What to Teach When There Isn’t Time to Teach Everything, presented by Rodgers. Go here to learn more.