October 12th, 2015

More Content Doesn’t Equal More Learning


too many books

With access to a world of information as close as our phones, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all there is to teach. New material continues to emerge in every academic discipline, and teachers feel a tremendous responsibility not only to stay current themselves, but to ensure that their learners are up to date on the most recent findings. Add to this information explosion the passionate desire by faculty members to share their particular areas of expertise and it’s easy to see why content continues to grow like the mythical Hydra of Greek legend. And like Hercules, who with each effort to cut off one of Hydra’s nine heads only to have two more grow in its place, faculty struggle to tame their content monsters.

The two most common strategies for managing course content rarely yield positive results. Cutting back or trimming content leads to agonizing decisions but does not produce substantive changes. Adding content to an already jam-packed syllabus puts us in a race to the course finish line—talking a mile a minute and leaving exhausted students in the dust. Learners in these scenarios liken the experience to trying to drink water from a fire hose. Hoarse, exhausted faculty and drowned, resentful students are not representative of the type of deep and meaningful learning that most of us aspire to.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the role of content in teaching and learning. A fresh perspective on this problem includes thinking about our role as faculty and that of our students, as well as reconsidering the nature of curriculum design.

The role of “content expert” is a familiar and comfortable one for most of us, and the many years spent gaining expertise in a discipline may make us reluctant to relinquish this position. Yet a narrowly defined role as content expert invariably leads to a “content coverage” model of teaching that puts information transmission at the heart of what we do. And while accessing knowledge is essential in learning, it is not the end of learning.

What our students need from us is assistance in navigating the waters in an ocean of information. We can become “content curators” who judiciously select the best “artifacts” for learning, much like the museum curator analyzes and documents all of the materials available before selecting the best representations for any given collection. Our students also need to learn the skills necessary to review and evaluate various sources of information—and be able to differentiate what’s relevant, accurate, and reliable, and why. If we teach research and critical thinking skills, our learners will develop the capacity to cope with information overload, a problem that is unlikely to disappear in the near future.

A realignment of our role from content expert to content curator also puts content itself into a new perspective. Rather than “covering” content, we use carefully selected content to help students develop the skills of their discipline or their profession. So, for example, students of history learn how to use primary sources to think like historians, or biology students use a scientific approach for testing a hypothesis.

With a shift in focus from covering content to using content, curriculum design also becomes less a matter of determining “what” to teach and more a matter of “how” to facilitate learning. Critical decisions about content still need to be made, but from a different perspective. One approach is to consider the scenario that Maryellen Weimer suggests in her piece “Diversifying the Role Course Content Plays.” Imagine that you meet a student five years after he or she took your course. What would you like to have that student remember from the course? Rather than being able to cite specific facts or information, I think we’d all much rather prefer that our former students remember key concepts, ones that transformed their thinking. Often referred to as “threshold concepts,” these critical ideas can become the cornerstones on which we organize our curriculum.

In addition to recognizing the importance of understanding threshold concepts, students might also look back and recognize that it was not knowledge itself that had the greatest impact, but the ability to apply that knowledge. They might remark on the capacity to utilize a formula to solve a problem or adopt a theoretical model to produce a finished product. If we begin with these demonstrated outcomes when designing our curriculum, then content becomes a vehicle by which we help students apply what they have learned.

This forward-thinking, backward-planning approach to curriculum development that incorporates an understanding of threshold concepts is a vital tool in the battle against content dominance. If we look to the future and carefully consider what we want our students to understand deeply by the time they successfully complete our course, then we can take a backward-design approach to create the learning experiences that will help them achieve that. If we continue to view content as that which needs to be covered rather than the fuel for meaningful learning, then we are destined to fight a losing battle.

Are you and your students drowning in too much content? In Taming the Monster: Rethinking the Role of Content, Nicki Monahan explores the true mission of content in the classroom and how to use it most effectively to provide high-quality instruction. Learn More »

Weimer, Maryellen. “Diversifying the Role Course Content Plays.” Faculty Focus, Sept. 24, 2014. Web. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/course-content-can-fulfill-multiple-roles/

Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practicing. In Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – Theory and Practice Ten Years On. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 412-424.

Nicki Monahan is a faculty advisor in staff and organizational development at George Brown College, Toronto, Canada.

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  • Kathleen

    The title of this article is somewhat negative and could lead a less than careful reader to jump on the low-or-no content bandwagon. That would be a terrible mistake (and it's not really what you're saying) because a vast number of incoming college students already know very little content at all. Content that used to be common knowledge is now a new surprise to them for, today, teachers seem to confuse research skills with knowledge, which simply isn't so. I'd rather it had been titled something like, "Selective Content Equals More Learning." Yes, the professor must still be the content expert; that's her job and it's the only way she can be an effective content curator. Keep in mind that research and critical thinking skills were part of each discipline's curriculum long before computers and internet searches were invented, so there's nothing new there. There's no need whatsoever to consider sacrificing one for the other, nor to imply by the title that that may be the case. Remember, the professor's content knowledge and expertise did not come from taking a single course in his discipline. Nor are you charged with making your students equal experts in the single course you are teaching. Depending on the level of course you're teaching, selective content is always key but, it is essential that your students have foundational knowledge. It's your job to pass it on to them. That's what lesson plans are for. By adding research methods and critical thinking, you then enable students to explore particular sub-topics of the basic knowledge that appeal to their individual tastes. That's what their research papers are for.

  • Perry Shaw

    My wife and I live in Beirut, and we had a revelation when our son visited us from Australia last Christmas. My wife and I both have doctorates and our conversations tend to be rather intellectual (my son would say "nerdy"). Throughout the conversations my son was on his smart-phone checking the information we were using in our discussions.
    I realised that in the 21st Century education needs to shift from the traditional model of the delivery of information to the training of students to assess the information that is already out there.
    At our school a couple of us have begin experimenting with exercises that dialogue with web-based information: for example, one class task is for students in groups to open Google, and then look at the first 6-10 sites that come up when a certain theme is presented; their task is to do a critical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the material presented on each of these sites.
    Another exercise is to discuss the "tribal" nature of web-based information: companies like Google and Facebook feed advertising that matches the user's "surfing" and hence reinforces tribal perspectives. We look at examples of this and discuss how best we can be sensitive to and address this sort of tribal attitude.
    As we deal with a "connected" world the shape and approach of our education needs to change accordingly.

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