Going Beyond the Spoon-feeding Metaphor

Male professor in classroom with students

Spoon-feeding: it’s a familiar metaphor that implies doing too much for students, doing what they should be doing for themselves, and making something easier than it should be. I heard it used recently in reference to a well-organized, detailed online syllabus that made explicit everything students had to do and why they were being asked to do it.

Teaching Professor Blog The objections to spoon-feeding start with the belief that by the time students are in college, they should be feeding themselves. If they can’t, how will they survive in professional contexts in which bosses don’t expect to need to spoon-feed college-educated employees? At its best, spoon-feeding evokes the old “teach a man to fish” adage.

Spoon-feeding is a descriptor most teachers want to avoid; it’s not delivered as a compliment. It implies valuing success more than standards and assumes that teachers who tell students everything they need to know and do end up teaching courses that lack rigor. Such courses are part of the grade inflation problem.

There’s also the issue of how well students take to spoon-feeding. But then, who among us doesn’t like sitting down to a deliciously prepared meal? The problem is that students end up expecting us to feed them all the time. They see it as part of our job, what teachers are supposed to do—“just tell us what you want.” If that’s what some teachers do, then when others among us expect students to accept responsibility for their own nutritional sustenance, students won’t like it and will resist mightily. Feeding oneself is more work and comes with greater responsibilities.

We all have a basic understanding of what spoon-feeding is. What we don’t have is a shared understanding of the instructional practices that illustrate it. What does it look like when teachers do it? Most of us think we know it when we see it, but can we characterize the features of those practices? Is a well-organized syllabus with objectives for every module and assignment details fully spelled out an example of spoon-feeding, or does it indicate a well-designed course? What should be left off a syllabus for students to figure out on their own? What about an in-class exam review session—one in which the teacher solves the problems, re-explains the concepts, points out key passages in the reading, and shares copies of old exams? Is that spoon-feeding, or is it simply setting accurate exam expectations?

Does the concept of spoon-feeding differ based on who we’re teaching? There’s a difference between a first-semester student and a senior finishing up with a capstone course. Some students arrive on our campuses never having eaten on their own or been fed anything like the rich dietary content provided in even our beginning courses. Is it wrong to feed them this new kind of food, or to at least spend some time helping them learn how to eat it? But here, as well, the devil is in the details. How might instructions for a major assignment look different in a beginning course versus an upper-division course? And then there’s the content—does some of it merit more detailed explanations, more sample problems, and more teacher directives, hints, and advice? Isn’t that what the research on threshold concepts and decoding the disciplines seems to imply?

Metaphors can obfuscate meaning when we fail to go beyond the metaphor to deal with its subject. I think that’s the case with spoon-feeding. It’s a good metaphor because it so vividly encapsulates the problem. It doesn’t make sense to feed students who are old enough to be eating on their own. But we haven’t gone beyond the metaphor to the level of detail that allows us some shared understanding of how spoon-feeding looks when it happens. Oh, we’re quick to name it when we see it; but do we all attach the spoon-feeding label to the same actions? Further, because it has such negative connotations, we struggle to recognize it in our own practices.

We need to get beyond the spoon-feeding metaphor and generate some criteria that add objectivity to the identification process. After or during that process, we need to address whether spoon-feeding is inherently bad or whether there might be terms, conditions, or situations in which it’s exactly what’s needed to launch learning.