Deciding What Your Students Must Learn

You were hired because of your deep subject matter expertise; knowledge you want to share with your students. The problem is, the number of hours in a typical semester hasn’t changed, but the amount of information in your discipline continues to grow…and it’s all critical. Or is it?

In the recent online seminar What to Teach When There Isn’t Time to Teach Everything, Ruth Rodgers, teaching and learning specialist at Durham College/UOIT, recommends that professors re-examine their course content and the learning experiences they create by asking themselves three key questions:

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

It’s not an easy exercise. It requires considerable reflection, and some hard choices, but in the end it will help teachers make better use of the face-to-face time they have with students, and will help students gain the skills they need to thrive in the Information Age, Rodgers says.

In today’s workplace, just knowing the information that you learned in school about your subject matter is clearly insufficient. The skill set needs to be much more sophisticated than that. Given the ubiquity of information, it is more important than ever that students have the ability to evaluate, adapt and apply information.

“The employers we work with tell us all the time this really is the 21st century skill,” Rodgers says. “Yes it’s important that they come to them with skills and knowledge, but the ability to continue to learn, to find information, and then be able to analyze and adapt it to the current situation is what they’re looking for regardless of the field.”

Rodgers provided the following recommendations for recalibrating your teaching goals within the context of the three questions:

  • Schedule ample practice time for the components of your course that must be mastered. Provide plenty of feedback along the way.
  • Choose learning activities that build not only knowledge and skills, but the ability to self-critique, troubleshoot and refine. Learning activities could include team projects, case studies, and poster presentations.
  • Require students to develop and use the skills and resources they’ll need in order to keep learning.

“We all come into teaching with a tremendous amount of knowledge, skill and experience, and we’d love to convey all of that to our students immediately,” Rodgers says. “But the reality is we only have a limited amount of time, so my recommendation is you start by thinking about a particular course you teach and ask yourself, ‘What are the non-negotiables?’ — the things that must be practiced until perfect, must be at their fingertips, must be memorized.”