Effective Teaching Strategies: The Importance of Marrying Content and Process

A love of the material and a willingness to convey that to students only enhances learning. The problem occurs when the content matters more than anything else, faculty are prevented from using methods that enhance student learning. Not only does this hurt the students, but it hurts faculty as well.

When teachers think the best way to improve their teaching is by developing their content knowledge, they end up with sophisticated levels of knowledge, but they have only simplistic instructional methods to convey that material. To imagine that content matters more than process is to imagine that the car is more important than the road. Both are essential. What we teach and how we teach it are inextricably linked and very much dependent on one another.

Even though both are tightly linked, development of one doesn’t automatically improve how the other functions. So you can work to grow content knowledge, but if the methods used to convey that knowledge are not sophisticated and up to the task, teaching may still be quite ineffective. It may not inspire and motivate students. It may not result in more and better student learning. Because teachers so love the content, they almost never blame it. No, it’s the students’ fault. They aren’t bright enough. They don’t study enough. They don’t deserve to be professionals in this field.

But teachers who teach courses in which large numbers of students struggle and routinely fail are not generally positive about teaching. They are more often cynical, rigid, and defensive. The truth about how much isn’t being learned in these courses is hard to ignore, no matter how routinely students are blamed.

The Power of Process in Determining Student Learning Outcomes
The typical college teacher has spent years in courses developing the knowledge skill set and virtually no time on the teaching set. This way of preparing professors assumes that the content is much more complex than the process, when in fact both are equally formidable. Marrying the content and the process requires an intimate and sophisticated knowledge of both. Some kinds of content are best taught by example, some by experience. Other kinds are best understood when discussed and worked on collaboratively. Other kinds need individual reflection and analysis. Besides these inherent demands of the content itself, there are the learning needs of individual students, which vary across many dimensions.

The best teachers are not always, not even usually, those teachers with the most sophisticated content knowledge. The best teachers do know their material, but they also know a lot about the process. They have at their disposal a repertoire of instructional methods, strategies, and approaches—a repertoire they continually cultivate, just as they develop content knowledge. They never underestimate the power of the process to determine student learning outcomes.

Excerpted from Content Knowledge: A Barrier to Teacher Development, The Teaching Professor, November, 2007.