March 23rd, 2010

How Many Concepts?


Did you see the nice collection of comments posted in response to the blog entry on rubrics? I love it when you add your comments! Something more on rubrics will be coming shortly but there was also a blog on critical thinking with the advice that a course should contain no more than 50 new concepts. My good friend and colleague Larry replied that he thought that was too many. In an email note to me he was a bit more blunt wondering where in the world that number came from. I expect it’s an arbitrary figure—somebody’s good guess. It may well be wrong. Quibbling over it is probably not worth the time, but it does raise several other points well worth consideration.

How many major concepts are you covering in the courses you teach? Do you know? Have you ever tried to list them? I have to be honest and say I never did. But I do see how beneficial it might have been. First off, generating the list seems like a very effective way to clarify what the course is really about—to get a handle on the content domain of the course. Then, with the list in hand, you can prioritize the concepts, maybe see a different way of ordering them or a way of better using content to support them.

The question of how many concepts is enough and how many is too many can better be addressed once the concepts are laid out in a list. It may be obvious that there are just too many. Just this morning I found Larry’s points about needing time to process and practice reiterated in in a Journal of Chemical Education article. “A continuous presentation of chemistry concepts, one after the other, gives students little time to process the information into long-term memory. Many students just give up trying to understand what is presented in lecture, concentrate on writing down every word that is written on the board, overhead, or PowerPoint slide, and resolve to try to make sense of it later.” (p. 675) The author identifies this approach as one that creates barriers to learning.

Knowing how many concepts are being “covered” in a course and wondering what the “right” amount might be is another way to confront the question I keep challenging teachers to ask: “How much content is enough?”

Reference: Bunce, D. M. (2009). Teaching is more than lecturing and learningis more than memorizing. Journal of Chemical Education, 86 (6), 674-680.

  • Rich Young

    I'm just doing a little math and 50 concepts means an average of more than three a week for a three credit course. If by concept we mean a framework that can be used for analysis then 50 sounds to be a bit of a stretch. However, if by concept we are talking about a key idea or fact, then perhaps it is not too many.

    To put this into my world, I teach a capstone course in competitive strategy. There are probably 10-12 really basic analytical tools that are used, some are nothing more than variations on other themes. When taught effectively the students do need to be able to apply these in a number of different ways using various scenarios and circumstances. Students are told up front that it is a tools course where they are provided with frameworks and some facts, but then the content is really the application. It has been taught this way, albeit with variations in the cases that are selected for assignments, for nearly 10 years.