May 31st, 2017

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.

  • John Inzero

    Dear Maryellen,
    I begin by writing a big thank you for your consistently engaging comments. They have helped me immeasurably learning about the college environment and teaching in it. My comment about spoon feeding will keep with the culinary metaphors here. I think you can put a nice meal on a table, explain to the diners what each dish is, and even give them an idea on how to go about eating it. But you don’t need to cut each piece and feed it directly to them. And this is what I try to accomplish in all the levels of classes that I teach. Tell them about the menu, but let them work out the chewing part.

    • Love your wording here: “I think you can put a nice meal on a table, explain to the diners what each dish is, and even give them an idea on how to go about eating it. But you don’t need to cut each piece and feed it directly to them.”

      In my case, I train trainers. I need them to be able to create the meal and serve it meaningfully to end users. But many of them come to me with no understanding of how to cook and serve a meal (continuing with the metaphor).

      So I provide an example (model the behavior I’m after), define the steps and terms with which we must become skilled/familiar based on the specific “meals” we serve, and provide overt and covert opportunities for them to practice until they can take some content (ingredients), create (cook them), and deliver satisfactorily.

      So I think I’m chunking and scaffolding the experience for them in a way that makes sense. I think I know what would constitute spoon-feeding and like others who have commented herein, I probably personalize the learning in those situations based on individual needs at the time. But I could be wrong.

  • Karen Bellnier

    This is a great opportunity for discussion. In my experience as an instructional designer, this is a conversation (structure/detail vs. flexibility/choice) we have with many faculty.

    An additional question I would add is when is it the faculty’s responsibility to meet students where they are and bring them to a level of competency around preparing academic work. Your students, particularly in early classes, will always come with a wide variety of preparedness – regardless of whether they “should” know x, y, or z upon coming into class.

    For example, if the class requires APA formatting and a student (or several) clearly demonstrate that they are not familiar with this format (perhaps didn’t do it in a first submission, didn’t demonstrate understanding based on feedback from the faculty in a second assignment), it seems fruitless and ineffectual to continue to just say “paper needs to be in APA -10pts. Perhaps the instructor has a writing center to direct the student too, but I would also suggest that this is part of teaching, to identify individual areas of need and provide guidance. Is that spoonfeeding or is that personalized learning?


  • Steve Markoff

    This insidious virus hides in many forms. The students request spoon feeding in many ways that aren’t obvious. For instance, I have colleagues that show multiple choice questions to the class as part of the lesson. Great retrieval practice, right? Wrong, when the same questions appear on the exam, it’s SPOON FEEDING.

    How bout the often requested “outline” of what is going to be on the exam. Some colleagues prepare the outline with lists of facts that are going to be exactly on the exam. The “outline” becomes a de-facto answer key! That’s SPOON FEEDING.

    Even the often-given “review session” becomes SPOON FEEDING when it is used to basically distribute the test questions and answers in advance. See that too.

    Grading becomes “SPOON FEEDING” when it allows students to drop all kinds of events off their scores and only keep the scoring elements for which the students did well.

    Granting extensive credit for information that the student does NOT know – massive curves that cause everyone to get A or B, unless they literally didn’t finish the course – constitute SPOON FEEDING.

    One of the things I do is have students send an email introducing themselves to me before the semester starts. When I ask what they liked or disliked about prior courses, many will say something like “I liked Professor X because the went over everything slowly until everyone understood before moving forward” (spoon feeding); or “I liked Prof. So-and-So because they told us ahead of time exactly what we needed to know for the test”; or “I loved Prof. Z because the exams were exactly the same problems from the homework.”

    One thing they get to do here is be totally selfish and tell me how I can be a better professor to THEM. It amazes me how many people use this as an invitation to say something like “I really like when the professor is very clear and tells us exactly what is going to be on the exam so I can study that.”

    Yet, the professors who engage in all of the above nonsense will not see that THEY are the SPOON FEEDERS.

    • Laura Shulman

      RE: an “outline” for exam prep… I provide students with a “study guide” where THEY have to fill in answers to questions. I include “terms to know” on the study guide but do not give (“spoon-feed”) them the definitions. They have to find those in the reading or my online lecture notes. Basically, I give them the specific sort of things I ask on exams but not in the same format and I do not give them the answers. Those they have to collect and glean from the reading and lectures.
      (sample of my study guide:

      • Steve Markoff

        This is good… guidance, not spoon feeding.

  • Laura Shulman

    When it comes to a syllabus, I think it is important to be specific with regard to requirements. At our school, we are told to think of the syllabus as a contract. “If it is not stated in the syllabus, we open the door to student complaints. If it IS stated in the syllabus, then we can hold students accountable and have recourse when they complain about a classroom policy.”

    I have also had students complain when my directions are vague (e.g. “due midweek” in an online class – does that mean Wednesday or Thusday? Personally, I don’t really care and I give a “grace” period anyway). I have also had students complain that my directions are overly complicated. Well, if you want specifics then that does tend to get overly lengthy and complicated. Seems I can’t win either way.

    But I would agree that too many details and specifics (too much “spoon-feeding”) leaves little room for student creativity and originality in interpreting an assignment and producing truly superior work. They do only and exactly what they are asked to do and then complain when we don’t give them an A because it does not stand out as going above and beyond expectations. Question: is providing a specific grading rubric for students to reference while doing an assignment too much “spoon-feeding”?

    Then there is always the problem of having many students in one class, some of which NEED more spoon-feeding than others; while other, more advanced students, resent all the rules and requirements that come along with “spoon-feeding”. Finding just the right degree of direction is most challenging indeed (“can’t please all the students, all the time”). It might be called the “Goldilocks” conundrum: finding the degree of direction that is “just right” – not too much, not too little.

    I like the idea of “scaffolding” – start out with more help and gradually take the “training wheels” away. This can mean that lower level courses will have more “spoon-feeding” than higher level courses. It can also mean that ANY course will start the semester with more “spoon-feeding” and end with less. This does not apply to the syllabus (which always comes at the start of the semester) but can apply to directions for specific assigments. Earlier assignments might provide more specific guidance than later assignments. The later assignments might be more open-ended so as to assess overall student creativity and originality in interpretation and application of course content given a specific but broad task.

  • goodsensecynic

    Let’s not forget that “spoon-feeding” requires thin gruel.

    Much of the “cutting-edge educational technology”, the insistence on measurable “learning outcomes,” the exclusion of “controversial” curriculum content and fretting about student “sensitivities” is part of an overall corporate strategy that’s implemented in the schools, colleges and universities, but is of far broader importance.

    Among other things, it serves the ideology of “neoliberalism” and the effort to enhance the “student experience” while, at the same time, producing uncritical consumers, compliant producers, subordinate workers and submissive citizens.

  • Manoj Chakravarty

    The difficult issue is to identify what ‘spoon-feeding’ really is. In traditional curricula governed by curricular objectives and outcomes, it is evident that a certain degree of over-enthusiastic didactic encouragement is only too obvious. This essentially obfuscates the degree of pedagogic support that can be offered safely so as not to be considered spoon-feeding. Various modes of teaching and learning that provide a wider platform to include interactive learning, group-based, task-based, team-based and problem-based approaches reduce the possibility of over-enthusiastic support. One of the major and conspicuous setbacks in teaching strategy that lends itself to a substantial degree of spoon-feeding is ‘teaching to the test’. The other notable setback is to lay a major stress on assessment rather than teaching and learning, and this creates a degree of examination anxiety that automatically and indirectly pressurizes faculty to take up to discernible degrees of spoon-feeding. It is well known in academia that examinations drive learning, and thus, as long as the stress is predominantly on examinations, the issue of spoon-feeding is here to stay. A major reason of uncertainty regarding courses that promote this practice is the improper construction and interpretation of objectives/outcomes.

  • Vail McGuire

    I think your point that the spoon feeding metaphor is limited in its usefulness is well taken. You also make the point that a certain degree of independence should be expected from students who are more advanced in their academic careers, and I also agree with that — but what I found myself asking is, do we actively work to develop that sense of independence in our students? Do we think about scaffolding those attributes of pro-active autonomy throughout a student’s college experience as carefully as we consider scaffolding academic learning and achievements? If it is a given that most of our students arrive with certain expectations regarding how much teacher assistance they need, then how can we work deliberately and intentionally toward developing more independence in them as they progress from 100-level to 400-level courses and beyond?