It happens almost every time: I’ll be running a workshop on assignment design, or on curricular reform, or on day-to-day instruction. Someone will raise their hand and say they teach chemistry or sociology or art history. They’ll look bashful, or angry, or curmudgeonly. “I can’t do this,” they’ll say. “I don’t know about your field, but in my field, we have a lot of content to cover.”
Just to be clear: my field is Victorian literature, an era dominated by whole stacks of the longest novels ever written. Trust me: I have a lot to cover. I understand the pressures: this is the only course in my field most undergraduates will take. What’s more, though it’s generally not a prerequisite for other courses, it is an era to which much of the literature that follows it responds in one way or another. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t understand Victorian literature, you don’t understand literature. I get it.
But here’s the thing: as many before me have pointed out, content covered is not the same as content learned—or content retained. We can lecture perfectly, but everything we say won’t make it into our students’ notes. And even if it does make it into the notes, that doesn’t mean it’ll make it into the final exam. And even when our students do brilliantly on the exam, there’s nothing to say that that isn’t merely the consequence of pre-exam cramming, that all that “learning” won’t fade faster than the car ride home for the holidays. We’ve all had the experience of bringing up a topic in second-semester course: “Remember when I covered X last fall?” No response. “X? Remember X? We spent three weeks on it just before midterms?” Blank stares. “We had a song for X? And that silly dance? The college president came to class, and we taught her the X dance? We all dressed in clown suits?” One or two students may nod slowly, unconvincingly. You note, with a sinking heart, that they’re your most loyal students, the ones who try hardest to please you.
So yes, we know that content coverage only takes our students so far. But still we struggle to overcome our addiction to it. I suppose there’s something powerfully reassuring about delivering lots of material. It makes us feel like we’ve done our job and done it well. In an ethereal line of work—learning isn’t visible, after all, and our students come and go—that list of novels or concepts or labs on the syllabus feels surprisingly tangible. Look at this stuff we covered! This is good. We’ve accomplished something here.
Nevertheless, I think when we fetishize content, we lose something. Several things, in fact.
Consider this: years ago, I was at a conference when a colleague told me I had to talk to a professor from a small college in Texas. “They have this amazing first-year seminar,” she said. “Their National Survey of Student Engagement scores are through the roof!” I bought the professor a cup of coffee, and we talked. About 20 minutes in, I interrupted him and said, “Bob, I don’t get it: this sounds like a vanilla first-year seminar. How are you getting these amazing NSSE scores?”
“You’re right,” he said, “it’s your basic class. But I have two ironclad rules. The first is that the intellectual level of the course be set high. Students will be expected to perform and perform well. The second is that, once you’ve set the course syllabus, you go back and cut a quarter of what’s in there just to make sure students have the time to practice the skills they need to meet those expectations.”
Some of these skills, admittedly, are pretty basic: we can’t assume, for instance, that university students come to our campuses ready to read (or read in our fields) at a university level or that they come to our campuses ready to write (or write in our fields) at a university level. Bryan Dewsbury puts it this way: “When I’m teaching Intro Bio, it’s more ‘intro’ than ‘bio.’” In addition to ensuring that his students have the understanding and skills necessary to succeed in college, Dewsbury is paying attention to their burgeoning sense of themselves as students in STEM fields. And the necessity of attending to scholarly skills and intellectual attitudes doesn’t go away: even in advanced courses, we can never assume that our students can “think critically” or solve complex problems or draw conclusions from data. What’s more, if we’re not careful to be deliberate about teaching all of our students the practices and expectations of each of our very particular courses, we run the risk of reinforcing social and educational inequities, resulting in a learning environment where the A students are just fine and the C, D, and F students are not.
The second reason I’d give for pushing back on our impulse to cram our courses full of content is that we need to prepare students not just for what we know but for what we can’t know. The world is changing rapidly. Our understanding of the universe we occupy is, like the universe itself, constantly expanding. The content we’d need to cover in a perfect world is growing exponentially in every field: biology, art history, politics—even the classics. What’s more, many of the problems our students will be challenged with upon graduation didn’t exist 10 years ago: an ongoing pandemic; the reappearance of authoritarian nationalism in national and global politics; the dilution of fact through social media. Which means that many of the problems our students will be challenged with 10 years into the future don’t exist now.
All of which means that if a university education is going to be worthwhile, some substantial part of it must attend to preparing students for confusion, uncertainty, and frustration. We need to make space in our classes to allow students to stumble, to step back, to reconsider, re-hypothesize, reattempt. As a physics professor I worked with recently put it, “I plan to whittle down the extra details of the required topics in order to free up more time for students to investigate ways to solve problems . . . The process of trying to solve something that doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ will help them more than me getting in those extra ten slides on electromagnetic waves.”
Ten extra slides on electromagnetic waves. An alternative method for managing group dynamics. One more novel. There’s always more content we can add. But when and where will students have the opportunity to take the content they’ve learned and work with it, simultaneously strengthening their recall and honing the skills and habits of mind they’ll need when they enter a complicated world?
Content matters. We get that. But it’s not enough.
Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World.