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Does teaching sometimes feel like a struggle between time and topics? 

Certainly content matters it's an integral part of every course. As Daniel Willingham (2010) asserts, “We must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills” (p. 29). However, loads of content does not make for a more rigorous course, and while It can seem like the more we cover, the better prepared our students will be to meet the demands of subsequent courses, licensing exams, and the workplace- but more can sometimes equal less.  It's simply not true that the more we cover, the more students learn. In fact, when presented with too much information at once, students can experience cognitive overload. The research on content coverage further suggests that while students may be able to recall key concepts on exams, they lack the deeper understanding needed to apply these concepts (Willingham, 2010).  

Why else might you reconsider content coverage?

As the science of learning literature has concluded, “The one who does the work does the learning” (Doyle, 2011). And the work most of us really hope students will do is develop interconnected knowledge and skills over time, and then reflect on their learning and apply it in the future. When students actively engage in using content to practice the skills we teach, “a more complex and connected relationship between content and learning” arises (Weimer, 2002). By shifting from covering content to developing knowledge alongside complex skills, such as problem-solving and critical thinking, we can shift our focus to higher-order learning goals instead of rote memorization and regurgitation of information. 

Weimer (2002) describes a common concern regarding in-class opportunities for students to use course content: "Many times at the end of a faculty workshop on active learning, a participant will say… 'I know you're right. I really should get students doing more, but I just can't… I just have too much material to cover’”. But Weimer reminds them that the two are mutually reinforcing; students learn the content while they practice using it.

Where do we go from here?

Clarify the Priorities

Students come to us with a wide range of strengths and gaps in learning; however, since no one course can address all of their needs, we must consider and prioritize our course learning goals, keeping them manageable and realistic. This demands that we continuously ask ourselves:

  • What concepts are most important for students to learn in this course?
  • What skills do students most need to develop in order to make the best use of the concepts?
  • How many skills can we realistically help them practice?
  • What will stand the test of time given the dynamic nature of knowledge and information?

Only after we have identified a handful of critical learning areas to target, can we begin to consider the integrated activities that would best support students’ learning. 

Regularly Incorporate Activities

After determining course goals related to both content and skills, consider what kinds of activities offer students an opportunity to make progress toward those goals, whether in person or online. Class activities do not need to take long to be valuable; they can take as little as one minute. For example, you can ask students to read about a particular topic as homework and then incorporate a related activity in class, followed by a discussion that clarifies concepts, addresses misconceptions, and allows students to reflect on their learning. One popular way for you and your students to test and discuss their understanding of course material is via Kahoot! — a free game-based learning tool that students enjoy.

Promote Self-Directed Learning

As we all know, times have changed; information is now disseminated and available at an increasingly rapid rate, making it impossible to teach students everything they need to know about a particular topic. Because they will be responsible for learning new information in the workforce, our students must leave college knowing “as much about learning content as they know about the content itself,” and “able to access information, find resources, organize them, and, perhaps, most important, evaluate the ocean of information that now exist[s]” at their fingertips (Weimer, 2002). If knowing how to learn is a requirement for success, we must provide opportunities for students to practice and develop this skill, increasing their understanding of and confidence in themselves as self-directed lifelong learners.  

In rethinking the coverage-learning relationship, we realize that through reflection and careful planning, we can move toward learning experiences that are transformative and transferrable, preparing students for a future as self-directed learners.