Volume 9 Number 4
How Much Content? Are We Asking The Wrong Question?
Mary L. Beaudry, Director
Faculty Teaching Center
University of Massachusetts Lowell
How much content is enough? That is the most agonizing course planning question dogging today's college professors. Because in the past the amount of content was considered an indicator of course credibility and because knowledge is expanding in every field, we continue to believe we must squeeze more and more material into our courses. But in today's climate of accountability, this is the wrong question.
Course credibility discussions are centering now on what students have learned, not on what a course covers. This means that content quantity is being replaced by the quality of student learning as a respected indicator of course credibility.
The bottom line for credibility critics today is not how much the course covers, but how students are different after they have taken a course. In other words, what do students know and what are they able to do after the course that they did not know and were not able to do beforehand? Whether we like it or not, the focus is on usable knowledge. Moreover, to evaluate the quality of student learning, assessment fever is sweeping across every campus in the land.
Fortunately, we now know a good deal about the learning process. Research tells us that the key to acquiring usable knowledge is organization. Because of this, the content question has changed from "How much content is enough?" to "How should my course content be organized?"
Consider this. Have you ever noticed that some students remember minute details but seem to miss the most important concepts in a course? I have, and I believe that the way we organize content or fail to organize it affects what and how much students learn.
If we structure course content so that students can focus on a few important concepts, we help them to form useful mental frameworks upon which to build more complete conceptions later. But when students fail to perceive the larger elements of content, they may grasp only interesting details.
Research shows that the short term memory, where the learning process begins, can hold only a few items at a time. This means that large amounts of disorganized content are difficult for students to process. If we organize course content in ways that reduce the number of discrete items to be learned, the quality of learning is likely to improve.
One important organizing strategy called chunking combines numerous bits of material into a few large entities. By grouping items to be learned into large chunks under an umbrella concept, we can facilitate the learning process.
It is important to choose for umbrella concepts those that provide a structure to help students understand a particular academic field. Not a new idea but more fully understood now for its usefulness in promoting learning, chunking can take various forms. Textbooks and other publications can be a quick source of possible ideas for chunking strategies.
For example, Lawrence Cremin chunked his definitive and voluminous study of American education into three easily identified historical periods: Colonial, National, and Metropolitan. These descriptive chronological chunks have self-explanatory names that can help students to learn when things happened and to understand why American education today is unfolding as it is.
The chunking of content helps students to develop structured knowledge that can become the foundation for future learning in a field. Structured knowledge can be retrieved and transferred for use in new applications in much the same way that material systematically stored in a file cabinet can be located more easily than scattered material. Unstructured or disorganized knowledge,
on the other hand, is difficult to retrieve and may be lost even before it can be worked into students' long-term memory. Structured knowledge helps learners to build in new information as they encounter it. In today's information-rich society requiring lifelong learning, structuring knowledge is increasingly important.
There are several ways to communicate the organization of content in a particular course to students. The most familiar is the outline. Some professors include an outline indicating major and minor divisions and subdivisions as part of the syllabus. Provided that the major components are not too numerous, a well organized course outline can help students to learn. Since an outline is verbal and usually linear in its organization, adding a visual organizing tool may be useful to students.
Since as much as seventy-five percent of what is learned comes through the sense of sight, visual representations of course content may be more helpful than outlines alone in promoting student learning. One way to take advantage of the power of visual learning is to develop a course graphic. A course graphic can be used as a supplement to (or perhaps a substitute for) an outline to communicate content organization directly to students.
A course graphic is a simplified representation of course content. A good course graphic does not include too much. It identifies major components of the course and their relationship to other important elements. A course graphic introduces students to the instructor's organization of the subject matter.
To illustrate, the instructor for a graduate course, The History of American Education, developed the course graphic seen on page 2.
At the center of the graphic is Cremin's interactive perspective on history. Running through all three periods (like spokes on a wheel) are four recurring issues/themes in American education. These themes connect Cremin's perspective with current conditions, etc., shown at the outer edge of the graphic. This graphic shows students that these four recurring themes have roots in the past and that they continue to affect current thinking about American education. Using a graphic of this type, the professor can add or remove a number of themes (spokes) according to course content.
The syllabus is a good place to introduce a course graphic. Helping students to see larger elements of course content in relation to each other at the outset is a good idea. Without some sort of organizer to separate details from important concepts, students can experience content in a new course like an avalanche of undifferentiated pieces of information. By organizing content visually, instructors can prevent the kind of discouragement students feel when they are overwhelmed by too much content at the start of a course. Thus, a course graphic not only facilitates the learning process but can have a motivational effect as well.
Some professors use a course graphic to promote active learning; that is, they use it to engage students with course material in some problem-solving way. They invite students to question the course graphic, adapt it, explain it, expand one portion of it, etc. These kinds of content manipulations and related conversations help students to integrate new and prior knowledge and sort through misconceptions and gaps they may have had.
While initially impressive, content-heavy courses lacking conceptual organization may add little to students' usable knowledge. For this reason, they lack credibility by today's assessment-based standards. Helping students to perceive content in an organized way is an important aspect of effective teaching. By carefully structuring the subject matter of their courses, professors can help students to retain more usable knowledge. With organized knowledge structures in place, students are better able to learn large amounts of content in a course, to retrieve it, and to continue learning in that field.
Additional examples of course graphics and the syllabi they support may be found at
www.uml.edu/centers/FTC/lct.html under III., in the larger discussion of "Learner-Centered Teaching."
Mary Beaudry, Director
Faculty Teaching Center
Southwick Hall, Suite 304
University of Massachusetts Lowell
One University Avenue
Lowell, MA 01854
Telephone: (978) 934-2928
Fax: (978) 934-4026
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