Escaping the “Covering Content” Narrative

Title: The Tyranny of Content: “Content Coverage” as a Barrier to Evidence-Based Teaching Approaches and Way to Overcome It

Authors: Christina I. Petersen, Paul Baepler, Al Beitz, Paul Ching, Kristen S. Gorman, Cheryl L. Neudauer, William Rozaitis, J.D. Walker, Deb Wingert

First author’s institution: University of Minnesota

Journal: Life Science Education 19:ar17 (2020)

If you’ve talked to your colleagues about active learning or attended a seminar about active learning, you’ve probably heard a comment something along the lines of “I’ve love to try that, but there isn’t time in the course. I’d have to cut something.

Underlying this and similar comments is the assumption that instructors have a list of content to cover the course. If they want to add additional activities to their course, they would need to remove certain topics to make room. After all, courses as part of a sequence require students come in with certain knowledge, departments and programs have expectations of what students should learn in their courses, and graduate and professional programs often require applicants to take a test of their knowledge as part of the admissions process (think the physics GRE or the MCAT).

Yet, an additional assumption is that covering content is equivalent to students learning the content. From a multitude of studies about lecturing, we know that isn’t true. (We covered one of the most well known studies in physics in a previous post)

Instead of focusing your course around covering content, the authors of today’s paper recommend switching to a learner-centered approach where students learning is the goal of the course. They recommend three overarching strategies for making your course learner-centered. While their paper is focused on life science courses, most of their recommendations apply to physics courses as well.

1) Identify the Core Concepts and Competencies

Many courses are designed around the layout of the textbook. The course starts with chapter 1 and goes as far as possible during the semester. While this approach works for covering content, it is not ideal for learning.

Instead of using the textbook to guide the topics in your course, develop your own list of major ideas which you hope your students will have learned by the end of the course. Then using these major ideas, construct your course activities to help students learn and apply those ideas (this is known as backward course design if you want to learn more).

For example, the NSF-supported Six Ideas That Shaped Physics project created a series of textbooks for introductory physics using this approach. Using only 6 major ideas articulated in 10 words or less, a course using this approach can include classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and relativity, or nearly the standard curriculum for physics majors.

When deciding which core ideas you should include in your course, you might want to consider what is relevant to students’ lives or current events. For physics courses, that might be the latest exoplanet discoveries, a new ride at a nearby amusement park, or a school sports team.

Likewise, consider using “exemplar” cases to highlight a phenomenon and allow students to apply what they learned there to other problems. A common example in physics is an inclined plane for teaching the decomposition of force vectors. Even though there are infinitely many problems that could require decomposing force vectors, the inclined plane serves as a relatively simple example that teaches students everything they would need to know to solve any 2D force problem.

When planning your course, make sure to keep the number of core concepts relatively small. Remember that these are the big ideas and not the details.

At this point, you might be thinking that to frame your course around a few key concepts will require you to cut some concepts out and it will harm students in the long run. While this concept makes sense, research suggests the opposite may actually occur. In an introductory biology lab course (and anecdotally, some instructors claim to have found the same in their physics courses), one study found reducing the number of facts and instead focusing on inquiry learning around a few concepts resulted in improved performance on a standardized exam, including around topics that weren’t covered in the lab course.

2) Create an Organizing Framework

Now that you’ve determined the core concepts, you will need to think about how to organize these for students. As experts, we know how different concepts are related. For example, we see that introductory kinematics is a special case of Newton’s Laws with constant force, conservation of momentum is a special case when the net outside force is 0, and changes in energy are due to forces via work. Yet to students, kinematics, Newton’s Laws, conservation of momentum, and conservation of energy are distinct ideas.

One method of creating an organizing framework is to create visuals that show relations between concepts. For example, the website HyperPhysics shows sample concept maps between common ideas undergraduate physics. Perhaps your organizing framework would look similar or maybe you would use an outline instead. For example, start with the core concepts and add the details as you cover them in the course.

Alternatively, you could frame your course around a guiding question. For example, at my undergraduate university, there was a course about finding extraterrestrial life. The guiding question was if we want to find life in the universe, where should we look? From this question, the professor was able to explore topics as diverse as genetics, the polarity of water, plate tectonics, and habitable zones for exoplanets. In each case, the topic was one method at getting at an answer to the question.

3) Teach students how to learn in your discipline

Think back to when you were a college freshman and how you went about learning and solving problems compared to how you do it now. If you are like me, there are probably a few instances where you can’t believe you actually did something that way (don’t ask me about my first approach to determining if an experimental distribution was consistent with its theoretical normal distribution). We all had to learn how to develop new skills within our discipline. Often, the tools that worked in high school didn’t work as well in college.

Likewise, students often need explicit instruction or guidance in doing so. Think about evaluating sources for example. An underlying goal of any science course is that students can evaluate evidence whether from an experiment or from a real-world source like a news article. One activity you could add is teaching students how to find reliable sources and how to evaluate those. One of the most well known examples is evaluating the dangers of the chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide (or as you and I know it, water). You can even model the process when a student asks a question you don’t know the answer to. For example, how would you go about finding the answer.

Just as important is helping students develop their metacognitive or reflecting on their thinking skills. For example, you could use exam wrappers to help students reflect on their study strategies after taking an exam or quiz. Additionally, you can model your own metacognitive processes when solving in-class problems.

Imagine you are trying to solve an inclined problem and pulley problem where the goal is to find the velocity of a block as it slides down the plane. You might start by walking through the available tools you have: “There aren’t any collisions so momentum probably isn’t useful. There’s friction, a string and tension, so maybe forces will work. But forces go with acceleration, not velocity so maybe I need to use kinematics too.”

Finally, make sure to emphasize the process rather than the answer. Consider having students reflect on and evaluate other people’s solutions and propose alternative approaches. Many introductory physics problems can be solved using a variety of approaches (for example, finding the speed of a ball dropped from a bridge could be a kinematics problem or an energy conservation problem).

Closing Points

While covering content may be the dominant approach in education, it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it is possible to center learning instead of content in a course. Hopefully today’s paper provided some inspiration to rethink the courses you teach.

Header image by 정수 이 from Pixabay

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