Monday, May 14, 2012

Less May Actually be More

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There has been an explosion in the amount of content that is seen in courses. More and more content is being pushed to students at all educational levels. Talk to almost any parent with school aged children and they will tell you about encountering content that is entirely new to them or that they did not see until college. As new information becomes available in disciplines, this information is almost immediately available on the Web. New information forces textbook publishers to redistribute content to keep textbooks from becoming too large for use. Supplemental content, learning activities, and test banks regularly accompany college textbooks. It is rare when there is not enough available content for a particular course. In fact, it is far more likely that too much content is readily available for students.

With all of this available content, it is logical that content experts saturate their courses with content. The content expert, almost by definition, knows a great deal of content and loves to expose others to the content. Content experts often come from doctoral programs that are rich in content. In some programs, reading one or two books a week is the norm. Almost all of these programs feature copious amounts of readings. In many of these "content saturated" environments, there is an almost singular focus on the acquisition of content. Participants often receive little or no instruction on how to teach others this content. Although we try to stay away from general statements, it is fairly safe to say "content experts routinely create other content experts. Content experts do not routinely develop and create experts on teaching the content."

Content experts, with little grounding in teaching methodologies, often cram courses with content. Unfortunately, they often expose others to so much content that learning may be impacted. In many cases, it is possible that vast amounts of content come at unsuspecting students at breakneck speed because there is so much content and only so many weeks in the semester. The phrase "an inch deep and a mile wide" accurately describes this superficial coverage of vast amounts of content. Almost no content is covered in a great amount of detail. You might also heare this discussed as a "coverage" approach, implying that the intent is to cover as much material as possible. As instructors, we all seek some level of transfer. We want students to learn something and then be able to apply this knowledge to other situations. The ability to transfer concepts and skills learned in one setting to a novel setting demonstrates a more sophisticated level of understanding than the ability to regurgitate factoids for a test. To take what we know and use it creatively in another setting or for another purpose is the type of learning we want for all students. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000, p. 58) state "...attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer." Whitehead (1929) mentioned "...let the main ideas which are introduced be few and important, and let them be thrown in every combination possible (p. 2).

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000, p. 31) stated:

An understanding of fundamental principles and ideas appears to be the main road to adequate transfer of training. To understand something as a specific instance of a more general case -- which is what understanding a more fundamental structure means -- is to have learned not only a specific thing but also a model for understanding other things like it that one may encounter.

Bruner (1960, p. 31) observed that teaching specific skills or topics without grounding them into the larger context of a field was uneconomical. He went on to say that such teaching made it difficult for students to generalize from what was learned to what might be encountered. He also suggested that information learned in this manner would not be retained.

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