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What is the Most Difficult Step We Must Take to Become Great Teachers?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Students given the lower level of new content learned and retained the lecture information better.


The article below makes a strong case for "less is more" when it

comes to the delivery of course content. It is number 12 in a series

of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum

newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission

Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of

teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can

check it out at [] The on-line edition of the

Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from

colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the

highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum

Newsletter, May 2001, Volume 10, Number 4. ? Copyright 1996-2001.

Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with James Rhem & Associates,

Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Scholarly Reflection About Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


----------------- 1,408 words ------------------


Craig Nelson, Indiana University


Although I have known many quite good teachers, I would only regard a

couple of them as truly great. One of these, Tracy Sonneborn, once

said of research that it was the closest thing he knew to prolonged

orgasm and that as soon as he found anything that was more fun, he

was going to switch. Tracy's guest presentations in my classes

brought such a gripping intensity and evocation of insight to the

classroom that it seemed as if the students were suspended a few

inches above their seats.

Tracy's comment is core to what has been for me the greatest paradox

in learning to teach better. I regard the content I choose to teach

as mostly quite fascinating, very exciting and fundamentally

important. And it seems to me that this sense of fascination,

excitement and importance is the core of much of what students

respond to most positively in my teaching. But they are also the

core of the biggest problem I have had to struggle with in my

teaching-the tendency to try to teach much more than can be learned

and, thereby, to also lose the students so deeply among the details

that they fail to grasp the larger picture. In much of academia, a

tendency to try to cover too much is encapsulated in traditional

curricula and courses-in the academic cultures we are inducted into

as part of our undergraduate and graduate training.


Because we find the material so fascinating and important we often

learn it ourselves almost instantaneously and may have trouble

recognizing the extent to which we "cover" too much content. However,

I suspect that most faculty can remember courses where they were

forced to learn so much content that they retained almost nothing.

For me the paradigm example remains a cell biology course I took in

graduate school--one taught in triplets of a name, a year, and a

fact. I learned these with mnemonic matrices-matrices that I had no

intention of remembering long enough to exit the examination room.

Nor did I! It is often clear that many of our own students are

engaged in similar "bulimic learning"-they memorize the material,

"regurgitate" it on the exams, and forget it so promptly and

completely that no mental nourishment remains.


A conclusion that many of us are presenting substantially more than

the optimal amount of content is also supported by some of the

scholarship on teaching and learning. From their comparison of

content intensive major courses with more concept focused non majors

courses, Sundberg and Dini concluded: "The most surprising, in fact

shocking, result...was that the majors completing their course did

not perform significantly better than the corresponding cohort of

non-majors" (M.D. Sundberg and M.L. Dini. 1993. "Science Majors v

Non-majors: Is There a Difference?" Journal of College Science

Teaching. Mar / Apr 1993: 299-304). They suggest that we should

reduce the information density in major courses so that it matches

that which we have usually regarded as appropriate only for

non-majors. Similarly, Russell, et al., compared lectures in which

90% v 70% v 50% of the sentences disseminated new information

(remaining time in each case was used for restating, highlighting

significance, giving more examples, and relating the material to the

student's prior experience).

Students given the lower level of new content learned and retained

the lecture information better (I.J. Russell, W.D. Hendricson & R.J.

Herbert. 1984. "Effects of Lecture Information Density on Medical

Student Achievement." Journal of Medical Education 59: 881-889).

I have found it hard to fully implement the obvious conclusion

because that means letting go of much of the content that I love so


However, a similar conclusion, "less is more," follows from much of

the other scholarship of teaching and learning. For example, if

students learn more when we incorporate active learning into our

lecture periods or replace the lectures with active learning classes,

then we obviously must cover less material in order to teach more (I

summarized key pieces of this literature here earlier, NTLF 10 (1):

7-8). Similarly, if we are to concentrate on higher order critical

thinking, as I advocated here previously (NTLF 9 (5): 7-8), we have

to reduce coverage to allow time for thinking. And to get effective

commitment, we may have to use cases or even service learning-an

approach well exemplified by Jane Harris Aiken's "Striving to Teach

Justice, Fairness and Morality'" (1997, Clinical Law Review 4: 1-64;

see my summary here earlier, NTLF 10 (2): 10-11).


I have developed a few tools that help me do this. One is to use

reading study guides. When I assign a chapter or article, I usually

write out the key questions I would like the students to be able to

answer as a result of doing the reading. This is helpful in several

ways. First, chapters in texts often cover much more material than

students can meaningfully learn-I didn't realize this clearly until I

found that I could write as many as 1150 short essay questions from

some single chapters I was assigning. This caused me to ask what,

exactly, I wanted the students to get.

The typical way to constrain the scope of the content in many fields

is to limit exams to the material that the teacher can articulate in

lectures. This leads to rapid delivery, to high densities of

sentences that disseminate new information (compare above) and to a

tendency to allow little or no time for processing or questions.

Giving the students a selective set of questions over the readings

and telling them that the relevant questions on the exam will be

drawn from among those questions means that I only need to treat in

class those aspects of that material that are difficult for the

students to learn directly from the reading. The study questions

also facilitate effective small-group studying outside of class.

A second powerful technique is to explicitly designate one of the

class periods each week for extended, structured, small-group work.

This requires me to select particular material, readings, exercises,

problems or cases for deeper processing.

I also have found it very useful to explain to other faculty what I

am trying to do and the extent to which I do or do not have any

evidence of how it is working. This is often most useful with

faculty from other areas, as they are more likely to ask questions

that reveal my tacit assumptions.


My encounters with my colleague Tracy Sonneborn's teaching arose from

a case where I was presenting the results of one of his elegant

studies of multiple sexes in protozoa (where mating type A can mate

with B, or C, or...but not with other As). I asked him if he could

come to my class to present his own work for as little time as he

wanted to give. He said that he was too busy, as it would take him a

whole day to prepare. I emphasized that I didn't need a literature

review, just a quick summary of one nice study.

He said that I didn't understand, that it would take him a day to

prepare, but that (to get me out of his way) he would do it next

year. I remembered and, although he protested again about the day of

preparation, he came to class. Rather than presenting the final

elegant experiment and its results (which usually had taken me about

10-15 minutes in class), he started with what they had known

initially and asked the students what they would have hypothesized

and what experiment they would have designed.

He then agreed and presented the results of that experiment. He noted

that the results did not support the hypothesis but did provide new

information and asked what they would now hypothesize and how they

would now hypothesize and they would test the new hypothesis. This

continued for several rounds until a hypothesis emerged that was

supported by the data (and eventually published). In 75 minutes he

interactively taught about 15 minutes worth of conclusion and more

than 75 minutes on the process of science! Funny thing-the process

was much more exciting than the conclusion. Another funny

thing-Tracy's course for non-majors had a reputation for stealing the

best majors from other departments and converting them to biology

majors. Maybe there is another way to use our enthusiasm than to

dump vast quantities of conclusions on the students?


Craig E. Nelson Biology, Jordan Hall 142

1001 E. 3rd St.

Indiana University

Bloomington, IN 47405-3700

Telephone: (812) 855-1345