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

Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#327 What is the Most Difficult Step We Must Take to Become Great Teachers?


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 [http://www.ntlf.com/] 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

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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
E-mail: nelson1@indiana.edu