Covering Content vs. Uncovering Content

A photo of an open book.

Image by Dorothy Joseph via Pixabay

Does the following scenario sound familiar to you?

Jorge is an instructor in introductory biology for science majors. His syllabus is structured where each week corresponds to a chapter in the textbook. However, his class frequently falls behind schedule, and the new intro biology textbooks just seem to keep getting bigger and bigger. Additionally, his colleagues are saying that the students from the introductory classes come into upper level classes never seeming to recall what they learned from their introductory classes. How can Jorge keep up with his ever-changing field, but not overwhelm his students? How can he help them better recall content?

Most instructors have difficulty deciding how to select content for their courses. Knowledge related to disciplines is unlimited and ever increasing; and instructors often feel locked into “covering” content. Because of the large and unending amount of content in a discipline though, one can never cover all content. In sum: “To overview any discipline in fifteen weeks is to fly over the content at great heights and at high speeds” (Weimer, 2013a, p. 117). Further, covering content at great speed rarely leads to enduring learning: “Research continues to document that when faced with a blizzard of information, students memorize, give back the details on exams, and then mostly forget them” (p. 119).

Instead of covering content though, what if instructors uncovered content? Uncovering content leads towards an entirely different approach to course design, learning, and teaching. Uncovering content assists learners in developing a base of knowledge necessary to accomplish course outcomes. In this article, we overview how to approach content from the focus of uncovering versus covering.

One way to approach the difficulty of selecting content is to first consider the role that content plays in a course. Per Weimer (2014), content can be used as follows:

  • Developing essential learning skills that have generic components that transcend fields and characteristics unique to each discipline, like critical thinking.
  • Promoting understanding of how knowledge is acquired, advanced, and assessed within a field.
  • Showing how a field is organized, the basic principles on which it rests, and how those in the field think about what they study.
  • Helping students discover themselves as learners.

Where does this lead Jorge, our perplexed instructor in the vignette above? Answer: It leads him directly to the course goals and outcomes and the prior knowledge and experiences of his students. What does Jorge want his students to take away from his biology course for science majors? Do these goals specify that the students are to leave this course able to recall content? Or do they specify that students in this course should be able to think like a biologist which could include:

  • Developing learning skills related to biology.
  • Understanding how a biologist acquires, advances, and assesses knowledge.
  • Knowing how the field of biology is organized.
  • Knowing the basic principles that frame the field of biology.
  • Knowing how experts in biology think about their learning.

In addition, Jorge needs to learn more about his students. If his students are novices and have little background in his field, then loading them with new content will overload memory and their capacity to use the content. If his students are more advanced and much of the content he is presenting is merely review, they will not have the content they need to think critically or support arguments (Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, 2006).

Therefore, to select appropriate content for the course, Jorge needs to consider the goals and outcomes he intends or his department intends for the course and the prior knowledge and experiences of his learners. After Jorge has done this, he can then consider designing activities based on this information. Shank (2009) provides several suggestions for doing this in a course:

  • Students can analyze key concepts on a weekly basis and report back to the class.
  • Students can participate in preparing a glossary of course terminology using a wiki.
  • Students can develop and share a list of annotated bibliographies.
  • Students can contribute to a question each week that works with areas where the students are confused.
  • Students can post their course notes online using a blog.
  • Students can describe the course content in their own words for others.
  • Students can use scenarios based on course content as objects of small group online discussion.
  • Students can use data from the internet to solve real world problems related to course content.
  • Students can develop visual representations of a core concept, such as a graph, mind maps, infographics, etc.

References

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F., and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.