A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
5 minute read
As the end of August approaches, many faculty are busy preparing their syllabi for the fall term. Back when I was on Facebook (a few years ago I decided that this particular social networking tool was neither good for my productivity nor my mental health), I sometimes saw colleagues at other universities posting their syllabui for their upcoming courses at this time of year.
One of these syllabi really stood out to me. It was for an upper-division philosophy course taught by Elizabeth Barnes, a professor of philosophy (and total badass) at the University of Virginia. The reading schedule for the course was very simple: there was exactly one assigned reading per week for 14 weeks. I blinked in disbelief. The norm for upper-division and graduate courses in my discipline is significantly more reading than this: at least two papers per week, sometimes 80 or 100 pages in total. (NB: philosophy is extremely laborious reading.)
Why was she covering so little? I wondered. And what on Earth was she doing with all of that class time? Discovering the answer to those questions led to a dramatic shift in my own pedagogy.
As a newbie assistant professor, my syllabi were burgeoning with topics and readings. They were comprehensive, even beautiful (everything fit together just so!). They were also a total pipe dream. I’ve since learned that there are good pedagogical reasons to prioritize depth over breadth. (Elizabeth’s sparse syllabus puts this insight into action.) As a result, I’ve reduced how much content I cover in a semester dramatically.
Here are two reasons why you should do the same.
A jam-packed syllabus aims to cover huge amounts of information, so very little time can be devoted to any reading or topic before the professor must whiz students on to the next one. But even the very best students need time and support to gain more than a superficial understanding of the material.
Research on just how much course content students retain is sobering. For example, one study of marketing majors taking a course in consumer behavior found that students forgot most of the content covered in the course within two years. This study is not an outlier. “Research continues to document that when faced with a blizzard of information, students memorize, give back details on exams, and then mostly forget them” (Weimer: 119). There are real cognitive constraints on how much new information students can remember and for how long. Covering a high volume of material at a break-neck pace stacks the deck against knowledge retention by producing learning conditions that favor forgetting.
If you are resistant to cutting content, think of it this way: “The topics that are only covered in passing are not meaningfully retained. Thus, we have already been giving them up; it just has not been obvious. To avoid giving up everything, a few important topics must be covered more in depth” (Bacon and Stewart: 189). In other words, you’re already sacrificing content because quickly reporting an abundance of information to students in a lecture isn’t producing learning. If we want our students to learn, we’ve got to slow down, and go deep. If we slow down and go deep, then we must let go of some of the content our courses aim to “cover.”
When I first began teaching as a new faculty member, my classes were lecture-heavy by necessity: lecturing was the only way I could cover the quantity of material I had chosen to include in the syllabus. I prepared for class by rigorously studying the readings, and constructing elaborate slides as visual accompaniments to my lectures. Because I was covering material that I’d never taught before, this practice was seriously time consuming. It also gave me back problems from which I still have not recovered (really).
A lot about my teaching has changed since I started cutting back on content. I don’t do nearly as much lecturing as I used to and spend the majority of class time engaging students in active learning activities. But even if you prefer to continue using a lecture-based format, reducing the amount of content you cover reduces how much time you spend preparing to cover that content.
Now it is true that even if you cover less content, you’re still going to have to fill class time somehow. But I have found that it is significantly less time consuming to add depth in place of breadth—especially if you combine lecturing with some really easy active learning techniques that are suitable for classes large and small.
Some examples of these are:
Students work on their own, and then with a partner, to answer a question or solve a problem, followed by a class discussion.
Students spent 5-10 minutes answering a question or responding to a prompt, followed by a class discussion.
Pause periodically throughout your lecture to ask students if they have questions. Wait in silence for students to respond for at least 3-5 seconds after calling for questions. If your call for questions is still met with blank stares and silence after 10 seconds or so, try sharing a Google doc and give students some time to contribute questions anonymously (if students have access to your slides, you can do this really easily by including a QR code).
These strategies engage students in deeper learning during class and do not require much preparation on your part. When used regularly, not only do they enhance retention, they allow you to devote less time and energy to preparing lecture notes and slides that take students on an exhausting forced march through mountains of content week after week.
Faculty interested in doing less lecturing, and incorporating more active learning should check out these handbooks, which are filled with easy-to-use techniques that are applicable to a diversity disciplines: