As a postdoc I had relatively little exposure to teaching (probably a standard quantity for a postdoc). Sure, there were a couple of project students to supervise, the odd grad student floating around, a couple of lectures and some pizza fueled marking but there wasn’t much teaching (or outreach which is another post entirely). I did, however, attend a seminar by Carl Weimann on teaching physics (related to the establishment of the CWSEI http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/). By the end of that postdoc, I’d had the good fortune to hear Prof Weimann’s seminar twice – things take a while to sink into my head, and I’d landed an academic job back in the UK. I hadn’t realised just how influential those seminars were going to be but looking back on ten years of being a lecturer/senior lecturer, it’s clear now they were.
So what was the seminar on?
Cut content. Teach concepts and ‘think like a physicist’.
It seems silly to write a long content dense blogpost to elaborate on this but I’ll have a go.
How we convey information (=content) is generally a limiting step in learning. Too little information and learning is curtailed, and historically this is the origin of the lecture: one copy of a text book and a sage on a stage to read it out. And as technology advanced from printing presses to powerpoint, conveying information became easier and easier and our expectations became greater. Powerpoint is singled out as an evil of lecturing but that’s principally because it facilitates information delivery, far more information delivery than chalk and talk permits. Chalk and talk is a self-limiting means of conveying information in a teaching scenario. Too much information curtails learning, it makes learning overwhelming and leads to strategic practices as a means of survival. Prof. Weimann’s basic idea was that to build up conceptual understanding of physics, that is to really be able to understand and apply the essential physics behind things, you had to cut out a lot of content. Spend more time on the key concepts and practicing them through application, then tackling the more advanced stuff becomes easier. It can push learners through the transition between novice and expert without memorising a billion examples and exceptions.
An example: Cake 101
Learning Outcome: students who complete this course successfully will be able to bake a cake.
Content dense model of course:
- Victoria sponges
- Chocolate sponges
- drizzle cakes
- fruit cakes
- fruit cakes with alcohol
- fruit cakes with alcohol and nuts
- royal icing
- water icing
- butter cream frosting
Now image in each topic there is a 2 hour lecture. In the lecture, lots of variations on the theme are discussed.
Lecture 7: fruit cake with alcohol – recipes will be considered involving fruitcakes made with sherry, whisky, and rum. Soaking fruit for minutes, hours, days and weeks will be considered. ‘Feeding the cake’ with alcohol after baking will be discussed along with appropriate timescales.
The learners in lecture 7 end up with 3 different recipes to learn, along with 5 protocols for soaking fruit and 3 methods for feeding the cake as well as the theoretical stuff about what happens to alcohol in the oven. If all of the classes are roughly like this, there will be 36 recipes, 50 protocols and 30 methods for various things to learn alongside the theoretical stuff.
Content lite model of course:
- – 12. practical sessions
Still with a 2 hour lecture, but this time we recognise that sessions 1 – 4 in the content dense model can be reduced to one concept – they are all essentially victoria sponges in with different additives or cooked in a different tin. You cream the fat and sugar, add eggs, add flour and flavour and bake. Muffins require a theoretically different approach, adding wet and dry ingredients and typically use a liquid fat. Fruit cakes are in between, and involve a greater number of variables. Icing is essentially the same – some kind of sugary stuff with some kind of fat or fluid and you splodge it on top. Decoration stays largely as is – lots of pretty pictures giving ideas on how to decorate cake.
The learners end up with 4 recipes to learn, a couple of protocols and a couple of methods. They also spend 14 hours practicing their craft.
The content lite model curates the information for better presentation to the student and explains why each cake is as it should be. It’s possible to extrapolate from these basic ideas into more advanced cake making methods as learners should better grasp the concepts of the cake rather than feeling pressured to memorise 36 recipes etc.
Feeling hungry yet?
So the most influential bit of literature for me was digesting the idea that concepts should be key in courses not content. And that’s even more important in the ‘current age’ when anyone can google a cake recipe. The trick is understanding why you can’t tweak some bits of the recipe but you can others. Cake is a flippant example for what is an incredibly challenging thing to do, particularly as it involves shaking off the ‘must cover content’ mindset. But done right…it’s really good.