Teaching is an important part of your job. You are committed to doing it well.
At the same time, you may often resent how much time it takes. You really wish you had more time for research than you do right now.
Content expertise vs pedagogy
The dominant mode of thinking about teaching in higher education is that content knowledge is the most important element. Comprehensive exams are often justified as important preparation for future teaching. Given that kind of organizational culture, it isn’t really that surprising that people over-prepare. And focus on content.
I know people who’ve stayed up until 3 a.m. reading Foucault so they could give a 2nd year undergraduate lecture on his theory.
And how often have you heard (or said) “I’m not sure how I’m going to cover everything?”
However, just because content is what everyone focuses on, doesn’t mean that content is most important. Sometimes less really is more.
Especially when teaching lower level undergraduate courses, the nuance can confuse. Even for higher level undergraduates, this may be the first time students are encountering this material. Spending time thinking about how to pare down the content to the essentials can be more productive than reading more to feel on top of all the detail.
It is better to say too little than too much.
The time students spend with you in the classroom is only a portion of the time they spend on the course. At university level, it isn’t even the majority of the time they spend on the course.
You have determined your learning objectives. What is the most helpful thing you can do in the classroom to enable the students to make good use of the rest of their time?
You don’t want to overwhelm them with information. You can’t drink from a firehose. You want to guide them. Your goal is to spark their interest in going further, to give them the confidence and basic knowledge to go further, and to provide them with signposts that guide the work they do independently.
It is better to leave them wanting more than feeling overwhelmed.
- What is the most useful thing you could do to help them learn whatever it is you want them to learn?
- What is the most important thing you want them to get out of this particular session? What can you do to make sure they get that?
- How does what you are doing in this session connect to what you are doing in the rest of the course? How can you make that clear?
- What could the students do to take this further on their own? Imagine you are my yoga instructor saying “If you want to go deeper … If you are struggling with this, here’s how to adapt to get partway there.”
If you are worried that what you have prepared isn’t enough, make yourself a cheat sheet of things you can do if you have time left over. The purpose of this list is to reassure you while you figure out what “enough” looks like.
Breathe. Always breathe. You can do this.
A New Taxonomy of Learning Goals by Elizabeth Barre provides a nuanced approach to the question of learning outcomes.
For an excellent example of how one professor used learning objectives (her’s, not necessarily the kind the bureaucrats would like) to revamp a course see Kim Solga’s Decolonizing the Syllabus, Part 2
If you have a gremlin who says this means you are being lazy or doing shoddy work, you might also look at
Originally published 7 September 2015, related post added 18 May 2017. Lightly edited and an additional related post added. Updated links and related posts 13 August 2019. Added to Saying No Spotlight, March 2022.