Does the content tyrant rule your classroom? If you say, "I can't do that; I have to cover the content," every time a colleague offers a suggestion about how to improve your teaching, there's a good chance it does.

Content tyranny exists when the need to cover material rather than to encourage student learning dominates educators' teaching and testing styles. This dominance causes a variety of problems. For example, every professor knows that if you try to cover too many topics in a lecture, it goes sour. If you add one too many problems to an exam, the class average and student morale plummet.

In Improving Your Classroom Teaching (Sage Publications, 1993) author Maryellen Weimer discusses three myths that contribute to content tyranny: 1) more is better; 2) we teach contentónot students; and 3) if you know it, you can teach it. Collectively, these myths lead to the incorrect proposition that a good course must be absolutely packed with content.

In our experience, professors need to cover five types of information in class:

  • key points and general themes
  • especially difficult material
  • material not covered elsewhere
  • examples and illustrations
  • material of high interest to students.

Once they move beyond these categories, however, educators run the risk of falling prey to content tyranny. Here are several strategies for avoiding the trap:

1. Omit material. A recent topic analysis of chemical engineering separations classes at four universities showed a content overlap of 61 percent. Clearly, some material could be removed from each of these classes. When deciding what to cut, start with obsolete information (even if some consider it "traditional") and material the textbook covers well. And unless it's extremely pertinent to the course, don't cover your own research. Removing excessive content has the added benefit of creating more classroom time for active learning exercises that increase student understanding, such as group activities and one-minute quizzes.

2. Expect students to get more from readings and homework. Most educators agree that students are responsible for learning. Encouraging them to learn more outside the classroom can help alleviate content tyranny in the classroom. Ways to accomplish this include developing some course objectives that embrace material covered only in readings, and designing homework and test problems addressing these objectives. Remember to inform students about what you are doing before they take the first exam so that they will be sure to devote the proper time and attention to reading assignments.

3. Evaluate Exams. Content tyranny often leads to problematic tests. If students constantly complain about your exams, ask several colleagues to take one. If they need an entire class period to finish it, the exam is too long. In redesigning the test, cover less material, but cover it deeply, using novel problems. Students who truly understand the material (and have not merely memorized it) should be able to finish the test.

The hard part of teaching is not getting students to learn content; the hard part is getting them to learn how to learn and generate creative solutions. According to one estimate, 80 percent of the technical material engineers will use during their careers they will not have learned in school. A truly good course covers necessary content, but most importantly offers educators the opportunity to teach students how to use that content to solve novel problems, develop innovative designs, think critically, and evaluate options.

Phillip Wankat is a chemical engineering professor at Purdue University; Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. The authors welcome readers' feedback. You can reach them via e-mail at wankat@ecn.purdue.edu and oreovicz@ecn.purdue.edu.

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