Content and process

In these days of fairly ubiquitous internet access, Google and Wikipedia, why do our students even need a content-heavy educational experience? They can always look it up, right?

So, what we concentrate on is process. Things like critical thinking, asking the right questions, knowing how to look things up.

In the world of college-level science teaching, the emphasis on process over content is very popular. Student-centered learning, just-in-time teaching, and group collaborative explorations are the focus of many pedagogical articles, webinars and education conferences. Learning “how” is more in vogue than learning “what.”

Whereas we used to assume that the process part of learning would just come naturally out of hearing the content in a well-conceived lecture by an expert, now we assume that the content will naturally be mastered through doing various activities.

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I’ve been dutifully incorporating student-centered learning strategies in my classrooms. My students get really good at working in small groups, doing various learning activities, writing and talking about scientific papers. But, give them an exam that probes knowledge of specific content and the outcome resembles that old bell curve distribution, where a majority of the students have substantial gaps in their knowledge and understanding. They master the process much more easily than the content. Not surprising since the emphasis in the classroom is on the process, often at the expense of the content. If we spend classroom time discussing a scientific paper and relating it to other papers or other material, we are not spending time presenting or working with specific content. If we spend time in class doing collaborative problem-solving, we are not emphasizing the individual mastery of the content.

The flipped classroom model has students view videos or read material that dishes out the content. They do this on their own and then “work with” the content in class with an activity. Many of these activities rely on social interactions like pair-share or small group work. Members of groups take on different roles. The output is a class discussion or a group-generated assignment. These activities don’t really emphasize facts, but rather emphasize the process used to generate a more general kind of output. The students actively search for the answers and dutifully discuss the questions posed to them. But they seem focused on getting through it, rather than using the opportunities to work with content and solidify their knowledge of it.

Mastery of facts, content, and fundamental concepts requires focus, practice and concentration. The environment set up by the student-centered learning classrooms does not foster mastery of content. Honestly, neither does the flipped aspect, with students spending hours watching videos or listening to podcasts. Unless…..we give some time to strategies that help students master content.

What is the outcome goal of a particular course? To become an expert in that material? To gain some knowledge?

Being able to ask the right question and knowing how to go about answering it are key characteristics of experts. But, the experts I admire are also armed with an arsenal of knowledge. They have facts at their immediate disposal; not on their phones or iPads, but in their heads.

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Another characteristic of experts is that they have a way of explaining the knowledge that exceeds the sum of the parts. They can take content and weave a framework with it that exposes a deeper, more integrated whole. It’s like they can assemble the individual lego pieces into a wonderfully complex structure. They have command of lots of legos, as well as the instructions for how to assemble them.

We’d like our students to be able to build structures, using the building blocks of our fields. Like a lego structure, we need to have the legos in order to build the structure. Content matters.

This semester, as I teach a content-rich intermediate level physiology course, I plan to emphasize to a greater degree the mastery of content. I will incorporate some strategies that will foster practice, focus and concentration. I’d welcome any ideas you have!