Are teachers too focused on comprehensiveness, trying to cover everything about their topic? What would teaching look like if we all just taught a little less?

How much should my students learn in my course? This may seem like a strange question—especially compared to the more salient what students should learn—but it’s been on my mind lately.

For many years, my answer has been, “As much as possible.” Now, I’m questioning that assumption, considering that I have perhaps been lured in by the siren song of comprehensiveness only to crash upon the rocks of rigor.

Image of shipwreck on shoreline rocks

What do I mean by this? The aim of education is a big, thorny thing, that is sometimes hard to unravel. One thing that I believe, without having to disentangle it, is that education is not about having “as much knowledge as possible about any given subject.”

Instilling habits of mind, inspiring curiosity and a love of learning, building strategies for lifelong learning, and cultivating critical thinking—these are the central tenets to my practice as an educator, not helping my students build a laundry-list of knowledge.

And yet, as I’ll discuss later in an example, I’ve prioritized comprehensiveness in my teaching. In doing so, I deprioritized knowledge as a process and prioritized knowledge as a long list of things that can be mastered and checked off. This is not the kind of educator I want to be, nor is it the kind of educator my students need most.

Now, I’m questioning that assumption, considering that I have perhaps been lured in by the siren song of comprehensiveness only to crash upon the rocks of rigor.

In fact, comprehensiveness gets in the way of change. By aiming to teach as much content as possible, I reduced the time and space in my course for real, meaningful change in students. Paradoxically it seems that by teaching less, we can accomplish more.

An Example: Web Writing for Professional Writing Students 

For many years, I taught a course in Writing for the Web—at 2 different universities, both online and in-person. Students were primarily Professional Writing majors and minors. These students would often go on to get a wide variety of jobs, from communications to marketing to social media management to administrative.

Most of the jobs they would get would involve some amount of working with websites, whether that was building full websites using software like WordPress or simply updating their company’s blog every now and then. My goal was to teach them about the fundamentals of working with websites so that they would be well-equipped to handle a wide variety of tasks.

We covered a lot of ground, but one of the core focuses was web code: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Feeling comfortable adapting, editing, and writing web code would give my students a leg up on the job market, as these skills are highly valuable in a variety of positions.

Somewhere along the way, though, I lost sight of that goal. I taught students everything they may need to know about web code. And in the process, students often didn’t build up a comfort level and fluency, as they would move on to the next item on the list without having time to sit and explore what came before.

How This Approach Missed the Big Picture 

I’ve been reflecting on this while working on Beautiful Canvas Pages Made Easy, a self-paced course for Ball State faculty to add custom Canvas designs to their courses. For this project, I’ve written (mostly from scratch) 2,000+ lines of web code. Yet, the single most important factor in my success with this project hasn’t been my comprehensive knowledge of HTML tags or CSS properties.

It’s been my familiarity with tweaking web code through Chrome’s Developer Tools, a feature of the Chrome browser that allows you to open a website’s code and make changes that will change how the website displays in the browser. My comfort with this tool has allowed me to build an entire design library by playing with code in Canvas, tweaking existing content and designs.

It’s shocking to realize that I never once taught this to my students. That’s a shame, because Chrome Dev Tools is an incredible way to learn about the code that underlies the web. It encourages playfulness and experimentation. It lets you make changes and see the effects of those changes, building up a knowledge of how the pieces of web code fit together into a complete puzzle.

Instead of teaching this kind of experimentation, I taught my students highly specific “pieces” of knowledge that many of them would never use. But at least, my thinking went, I could say that we had covered all the “important” aspects of web code.

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Charting a Different Course 

So how do we avoid the siren song of comprehensiveness?

This starts by laser-focusing on what change you want to accomplish through your course. This is something I always had in mind with my course development, but it often got lost after I started developing the course. Keeping this in mind at every step can help you sort through what is actually important to student learning and what is just there for the sake of completeness.

There’s a trick I use in my work a lot, a simple thought that has been transformative for me: “My only job is to _________.” I often approach situations with a laundry list of things I want to get out of them, and that often results in me getting less out of them than when I focus on the single most critical item.

Applying this thought to your course can be transformative, as well. It allows you to focus on a single change you want to effect, then give that change as much time and space in the semester as it needs.

You can also regularly ask the question, “Do my students really need this knowledge?” For example, I taught my students the history of web code, even though they didn’t really need it. But I also taught them about web accessibility, something that they would absolutely need if they wanted to improve the experience of all web users and help their future organizations avoid accessibility lawsuits.

Finally, it’s worth listening to your students to help you understand what is most valuable and important to teach. Ask students about their goals and aspirations, then craft your focus based on what can help them reach those goals and aspirations.

As teachers, we know a lot about our subjects, and it can be difficult to put that aside and focus on students who are very different from us. By setting aside comprehensiveness, though, we can better support and guide students through deep, meaningful learning that will serve them well, now and in the future.

Have you been lured in by the siren song of comprehensiveness? What could you radically cut from your teaching to instead prioritize activities that facilitate meaningful change and growth in your students? Weigh in through the comments below. 

  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.

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