Let go (of coverage) [from the archives]

image of hand with writing "it's time to let go..."

This post was originally published in 2011.

I heard it over and over at the CIC Information Fluency in History Education conference: “Let go of coverage,” our presenters and mentors told us. The coverage they were addressing is instructors’ attempts to “cover” the material or the content of a course. Our mentors challenged us to give up the need to “cover everything” superficially but instead focus on encouraging students’ deep understanding of course concepts.

I love this idea; it’s a key principle of learner-centered teaching and it is strongly supported by research. But, in practice, letting go of coverage is quite difficult. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the arguments for letting go of coverage, then focus on how to let go of coverage.

The primary argument against the coverage model is that it leads to faculty’s telling students what they “need to know”, students’ regurgitating that information on tests, followed by the students’ forgetting the course materials once the course has ended. This isn’t learning. Paul Ramsden said, “[students] can reproduce large amounts of factual information on demand; they have appropriated large quantities of detailed knowledge; they pass examinations successfully. But they are unable to show that they understand what they have learned.”

According to Weimer (2003), the coverage model prevents students from taking ownership of their learning and from developing learning skills that will help them learn beyond the confines of the classroom and the University. The coverage model also discourages students from deeply engaging with course concepts, asking critical questions, and analyzing evidence that supports or refutes course concepts. In essence, the coverage model discourages deep learning and the development of lifelong learning.

If you are interested in learning more about the coverage model and its limitations, I encourage you to check out Weimer’s seminal book Learner-centered teaching: Key Changes to Practice. I want to focus on how instructors can shift from the coverage model to a model that encourages deep learning.

Weimer described the deep learning model as: “Teachers cover less, students learn more,” where instructors seek a balance of covering content and teaching learning skills. The key here is balance. You will still cover some concepts in your course but then you will build deep learning opportunities through teaching and activities that let students explore, ask questions, investigate, analyze, and evaluate concepts.

Here are some tips that I found for achieving this balance:

  • Emphasize better reading, writing, and critical thinking outside of the classroom to liberate class time for active learning activities. Bean (1996) argued that instructors can create activities that help the students to read and understand course materials outside of the classroom, allowing the instructor to promote deeper learning through class discussions, activities, and explorations. Check out Bean’s book, Engaging Ideas for activity ideas.
  • Incorporate more problem-based learning in your course to address coverage through engaging students in problem-solving and storytelling. Problem-based learning involves presenting a problem to students and asking them to solve the problem using a variety of instructor-led or student-led methods. The genius of problem-based learning, when it is done well, is that students have to use course concepts in their investigation, alleviating some of the instructor’s need to cover them in class.
  • Choose a theme for your course and dig deep into that theme, integrating course materials as your students explore and analyze the theme. Dr. Kay Colley recently taught a class focused on the interrelationship of mass media and war/terrorism. The theme challenged students to apply course concepts to historical and present-day war and terrorism events. Using a theme for your course engages students, provides a context for their learning, and helps them to apply course concepts beyond the scope of the course.
  • Organize your course into “buckets.” This was a suggestion from Dr. Derek Bruff, a colleague of mine who works in the teaching center at Vanderbilt University. Derek recommended organizing course coverage into “enduring understandings,” “important to know and do,” and “worth being familiar with” (He based his buckets on Wiggins & McTighe’s learning goal framework, Understanding by Design). After you have bucketed your course concepts, design your course so that the concepts are covered through a variety of teaching activities and assignments.

Have you let go of coverage? Share your experiences, strategies, and stories in the comments area.

Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ramsden, P. (1988). Studying learning, improving teaching. In P. Ramsden (Ed.), Improving learning: New perspectives. London: Kogan Page.

Weimer, M. (2003). Focus on learning, transform teaching. Change, 35(5). Retrieved March 24, 2011 from http://www.smith.edu/deanoffaculty/Weimer%202003.pdf.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Image from flickrCC user admitchell08, used under permissions of the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

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