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Published January 12, 2016 | Multidisciplinary

Don’t Overprepare Your Courses

As you may know, classes start in just a few days (and nights). Hopefully, you had a restful break and are getting ready for an amazing semester. Your course outlines are solid, your thorough expertise in your field knows no bounds, and you know what to expect from your students. But how about your material? Do you have what it takes to help students develop the required competencies?

If you’re like many a dedicated teacher, your first reflex is probably to say that, no, you don’t have enough to cover everything. Even if you have most of it in some form or another, you think about filling in the gaps or about improving upon what you already have. But what if this reflex were misleading? What if you could prepare less instead of more?

It’s also possible that, as a seasoned teacher, your eagerness to spend inordinate amounts of time preparing for class has faded considerably. Perhaps some might even think that you spend too little time working on your courses. Who’s to say they’re right?

Optimal Teaching

To answer some of these questions, it might be useful to focus on your primary role as a teacher: to enable learning. If students learn, why would anyone care that you spent less time preparing for courses than somebody else? Isn’t it a sign of efficient (and effective) teaching when the fruits of your labour mature effortlessly?

The ratio between your efforts and learning outcomes can be skewed by many factors. In one case, you may get dismal results from students despite exerting yourself as though your life depended upon it. In another case, you observe deep learning happening in your class even though you put less energy in this context than in the previous one.

Though it may be difficult for some of us to think of our teaching in such an instrumental way, something can be said about striking a balance between dutifulness and the path of least resistance.

Resourceful Teaching

One approach to relieving the burden of “course prep” is through the use of existing material. As discussed previously, pedagogues the world over are sharing educational resources which can be reused, reworked, remixed, redistributed, and retained by anyone - learners and teachers alike. A large proportion of the content is already available in English for a North American audience. In addition, standards, online tools, and government programmes can help you adapt external resources to your needs. Creating a screencast takes a significant amount of time. Adding subtitles to an existing one, much less so.

Much of the potential for educational resources comes from the process of creating them. It’s one thing if you provide visual or reading material to your students. Another thing entirely is the learning opportunity from creating your own material with the help of learners’ help. Our colleagues in secondary and elementary education sure sound excited about helping their students create books, build robots, or write songs (although some of our university friends have neat projects making music with younger folks). In colleges, we could team up with our students to augment the set of resources available for sharing. A project could be as involved as making a supercomputer or as simple as formulating exam questions. Framed properly, the learning outcomes are sure to greatly outweigh the efforts involved.

Speaking of efforts, aren’t these initiatives a distraction from the task at hand? Should we spend class time writing glossary entries about a few concepts used through the semester when we barely have enough time to go through the textbook? The answer fully depends on your context. It’s possible that chapter revision or formative evaluations are more pressing than creative activities like collaborative annotations. On the other hand, there’s nothing as time-consuming as forcing people to learn something they can’t understand. After all, a reason the “flipped classroom” and other forms of peer instruction are so effective is that they allow teachers to understand counterintuitive parts of the learning process.

Upon encountering a new pedagogical practice that they find interesting, many teachers say that they wish they could adopt it but claim they are unable to do so because they have to “cover the material”. There’s a clear logic to this, but there are many ways to ensure that learners are covering the material, even if the teacher takes a step back.

Joint Effort

In late Spring, VTE will host an event during which pedagogues and other experts will be encouraged to build course material together or in parallel. In preparation for this event, we’ll be looking for people interested in exploring tools and techniques to create educational resources such as interactive simulations, video demonstrations, timelines, and sociograms.

If you’re interested (or at least intrigued), please email us and we’ll keep you posted.

About the Author

Alex Enkerli is a Learning Technology Advisor at VTE (Vitrine technologie-éducation) where he works mainly for the Anglophone sector. His background is in ethnographic disciplines, which he has been teaching since 1999 (anthropology, sociology, folkloristics, ethnomusicology…). Raised a constructivist, Alex has adopted a broad teaching philosophy focused on learners’ agency. Besides teaching in post-secondary education, he deals with technological appropriation in various domains. Follow on Twitter

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