Uncovering Content In Summer Courses

The greatest challenge of teaching content in a condensed period like a summer course is helping students to engage with the material.  Maryellen Weimer’s advice about rethinking the role of content is appropriate: “Our thinking about content has long been dominated by one assumption: More is better.  The time has come to challenge that assumption – not with content-free courses but with new thinking about the function of content.” (Weimer, 2002)

Weimer describes a cartoon to illustrate how we should think about the function of content in teaching:  "A faculty person is standing squarely in front of a blackboard with pieces of a problem appearing on either side of him.  The caption proclaims: ‘Aim not to cover the content but to uncover part of it.’"

To change our thinking about the function of content in teaching, Weimer provides three helpful suggestions that use content to develop learning skills, promote students’ self-awareness of learning, and give students firsthand experiences with the materials. 

I. Use content (not ‘cover’ it) as a vehicle to develop learning skills. 

With the explosion of knowledge that is occurring in every field, faculty best serve students when they help them become learners of disciplinary practices.  Weimer suggests doing some of the following:

  1. Spend time in class teaching students reading skills for your discipline.
  2. Instead of the teacher summarizing the lecture, let students spend the last five minutes of class summarizing the material individually, in groups or as an activity.
  3. Present your class with best-study practices from previous successful students.  You can ask former students to write about how they successfully studied for the course and make a handout of their tips, or you can invite some former successful students to come to class and share their tips.
  4. Spend time helping students to learn how to take better notes.  Weimer suggests having someone from the learning skills center attend class and take notes.  Then, the entire class passes in their notes for analysis by the learning center representative who returns on the next class with suggestions and examples based on the students’ notes.

II. Use content to promote students’ self-awareness of their learning. 

“Self-awareness is the foundation on which further development as a confident, self-directed, and self-regulated learner grows.”

  1. Routinely ask students to write about how they are effectively learning in the course.  You might find that this practice will help you to prepare a handout about best-study practices (see 1c above).  This exercise will also help students to see how their study practices directly relate to their ability to learn the course’s content.
  2. Have students learn from their exam results.  Have them analyze why they missed questions.  Did the questions come from lecture-notes or reading?  Did students miss classes or skip readings?  etc.

III. Use content to involve students.

“Content promotes learning when we let students use content so that they learn and experience it firsthand.”  Nothing can replace active-learning strategies to help students genuinely experience content.

Weimer concludes her exploration of the function of content with an admonition:  “Let us resolve to stop ‘covering’ content and start ‘using’ it to accomplish learner-centered objectives.”

This teaching tip summarizes chapter 3 of Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-centered teaching: five key changes to practice, Jossy-Bass, 2002. It is available through CTE’s library.