Less is More

Accordion Bookbinding Project

When you teach, it’s one thing to know your material, and another to know how to translate that material into a digestible format that actually sticks.  Over the past few years, I’ve learned that less is always more when it comes to teaching.  The natural reaction for many teachers is to provide as much information as possible.  This is especially true when you’re teaching an introductory course because there’s so much that needs to be covered. When you have a lot of expertise in your field, it’s easy to forget how overwhelming even the most simple concept can be at first glance. I’ve found that students can quickly drown in information, and that it’s much more effective to offer small morsels that are given at incremental stages.

The other day, I was digging through some old syllabi from when I first started teaching, and I was startled by how different they were than the syllabi I use today. I used to explain every possible scenario that could happen in a syllabus, but I’ve discovered that once the syllabus is longer than two pages, students won’t bother reading the syllabus at all. So I have the option of having 1) a short syllabus that students will actually read, or 2) a syllabus that explains everything, but that doesn’t get read.  Take a wild guess which option I use today.  Certainly, there’s a compromise because a shorter syllabus limits your content, but if that’s the difference between being read or not, that’s a compromise I’m willing to make.

Despite my experience with less is more, I always struggle with balancing content when I teach. Part of me always wants to add more content, but I’ve seen that students are quickly overwhelmed by large quantities of content. I think for many teachers, adding more content is in some ways a kind of insurance policy.  We worry that if we cut back on content that our students will miss the point, so we pad our content with supplementary information that isn’t critical.

I’ve seen concrete evidence with this project that small bites that are succinct and straightforward can have a tremendous impact.  If a small bite piques a student’s curiosity and stimulates a craving for more, that in itself is much more valuable than having every fact crammed down your throat.  If you bombard students with too much content all at once, not only will they not retain that content, but they won’t come back for more. I think about those first bites as appetizers in a meal.  A good appetizer stimulates your senses, doesn’t fill you up and spoil your appetite for the entrees, and makes you hunger for more.  Once you get your students to crave that information,  it opens all kinds of doors where you provide those details that you initially suppressed.

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