Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Do you over teach your students?


I always share my enthusiasm with my colleagues about my teaching approaches and very often one of the issues raised during our discussion is “spoon-feeding” or “over teaching”. “Don’t you think you are spoon-feeding your students by putting your hand-outs, notes, PowerPoints slides, etc. for them to freely download?” “Don’t you think we over teach our students?” – These are the questions commonly asked by my colleagues and also when I give a presentation related to teaching-learning issues. Hmm....actually these are difficult questions to answer because to me there is no fine line or clear demarcation as to what constitutes spoon-feeding or over teaching and what is not.

Well, this is what the dictionary says about spoon feeding in the context of teaching-learning:
"If you spoon-feed someone, you do everything for them or tell them everything that they need to know, thus preventing them from having to think or act for themselves. There is a tendency to spoon-feed your pupils when you’re teaching because it is quicker and easier" (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary). So apparently the result of spoon-feeding in the academic context is the inhibition of the development of the capacity for independent thinking and learning.

I posted a question about this issue in my e-learning portal (title: Spoon-feeding: Are you being pampered?) and asked the students to give their response. Here is one of the responses (verbatim):
Here is my two cents' worth. Honestly, it is not only me that has been spoon-fed, in fact "all" of us will have to raise up our hands and own up! (Please don't sue me for defamation because I think that this is true) Ha ha.... From young, we have been fed with a silver spoon by our biological parents and in school, the same goes with our dedicated "second-parents". The spoon feeding practice is part of our Malaysian education culture which has long built its warm nest and is still very much alive and breathing. That is why we turn out to be pampered passive learners...” (Chan Lai Ean).

I think providing our students with basic learning resources (within reasonable limit) do not mean we spoon feed the students. What’s important is how we design the learning activities - it should be designed carefully in such a manner that it would require the students to construct and scaffold the knowledge, individually or as part of their group assignment. In doing such activities they will acquire the essential skills such as using databases to search the literature and summarizing the information. After all, in this information era students can easily access and download various learning resources related to the subject, sometimes with better quality than those supplied by their teachers. For my course, I do provide students with basic hand-out and all my PowerPoint slides but they know that they cannot find the answer for the assignment without doing further reading and find more learning resources on their own.

What about “over teaching”? Is it possible to over teach? This issue is perhaps relevant and could happen in a traditional teacher-centered classroom when teachers try to deliver and transmit subject content to their students as much as possible. Enthusiastic teachers prone to do too much (rather than too little) during the 50 minutes lecture – very often they talk more than students do. According to Paula [1] this happens for several reasons: teachers are so anxious for students to learn that they try to shove as much information during the set time period, more than the students could effectively comprehend. It boils down to teachers making themselves feel good, thinking that they have covered the essential information on the topic/subject without much thought as to what the students are actually learning.

In student-centered learning paradigm, the role of teacher is shifted from merely transmitting the knowledge passively to students to one involving more students’ participation and responsibility in a classroom. However, one of the teachers’ concerns about student-centered approach is the notion that more time need to be allocated in a classroom for student-centered activities, taking away precious lecture time to cover the syllabus. Obviously in order to create a successful student-centered environment, teachers should change their mindset from “more is better” to “less is more” approach to classroom teaching. Instead of trying to cover everything in the subject, concentrate on fewer major (core) topics and spend more time on those. This approach would promote deep conceptual understanding rather than just a superficial or cursory knowledge of the subject. To facilitate learning and discussion, relevant learning resources can be uploaded in advanced on the learning portal and students can be instructed to read the materials before the lecture. Using this approach, class time can be used more productively to cover conceptually difficult material, leaving the students to cover the rest for themselves.

References and further readings:

  1. Evans, C., Gibbons, N.J., Shah, K. and Griffin, D.K. (2004) Virtual learning in the biological sciences: pitfalls of simply "putting notes on the web" Computers & Education, 43, 49-61.
  2. Felder, R.M. and Brent, R. Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction
  3. Paula, E. (2009). Be a more effective teacher: How to avoid over teaching in the collegiate business classroom. Proceedings of ASBBS, 16(1), 

13 comments:

  1. Dear Prof. Karim
    thanks for sharing the useful knowledge, as all posts again perfect.

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  2. I don't believe that one can over-teach. I used to be given stacks of 'knowledge' from my lecturers when I was a student, so the answers are there if I need to think about them. I believe that this helped a lot in my learning as the un-important information has been filtered out and all the important information that I should know is there. Nowadays, I pity my students since their notes are merely bullet points on powerpoint slides and they have to somehow connect the dots while being still a novice in the subject. And when they are lost, they look up the internet which is full of noisy information.

    However, one can spoonfeed by providing answers without asking students to think first. This may happen during tutorials where 'teaching' (since it is easy to just write the answers on the board for all students) takes place rather than individual tutoring (which takes up more time and effort and requires more patience).

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  3. Thank you for your view and comment on this issue. I think the issue about over teaching raised by some teachers/lecturers is the feeling of providing too much material for the students. Trying to cover the entire syllabus exhaustively without enough room for student-centered activities is also taken as over teaching. Personally I think it's okay to provide students with notes/hand-outs to give them a head start but the notes should be designed in such a way that the students wouldn't be too dependent on them. We should leave some rooms for the students to explore and connect the missing dots with our guidance. This is what constructivism approach of learning as I understand it, i.e., the idea that knowledge, and more importantly, understanding are constructed by individual students by allowing them to connect the dots.

    Appreciate your time - keep posting your comment.

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  4. Do you have any proof that student-centered approach is better than the traditional approach?

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  5. Yes, there are plenty of research papers available on specific student-centered approach such as problem-based learning (PBL). I think the evidence is pointing towards advantageous of student-centered approach but it doesn't mean the role of teachers would be reduced. In fact, in my opinion, for student-centered learning to work effectively, the role of teachers as a facilitator is even more important.

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  6. Which type of T&L approach made you Karim, student-centered or the traditional approach?

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  7. I guess still leaning towards teacher-centered but I hope to strike a good balance between the two approaches.

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  8. I meant, which type of education did you have when you were younger Karim? Do you think if you would have been 'better' now if your lecturers had taken a different approach?

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  9. It's hard to say but I think for motivated students the difference would be marginal. The specific and objective measure of learning effectiveness is something elusive that researchers find it hard to prove conclusively. Grade can be one of the parameters but we know from our experience that there's much more. From my limited reading of education literature, I think there's no consensus on how best to measure learning effectiveness -- so difficult to compare different teaching-learning approaches. Having said that, if I just based on common sense I would expect learning activities/approaches in student-centered practice such as PBL, case study, PoPBL, etc. should enable students to develop necessary skills to survive in the real world.

    Readers from education may have more to say on this issue -- your two cents is most welcome!

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  10. I think both 'traditional' and so-called student centred approaches should be applied concurrently. Students first need to know then apply. My proposal is to start first with traditional lectures and then individual tutorials where students learn how to apply the knowledge within close-ended problems, and then group projects where the problem is open-ended. After all, is this not what Bloom's Taxonomy teaches us - that we have to go from the bottom to the top to achieve the best learning?

    Can we achieve both traditional and student centred activities within the same units? I doubt so due to time constraints. I would rather have completely different units for student centred learning, e.g. for engineering, we can have design projects which are independent of the teaching units. This gives much more flexibility in the open-endedness, and avoids time constraints.

    All I want to say is that I believe so-called student centred learning is useful but only if used properly in conjunction with other methods of learning. But the first step is always transfer of knowledge.

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  11. “Can we achieve both traditional and student centred activities within the same units? I doubt so due to time constraints”. Well, "covering" the material is apparently central in the traditional ‘teacher-centered’ paradigm but what does it mean "to cover" "to get through the material? The teacher's need to "cover" the material rests on the assumption that students will learn everything that they need TO KNOW upon completion of the whole syllabus. Indeed, some teachers often express that they feel uncomfortable testing something they have not "covered" in class. Students also expect teachers to ‘give’ everything they need to know – on the slides, notes, etc. Often students cry "foul" if something appears on the exam that has not been "covered" in lecture.

    Two main problems with lecture only approach—limited attention span without much engage¬ment and lack of time for knowledge integration in lecture. As far as effective pedagogy is concerned, it would involve at least 3 elements: factual content, conceptual understanding and problem-solving. Should we (teacher) spend much time in the lecture reciting the factual points? This is something students can read before or after the class. I’d rather spend more time on explaining the principles and concepts in the lecture and have more time for discussion. A student's conceptual understanding is developed by working with the concepts in the context of problems, trying to articulate them in a clear and concise manner, explaining them to others, and getting misconceptions corrected through discussion with someone more knowledgeable.

    In engineering you may have tutorial and project that can incorporate elements of student-centered learning but in other courses/disciplines where lecture is the main mode then teachers have to plan how to optimise the lecture time so that teachers would not become ‘sage on the stage’ and students become a passive learners (if they learn at all). There are many instances where we might teach less and students might learn more—and become more proficient learners as well. Spend some time watching them. You might make some profound observations!

    The role of teachers is still very important. In the classroom, teaching and learning are intertwined and form their own feedback loop. The more we know about how students learn the better our teaching can become. The more effective our teaching, the more students will learn while they are in our courses. The fundamental issue is: how to make it clear to students that their learning, not our teaching, is the most important aspect of our courses. We need to get across the idea that nobody can learn for anyone else—people have to learn for themselves.

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  12. assalamualaikum prof, saya mengajar di kolej matrikulasi KPM. subjek kimia. di matrikulasi, kami berlumba-lumba menghasilkan pelajar A 4.0 belaka, sehingga pencapaian 4.0 adalah parameter pelajar dan pensyarah. bos sy suruh spoon feed

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  13. I was taught "traditionally" and i fully believe in a traditional approach. These days students are being spoon fed, i know this because i compare it back to my own experiences of when i was a student and i'm shocked as to how much it has changed. They are taught are few points, no depth, no independance - no group work where they talk about what they did over the weekend doesn't classify as independance, they don't know how to reference, make full sentences half the time or even read properly. Education has indeed been dumbed down.

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