You need to read this essay (scroll down to the link that says “Transforming Physics Education”). In the essay, Carl Wieman, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics, describes what he and his colleagues have learned about what it takes to prepare students for graduate education in physics. His conclusion? When I saw him present this work at the Carnegie Foundation’s centennial celebration last month, he said the simplest remedy was to make sure students don’t take any undergraduate physics courses before they get to graduate school.
How could this be? Wieman’s answer is pretty straightforward–that the standard undergraduate physics curriculum is a very effective system for imparting large masses of disciplinary content to large numbers of students. But what it is not good at is teaching those students how to work with that content. Sound familiar? Wieman further argues that the lecture course, while efficient, in no way facilitates teaching students how to do physics (or even really to understand physics). And he concludes that two of the best ways to change the situation are (a) slow down–teach less content in much more depth and (b) create technological modules that allow students to play with the ideas presented in class.
Every history department in the United States could learn a lot from this research. Too much of our curriculum is predicated on lecturing, whether in large classes or small, with the goal of imparting blocs of content so that students will understand what happened and why. I’m with Wieman when it comes to the problem with this model. I agree that the lecture course imparts large blocs of content efficiently, but I still haven’t seen the research to show that communicating to history students in this way helps them understand.
In particular, our students would benefit if we all just slowed down some (or better yet, a lot) as Wieman suggests. Randy Bass has been making this same case for years and so I know he would be comforted to learn that his argument is bolstered by the research of someone who won the Nobel Prize. Last time I checked that prize meant you were a pretty smart person.
So, as you prepare your syllabus for next semester, try slowing down just a bit. Spend more time on less. And ask yourself, what would be the harm to your undergraduates if you never got to the Investiture Controversy or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo? What would be the actual harm inflicted?