‘Cover’ is a Dirty Word [30min]

All the reasons that talking about what one ‘covered’ in class is bad.

The basic fallacy when we talk about what we ‘covered’ in class is what I would call the Fallacy of 100%.  Here’s the breakdown of the false assumptions that make ‘cover’ a bad word:

  1. There is 100% efficiency in the transference of information from the professor’s brain to the students’ brains. If you think of the steps and add in the easily observed inaccuracies, you’ll know this is false. Teacher thinks, writes notes, says and writes notes on board, student hears and sees, student writes.  And this is just getting basic ideas from one place to another. If you add in the prioritization, emphasis and other metadata for the information, it’s clear the message has a tough time getting through. A corollary to this assumption is that the material presented is a 100% match for the way the student understands thing.  Most research on learning would deny this.
  2. 100% of the material covered is essential. This is usually one of the arguments for defining a course by what it is covered, and leads to one of the biggest insult that is made of someone’s teaching: ‘He didn’t cover it’. (‘it’ being someone’s favorite topic).  It also proposes that everything done in class is important enough to be tested. From the choice and writing of the book and notes, the organization of the course, to the final delivery, many compromises and prioritizing of the material have been made making it impossible to that everything is as it is.
  3. Students retain 100% of what is talked about in class. I don’t think I need to explain how this isn’t true.  One corollary of this assumption applies in looking at prerequisites.  If topic X was covered in a prerequisite course, then they should know it now. An interesting question is then how we interpret a student’s knowledge if he or she made a C in a prerequisite course.  Do we say they know it, but at a 70% level, or there’s a 70% chance they know it, or ….
  4. 100% of what a student learns, he or she learns in class, or as a direct consequence of what happens in class. So, like with #2, we have to cover ‘everything’ or they won’t know it. And, in a tribute to #3, if we covered it, they know it. Between classmates, the Web, and the library, there’s no way this is even close to being true. In many cases a student learns in spite of what happens in class.

So, in conclusion, if we define our success and our courses only by what we cover, we do not help, and even hurt, student’s ability to learn in our class.

p.s. I hope to give ‘Cover’ a makeover in the near future.

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