Superfluous material

As I have done in the past, I gave one of my classes a mid-semester evaluation to fill out. There were two trends that emerged rather clear from the data, 1) The pace for roughly 60% of the class was too fast, and 2) whereas the amount of material covered in class was widely agreed to be okay, a significant number of students felt I included too much "superfluous material" in the lectures.

[soo-pur-floo-uhs] –adjective
1. being more than is sufficient or required; excessive.
2. unnecessary or needless.
3. Obsolete . possessing or spending more than enough or necessary; extravagant.

I have to say I was a little surprised by this - that there was such a trend towards "Just the facts, dude". It is not rare for me to use the topics of the class to make a connection between the day's subject and things the students are more familiar with. Is this superfluous? If something helps a student understand a concept, but "isn't on the test", should it be omitted?

I'll admit that I struggle with this kind of thing and it depresses the hell out of me. I feel as though I am trying to display some of the cool and interesting things that the subject I am teaching has to offer and all I hear is "Um, will this be on the test?" I am aware that the motivation for the students centers around getting a good grade and that I am not the reincarnation of Robin Williams* from The Dead Poet's Society, but the lack of student curiosity or motivation to actually understand (rather than memorize) concepts is enough to shank my interest in teaching and leave it dead on the shower floor.

And outside of ideological reasons, why should I care? Our current tenure system places little weight on teaching, leaving me to wonder whether sacrificing it isn't actually in my best interest. Let one ball drop, right? As much effort as I may put into teaching, it is only (mildly) rewarded through student evaluation; an imperfect system at best. My colleagues end up judging my teaching based almost entirely on whether the students liked me, rather than any measure of how good my teaching is.

I know this debate is old and tired, that the tenure system is flawed and that education at the university level has changed with both the culture and the model for how universities are run, but I had some hope that I would find an excitement in teaching. At the very least, I hoped not to have to drag the students through the material while editing out anything that might be seen as superfluous.

* Can we all just pretend that he died after Good Will Hunting and before Patch Adams?

28 responses so far

  • Ace K says:

    I just want to show some solidarity, I know exactly what you feel. My evals from fall included complaints about class being at 8 am. Everything is blurred: what they think about you, the material, the class time. I really don't like student evals. But they're a part of life.. I hope that in time, when we get many many of them, each won't sting as much. I recommend changing what you can if it's not something that changes the style of your teaching too much. Also talk to your chair. Mine said some student complaints are just par for the course and it doesn't matter. Good luck, I know how you feel.

  • CoR says:

    I wouldn't give in to the 'just the facts' crowd. You have an academic right and responsibility to teach according to your standard. I ultimately think this attitude reflects a level of laziness on the part of the student, and that you should not be depressed or give in to it necessarily. Toddlers hate their medicine, too, right?

  • Tim says:

    Often, students don't know what they want and you can find contradictions in those evaluations. What do students think happens, when all the "superfluous" stuff is cut out? My guess is that then 80-90% will complain that the class is "too fast".

  • Keep your chin up, Prof. You clearly love your subject, and it shows. I often felt that the stuff not on the exam was sometimes the best, the glue that ties it all together. A simple question I like to remind students to ask themselves is: "why is this important?" Why did somebody even consider this topic worthy of their time to go out and study it? Maybe it is important, maybe it isn't, but I hope students don't get the impression that science is just about trying to become robots that collect and memorize information.

    p.s. I agree on Robin Williams.

  • Dan says:

    If the students think its superfluous because it isn't on the test, there is a simple remedy: put it on the test.

    If you explain to students why you are making these connections (because they are how scientists think about problems) and that courses have prerequisites for a reason, its totally reasonable to test them on it.

    My guess is that some of them won't like it, but that's a different issue. And the good students will like the class more.

  • Miss MSE says:

    It also may be less a "just the facts" mentality, and more "I only want to know it if it's going to be on the exam" issue. Context isn't important, nor are such students typically concerned with long-term retention (i.e., learning something).

    To me, superfluous material in a course involves stories about the professor's dog, or how he once ate lunch with BigNameScientist at a conference. Putting the subject in a larger context doesn't cross the line into superfluous for me.

  • Dr. O says:

    Agreed with the other commenters here. And I agree that the so-called "superfluous material" should appear on a test or quiz. After all, they should be learning how to put the topic into context as well as memorizing the facts. Maybe a short answer question on each exam that delves into the "superfluous material".

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I taught my last class in 1997 and it went OK. Colleagues have since remarked, "You look in their eyes, and there is nothing there." "When you go in the classroom, you feel like you are facing a hostile mob." I am quite pleased to be retired.

  • Yael says:

    I tell my students that every single thing that comes out of my mouth is potentially on the test.

  • For what it's worth, I too am on the side of including so called "superfluous" material. I haven't had the opportunity to do much teaching yet, but I don't see anything wrong with teaching part of the class to the top 20% or so. You teach the necessary material and add in some extra for those students who really dig it. Who cares if 80% of the class is only interested in "just the facts", at the end of the day I imagine it's that handful of students who are really turned on by the topic and want to hear more that should be encouraged the most. The rest of the students may just be taking the class to get a degree and are not interested in the subject matter the way us academics are.

    The flip side of the coin on this debate that I don't think has been brought up yet is that students may want "just the facts" because they are inundated with other classes and activities and want to be as efficient as possible with respect to doing well in a class. My guess is that because of how the financial crisis has hurt many students and their families more students than usual may have to work to support themselves while also taking classes. I think we should be careful not to make the fundamental attribution error of assuming that student behavior is driven primarily by disposition as opposed to external circumstances....just a thought.

  • thehermitage says:

    I was such a student, mostly because I was in a constant state of triage between all my courses. I didn't care of professors included 'superfluous' material because I could parse it out and I figured people who were actually smart enjoyed it. Do what makes you happy/keeps you sane, you can't please everyone.

  • Casey says:

    Don't give up. There are handful of students you have
    chance to really make a difference for - their effect on
    evaluations is minimal or even negligible.

  • becca says:

    First, it's entirely possible to have a class consisting of material that has significant quantities of superfluous information for any particular student, that is nonetheless pared down to the bare minimal essentials for coping with the diverse group of students you are responsible for.
    For example, some forms of repetition irk some of the better prepared students, but if you tell them that the class as a whole needs the information, they can usually appreciate that.

    But then, sometimes you gotta listen to what the students tell you- cut something out of a particular lesson, and see if the class does as well based on your own standards. If so, then great, you got efficient and learned from the incredibly difficult morass that is student evaluations! The system worked!
    If not, you can preemptively 'told ya so' to all other students in the future, forever! "This may seem superfluous, but when I don't include it, X% of my class did more poorly on this section, so bare with me...". I've had professors do that, and it makes it really freaking hard to complain about superfluous material.

    That said, this is all assuming you have students that care, at least a little bit, about learning. In my experience, most students do actually have *some* learning based motivations- i.e. they have some interest in the material. In those cases, if you are telling them things because you hope it will help them retain the information, or place it into a broader context, just tell them why. You know it's not superfluous-make the case for why you are including it.

    However, some students have literally no learning based motivations- it's all instrumental. Often pre-meds are like this. Then all bets are off, and you should just give them the facts if you want them to be happy (whether it's worth it is another issue). That, or lobby to change the structure of the MCAT. You gotta understand *their* incentive-system isn't pure either. It's totes not worth taking it personally.

  • NatC says:

    Would it be out of line to start deducting points every time someone asks "Will this be on the exam?"

  • Gerty-Z says:

    This really resonates with me. I don't buy into the view that students today don't care or are vapid or otherwise less intelligent than back in the day (ie, my day). But they do have incentives and other things going on that they are learning how to juggle and prioritize. I think it is in the nature of an "evaluation form" at the end of a class to say something without thinking too much. Grain of salt and all. When I was sitting on the other side of the interaction, I really liked these little "superfluous" bits. I'm still learning how to interpret student evals, but it sounds like you are doing pretty well.

  • Science Professor says:

    Does your department do peer evaluation of teaching? It can be useful to have some form of evaluation other than student evaluations. Or, if you participate in some form of teaching workshop and this results in a portfolio or report or letter or a certificate with a shiny gold star, you can put that in your tenure dossier to supplement student evaluations. And definitely don't let the evaluations get you down.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't have a lot of *actual* pre-meds in my class, which is not even a required course. Theoretically, the students choose the course based on interest, though I am sure for many it just fits in their schedule.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It is not as though I take the evaluations personally, even if it came across that way in the post (which I never felt got across exactly what I wanted, despite some reworking). And as Gerty-Z pointed out, I'm not buying the old "back in the day" routine, either. It is likely that I need to make more clear what the relevance is of some of the material, in relation to the core concepts.

    I do, however, find the lack of general curiosity a bit sad, but there's not much I can do about that. As long as I can keep the "will this be on the test" group from being a distraction, it shouldn't be a big deal.

    But the larger question is whether the effort to do really good teaching is worth it as a junior faculty member. From the standpoint of obligation to do one's best and the feeling of devotion to being a good teacher, of course it is. But if it takes away from the things that do get you tenure, it's worth evaluating. Remember that this is mostly a "learn on the job" type of activity, so many of us do not come in with a full teaching dossier and a variety of tools to fall back on.

    Regarding the evaluation, the short answer is no. I am sure that people would be willing to observe a class and write up an evaluation, but it is not a regular part of the evaluation process here. That would have to be initiated by the person wanting feedback, but probably something worth pursuing in my case.

  • TT Kid says:

    This is something that I've been struggling with as well. I, like everyone else, am insanely passionate about my little corner of biology. I don't know how I could have slogged through grad school and post-doc without being passionate about it. And, I'd really like to pass this on to the next group of students. Half of the reason that I'm here is because some teacher, who was passionate about the subject, got me all up in arms about it. I try to imagine that if a couple of kids in a class get something out of it then I've done well for my self.

    However, if I think about teaching logically, which I can't help but doing after reading some evals or staring at a room of undergrads defriending me on Facebook, things boil down pretty quickly. Basically, teaching doesn't amount to much in the tenure folder for me. The only thing that student evaluations have ever been important for is to determine raises (back when there was any money for raises).

    So, if I am the world's worst teacher and channel all my energy into research, I get more papers and hopefully some grants. If I accomplish that, I get tenure. If I'm the world's easiest teacher and give everyone an A and channel all my teaching energy into research, I get tenure and in better economic times I get a raise.

    However, if I give energy over to teaching (since I'm trying to pass this passion on), I take energy away from research. So, maybe I drop a pub or two and don't get a grant I might have gotten otherwise. What is my reward now? Denial of tenure.

    So, what's a poor tenure track kid suppose to do?

  • My response to "Um, will this be on the test?" is always yes. Often the supposedly "superfluous" information help the students see the bigger picture which assists in understanding concepts much better. Those that know this will thank you.

    Oh, and my other standard questions and responses:

    Will you provide a study guide for the test? No.

    What will be on the test? Everything.

    My students learn not to ask these stupid questions pretty damned quickly.

  • I always thought the "superfluous" material tended to be the best bits of the course. But I wasn't actually too bothered about my grades in undergrad (and honestly, they reflect that).

    Once I moved to the US and entered grad school, I suddenly found myself asking "will this be on the test," even when I found the material interesting anyway. There are two objectives to any course - to learn and to make grades. I don't have a lot of teaching experience (or any course design), but I guess the aim is to try and make it possible for students to pursue both goals at once?

  • becca says:

    Ok, so I'm incredibly biased, but here's my perspective:
    For everyone but a very small % of odd duck geekling types (the sort that go on to become professors) education has the potential to beat the bloody pulp out of curiosity. "It's a miracle curiosity survives formal education". This is not a *glitch* created by lazy or uncaring or boring teachers (even if some of us, who had naturally hardy curiosity, may look back upon our own education and be tempted to think this). This is the *function of the system*- to restrict people's interests and energies to a very small subset of knowledge. You hope it is cool/useful/important knowledge, for your sake as a teacher as well as their sake as students, but still. It is what it is.
    While there is much moaning and gnashing of teeth on teh internets about student's lack of curiosity (i.e. you will be in good company, and we all need to vent), and while I have seen first hand the frustrations that a pre-med oriented system can induce on both non-pre-meds and instructors alike, in the long run, it is myopic and self-absorbed to complain about students not being interested. You have the extreme good fortune, that even though you work in a formal education environment, you not only teach *selected* students (you are not at a community college with open enrollment, correct?) who are *not even taking your course because it's required*. This is an extremely curious, self-motivated group... as such things go, in formal education. It really is that bad. At least you're not teaching evolution in high school biology to 14 year olds with attitudes in Arkansas (apologies to any 14 year olds with good attitudes from the south or elsewhere that may be reading my words on the vast internets).

    As to the issue of how much energy to devote for it for career-advancement purposes... I think you know the answer to that. It just sucks. I'd lobby to change tenure before I'd blame you for whatever you choose on that front (and I'd rather blame premeds for caring about what's on the MCAT than blame a prof for getting frustrated with the tenure requirements and the result on teaching).

  • GMP says:

    If you are at an R1, do teaching decently (I'd say if you are around or above the dept average based on evals, you are certainly decent) and all the rest of time/energy pour into research. Some people are gifted teachers/charismatic in just the right way and can nearly effortlessly get very high evals; if you are not like that, aim for decent and focus on research.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Will this be on the test


    Then it gets put on the test. Makes for long tests but they asked for it

  • rknop says:

    I suspect that since time immemorial there have been students who just want the degree and don't want to bother learning.

    I DO suspect that there are more of them now than there were several decades ago. The reason is the inflation of credentials. Lots of jobs today claim to require a college degree, jobs that didn't several decades ago. It's not true that *everybody* goes to college, but some people go to college who wouldn't have forty years ago. Some fraction of that is great; some fraction of those people will get turned on to learning and being intellectual and all of that. But for a lot of them, it's just serving the time they need to get the credentials they need.

    Again, I don't think "students" today are "worse" than students before. There have always been the manipulators who just want the degree with a minimum of fuss. I think two things have changed. One, there may be a greater fraction of them now for the reasons I gave above. Two, I think it's culturally more acceptable to be honest about it now than it was a few decades ago. A few decades ago, I suspect that teachers were more 'authority figures' that you didn't talk back to, and so it there was more pressure to feign interest even when you didn't have it.

    The key is to latch on to and remember the really good students. That doesn't mean the "A" students -- I remember (though I've forgotten the name of) one student who barely got a B-, but who asked insightful and thoughtful questions in class. (She just really had trouble with tests.) I mean the students who are interested about learning and care about learning, and would want to try to understand the stuff even if they weren't going to be tested on it. They're always there, and the key is to latch on to them and try to let the degree to which they motivate you overcome the degree to which the aggressive slackers demotivate you.

  • rknop says:

    But the larger question is whether the effort to do really good teaching is worth it as a junior faculty member.

    If you're at a research institution, the answer is "no".

    And, sadly, the reason is, "because it's not on the exam".

    Some institutions don't care at ALL about teaching. Some do care, but if they're research institutions, no matter what they say, all they do is use really bad teaching (as judged by really bad student evaluations) as a veto criterion. Once you're past the "acceptable" bar (again as measured by student evaluations), whatever else you do for teaching simply doesn't matter. It can't make up for any weaknesses anywhere else.

    As such, you have to decide your own goals. Do you want to get tenure? If so, then you need to triage. If you are going to spend time trying to be really good teacher, as opposed to figuring out the minimum effort way to get minimally acceptable student evaluations, then you have to consider that as the life side of the work/life balance equation. You're doing it because it's something you personally value and find enriching, just like anything else you do outside of work, you're not doing it because it's contributing to your career.

    And, you have to be careful not to put too much time into it, and also not to invest to much caring into it, because if it does take attention away from the things you're really going to be judged on, then you may come up wanting.

    It's just the sad truth of teaching at research institutions.

  • Cherish says:

    I don't say this to be snitty, but because it's an observation: how is doing just what you need to get tenure any different than wanting them to know just what they need to get a good grade in the class? In either case, there is the 'why should I care' attitude.

    I think everyone has their personal opinion on whether or not those things matter, how much, etc., but I don't think the 'just the facts' attitude is confined to undergrads. We all have it to some extent because we have a limited amount of time and energy and motivation. It's really your decision to act on it or not based on how you're feeling, but I think it's not that different from how students deal with their lives.

  • My first time teaching a large undergrad course was pretty demoralizing. The second time through was much better, and not just because I did a better job with more experience. The first time through, I had to spend a lot of time on prep and course mechanics. The second time through, I spent a lot less total time on the course, and a lot more of the time I did spend on stuff I found more interesting (how to convey my enthusiasm for science, how to incorporate modern research into a course on fundamentals discovered a long time ago, finding relevant short demo videos, etc). My students really enjoyed the videos a lot, and I was really happy to discover that there were a core group of students who got really excited that this required course turned out to be somewhat interesting, and let that 5-10% or so give me energy to deal with the 90+% who didn't care much about the material.

    I want to be a good teacher for myself, and to fulfill my obligations to my students. I do what I can in the time I can allot to it, just as I budget my time in the other aspects of my job. I agree that as a TT prof, I can't afford to spend the time to become truly outstanding in the classroom. To be honest, I am not that interested in being truly outstanding, otherwise I would be at a different type of institution. Students who want a truly outstanding classroom experience don't (or at least shouldn't) come to research universities in the first place. My undergrad course has 200 students in it for me and one TA to work with. There is no way to have a meaningful interaction with that many people.

    I do the best I can to inspire the students I have, and I cheer for the small victories (the student who switches majors to my subject after my course, the students who come to be looking for research opportunities, the students who I have great conversations with about the implications of the material we cover in class). I try to let the demoralizing parts and the "is this on the exam" kids roll off of me. Good luck--it is a hard thing to balance, and you are not alone in struggling with it.

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