How Much Material Should We Cover?

womanedhatI’m not sure where the phrase “the tyranny of content” was first coined, but picturing this bloated and oppressive ruler issuing dictates from on high does seem apt at times. Now, of course, there is no one telling us[1] that we have to cover every last bit of Physiology, but yet we often end up trying to do just that. This is in spite of numerous articles and publications telling us and showing us that trying to cover less is more effective[2].

Last spring I taught a 300 level[3] physiology course at my previous institution, and this course is their first and usually only exposure to physiology while the students are undergraduates. I thought I had finally put together a pretty awesome course. I reorganized the material in a manner similar to Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative A&P course[4] which has a structure that seems to reflect the 5 Core Concepts in Biology and “Core Principles” of Physiology[5]. I mapped out all of my learning outcomes for each unit and aligned my activities and assessments. It wasn’t until after the semester that I happened to put all of the learning outcomes into a single spreadsheet and realized I had 105!

I had the good fortune of moving into a new position right after that semester, one where I am responsible for training and mentoring graduate students and post-docs who are developing and teaching a course for the first time[6]. Sadly, this means I don’t get to teach Physiology any more[7] – but it has allowed me to really reflect on how I approach teaching. This one big question keeps popping back up for me: How much material is the right amount of material to cover?[8]

In preparation for a workshop here at UW-Madison, I went through all of those learning outcomes and pared the list down to ~50. Is that still too many or too few? At the risk of mixing metaphors, am I preventing my students from being buried under this mountain of information or am I just dooming them to being buried later when they go on to professional school?

I think that this gets to one of the big underlying issues associated with managing course content, and that is maybe more important than counting learning objectives – What do I want my students to be able to do once the course is over? My initial response is a partially tongue-in-cheek “understand physiology.” But, even if I was being completely serious that is still a really vague idea. So where to, from here?

A colleague recently related a story to me about a teaching talk that they had heard once upon a time. In it the faculty member discussed how they had for years taught all of these molecular structures, which students would promptly forget as soon as they were out the door after an exam. This faculty member then decided to really focus on 1-2 structures and work with students to make sure that they really understood those structures and the rules that govern them. This would then give them the skills to figure out other structures. Great! What are those handful of things that we could focus on in a human physiology course though?

The “Core Principles” that I mentioned earlier emphasized the following concepts: the importance/function of the cell membrane, homeostasis, cell-to-cell communications, interdependence between cells/structures/organs, and flow down gradients. If a student understands those principles, it would definitely give them the tools to figure out what is going on behind many physiological processes. Obviously a physiology course would need to cover more than just those five areas though, but what? And maybe more importantly, how?

As someone who now mentors first time college science instructors, it has become even more apparent to me that we tend to default to teaching the way we were taught, but all it takes is the right example or the right conversation to spark an entirely new approach to a course. So, this is the point in the process where I want to hear ideas. You can comment on these blog posts, and I’d like to see comments about ideas that you’ve had in terms of focusing your content for human physiology/A&P courses, as well as ideas on making these courses more conceptual/skill-based.  Thanks for your input.


[1] For most of us at least

[2]Brewer, C. A., & Smith, D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.

Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (2007). College Learning for the New

Global Century. Washington, D.C.: AAC& U.

Handelsman, J., Ebert-May, D., Beichner, R., Bruns, P., Chang, A., DeHaan, R., & Wood, W. B. (2004).

Scientific teaching. Science, 304(5670), 521-522.

National Research Council. (2003) BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future

Research Biologists Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Schwab, J. J. (1962). The Teaching of Science as Enquiry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Schatz, G. (2012). The endangered bond. Science. doi:10.1126/science.1219756


[3] So, sophomore & juniors mostly. Almost all ‘pre-health’ of some sort.


[5] Michael, J., Modell, H., McFarland, J., & Cliff, W. (2009). The “core principles” of physiology: what should students understand? Advances in Physiology Education, 33(1), 10–16. doi:10.1152/advan.90139.2008 – AND –

Michael, J., & McFarland, J. (2011). The core principles (“big ideas”) of physiology: results of faculty surveys. Advances in Physiology Education,35(4), 336–341. doi:10.1152/advan.00004.2011

[6] Sorry…shameless plug

[7] At least for the time being

[8] Spoiler Alert! I don’t have the answer, or even AN answer. I am mostly ruminating on this idea.

PECOP Trimby picture 2




Chris Trimby is the (Interim) Director of the Teaching Fellows Program and Pre-Faculty Development for WISCIENCE at University of Wisconsin-Madison. As part of this position he mentors graduate students and post-docs while they gain experience teaching and developing course materials. Chris’s research background was in gene therapy and neurotrauma, but that focus has shifted to education practice. He did his Ph.D. in Physiology at University of Kentucky.

One thought on “How Much Material Should We Cover?”

I have become disenchanted with the word “cover” and try to delete it whenever we are talking about content in coursework. I know that my students are learning a lot without it being “covered’ during class.

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