Curating content to teach concepts

By Mugdha Sathe

When I started my Masters in Biochemistry, I encountered huge biology textbooks. The large content was overwhelming, and I was questioning my decision to enter biochemistry when I had been a chemistry undergrad. But then, over the next two years, I realized I was learning all kinds of concepts along with these new-to-me biology facts.

As instructors, why do we focus on content instead of concepts? Petersen and colleagues address this question in their recent article about “the tyranny of content”. Instructors reported that the ‘Need to cover content’ was one of the barriers that kept them from implementing active learning in their classrooms. Basic courses are often prerequisites for advance course creating a perceived need to cover particular content. These concerns are legitimate. Learning facts does matter. But, still faculty-centered teaching persists despite the effectiveness of student-centred learning practices.

Peterson and colleagues propose two steps to move away from coverage. First, they propose to replace the goal of coverage with the goal of student learning. Second, they propose understanding how students learn and which strategies best promote student learning. The authors recommend thinking about this like a curator of an art museum. Curators choose the most representative work of a period or style to create an immersive experience for the viewer, instead of showing all of the pieces in the collection. By analogy, an instructor can choose a set of core concepts by asking themselves about the ideas and skills they need to master in the course. For biology, these questions are already answered in the 2011 AAAS Vision and Change report. For instance, for a specialized seminar course like the ones in STEP-WISE, we can use a particular biological system at a cell, tissue or whole-organism level to anchor students to the big picture instead of swimming in the ocean of facts.

After reading this article, I have realized that I feel my favorite teachers did this, and it made the classes more enjoyable. This strategy is called “content unburdening”, and it actually improves performance on tests. Explicitly teaching how to learn is a valuable and transferrable skill that students can learn when they are focused on core concepts instead of memorizing facts. It helps them how to find credible sources of information, analyse the information, introspect which probably a very important skill in our current climate.


Petersen, C. I. et al. (2020) The tyranny of content: “content coverage” as a barrier to evidence-based teaching approaches and ways to overcome it. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 19, 1–10.