What’s The Big Idea?

When I’m frustrated about some aspect of my teaching, I have to remind myself that my students are not younger versions of myself. I don’t think I’m alone in this —  we tend to forget we come from the small minority of students who liked school so much that we did whatever was needed to stay in it. Normality is actually not being interested in every minute detail.

Even worse, when I think back to my own undergraduate years, I don’t remember much detail at all, even for subjects that I was extremely interested in at the time. I remember the sense of accomplishment when I finally understood a concept that was mind-bendingly difficult, but not the concept itself. I remember failing my first calculus quiz two weeks into my first semester, but not how to integrate, even though I worked with calculus for two solid years.

If I’m out of the norm, then it is likely that my students’ recollections of college will become even  fuzzier. So I’ve gotten into the habit of announcing to students what I call the One Big Idea for each course that I teach — the single most important takeway for an entire semester’s worth of material. I find that these Big Ideas often appear at first glance to be tangential to course  content. Instead, they refer to ways of thinking, but that’s exactly what I hope makes them  more memorable and useful for students over the long term.

5 Replies to “What’s The Big Idea?”

  1. I am so glad I’m not alone! I loved 99% of my courses as an undergraduate, and yet so little has stuck with me. If that’s true for us as professional academics, how much more true is it for the general population. That’s probably the main reason that most of my changes to my teaching of late focus on the idea of transfer and crafting meaningful, relevant learning objectives.

  2. Ah, it’s a generational problem. In West Side Story, there’s a scene where Doc, the owner of the “drug store” where the Jets and the Sharks meet, starts to say, “When I was your age …” Action stops him and says, “Listen, old man, you were never my age!” Truer words were never spoken. They aren’t our age and their “Big Ideas” – if they have any – aren’t ours. What we need to do is try to find out what they care about, then tie the course material to that. It works.

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