Bottleneck Professors: Can they change their strategy?

Every one of us had some good teachers and bad teachers. Now and then you do come across a few teachers—especially college professors in STEM disciplines—who have a reputation for being tough and are known for failing far too many students. Therefore, students dread them and try to take an equivalent course somewhere else or take the course with another professor. Or they hope and pray that they pass the course on their second attempt.

Since students avoid these classes like the plague, enrollment in them is always low. Hence their instructors are known as “bottleneck professors.” As a student, I took classes from a few bottleneck professors, and it was not fun. Every university has some bottleneck professors.

Yet, contrary to what students believe, bottleneck professors are not bad people. They are passionate about their subjects, they truly believe in what they are doing, and they are unquestionably expert in the subject matter they teach. Many of them plan their lectures well, pay attention to details, and present impeccable PowerPoint slides with all of the content students need to master the subject. Bottleneck professors also think they uphold academic rigor, the sanctity of content, and high standards. We may never be able to change entrenched bottleneck professors, but we can and should try to prevent aspiring new teachers from becoming one. One of the primary beliefs about bottleneck professors is that their duty is to create and deliver content. This is a myth. Since most educators subscribe to this view, it is a difficult myth to debunk.

It is true that new content is produced all the time. New content is always created when innovations are made. For example, the high-tech industry generates new content in hardware, operating systems, and programming languages. In the context of education, content covers all material we teach to our students, be it English grammar or engineering mechanics. This content is typically available in the form of textbooks. K-16 education, however, has hardly any new content. Think about this: What is new in arithmetic, algebra, or calculus in the last 100 years? What is new in introductory chemistry or biology? The answer is obvious: we do not create new content. Educators look for new examples of it and find better ways to teach it, but they do not create any new content that did not already exist in STEM disciplines, especially in lower-level courses.

Content is essentially information. This information is available in the form of an article, a book, a work of art, a piece of music, a poem, a scientific discovery, a formula, or even a video. And it is out there online, easily accessible and free. There was a time in human history when wise people had to share their knowledge face-to-face to a small group of people. Those days are long gone. Students now know how to search for content and where to find it.

Then why do educators focus on merely delivering content?

Their proper role is to help students learn. Good teachers know this intuitively. They don’t simply transmit information; they provide a learning experience. You experience when you are involved. You are involved when you are trying to figure out. Figuring out is learning, and learning is a messy process. This is what we should be doing—helping students figure out.

Don’t get me wrong. Content knowledge is important, but it is merely a necessary condition for a professor, not a sufficient condition. Bottleneck professors typically do not fulfill sufficient conditions. This means they should stretch, expand and change to become truly effective in their teaching. This realization can help our next generation of educators to train their thought process to help students learn.

The role of educators is multifaceted, and it changes depending upon the academic level of students. But learning always takes place when the learner is personally engaged and allowed to discover. As educators, we must identify ways to make content meaningful, relevant and engaging. To make this happen, we should move from the formula, content = information, to content = experience.

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