Should We Teach Broadly or Deeply?

Google regularly brings in interesting people to give talks at their company headquarters (talk about a free cash flow problem.) It turns out that these talks can be sen online at YouTube (here's the link).

I just came across a talk by Robert Frank, author of "The Economic Naturalist." He talked about his book, and about the problem of why so many students don't retain key concepts from their classes. For example, on the first day of my security analysis class I typically ask students the question "What should determine the value of a security." The answer, of course, is "The amount, timing, and riskiness of the cash flows from owning the security." Fewer than 1/4 of the class knows the answer without prompting.

Frank's explanation for why students retain so little is that we simply try pack too much into our classes. This makes our syllabus seem impressive, but shortchanges the students. As an example, we might cover 14 chapters (and 15-20 concepts) in a 14 week semester, rather than covering half that many and really drilling the concepts in.

"But Unknown Professor", you say, "We HAVE to cover A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, and in the introductory finance class or we're shortchanging the students." The problem with this approach is that a few months after the class is done, they don't remember anything about topics A-M except that they covered them sometime in class. Add they really don;t even have all that great a grasp of critical concepts such as the Time Value of Money.

In contrast, if you covered half as many topics, you could spend 3-4 weeks on Time Value rather than the usual week or two. This way, you could make them do about a hundred or so problems, and they'd really have it locked down.

In any event, here's Frank's Google Talk. Check it out.

And teach fewer topics (but more deeply) in your classes.