To What End? Deciding What to Teach When You Can’t Teach It All

To What End? Deciding What to Teach When You Can’t Teach It All

By Virginia Pitts, Director of University Teaching

Even under normal circumstances, this is the point in the quarter when many of us realize we just can’t do it all.   That sense of not being able to do it all is now more salient – and more real – than ever.   For many of us, the move to teaching online means we have more to do than ever before, while our ability to do it all is more compromised than ever before given the stresses and demands of this time. 

This is just as true for students as it is for faculty.  The intentional blending of asynchronous and synchronous activities that online environments afford can enhance student learning and engagement (Means et. al, 2013).  But, paradoxically, if the amount of time these tasks demand is not carefully attended to (particularly in this current context!), then our students can end up having more work than ever before, under more duress (which can in turn decrease learning and engagement).  

All that to say, you may be realizing that, given the current circumstances, there just isn’t a way to fit everything you’d wanted to into your courses – you may be finding you don’t have the time, you may be finding your students don’t have time, and you may be finding that some of the things you had planned just are not working.  So what do you do?  I suggest one key in figuring out how to move forward lies in really honing in on what you hope students will get out of the experience in the end. 

Revisiting the Question of “To What End?”

In the Course Design Institute (CDI) I facilitate, we emphasize the importance of beginning with the end in mind – that is, with identifying the high-level learning outcomes you care about most and designing around those. Jared Del Rosso’s recent blog post on Pursuing Meaning and Community in Online Classes speaks to this idea of using course objectives as a “pedagogical compass”. 

The first step in all of that is to articulate your “Big Dream” for your course (Fink, 2013), where you ask yourself questions such as “Five years after this course is over, what do I hope my students will carry with them?” and “What is the primary impact I want my course to have on students’ lives?”  In the CDI, it’s from there that we determine our high-level learning outcomes.  Those usually go well-beyond students developing content knowledge, to knowing how to apply the content, and being able to relate it to other subjects and areas of their lives, and understanding the personal and social implications of knowing about a subject (for more, see Dee Fink’s Framework for Significant Learning in his Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning). 

In starting with that Big Dream, people often realize that some of what they were spending the most class-time on is not what they care about most.  And so, I wonder if this unusual time is inviting all of us to really hone in on what we care about most, and use that as a way to decide what we must keep, what we must change, and what we must let go of. That is, as Bridget Arend suggests in her Teaching Professor blog Keep Calm and Redesign with Perspective, this may be a time to step back from the details, re-articulate your dream for your course and your learning outcomes, and then look at your course in light of all of that.

If you’ve already fully articulated your dream and your learning outcomes for your course, you’re ahead – now I would just invite you to really put those front-and-center!  If you are realizing you planned too many readings and assignments for your students given the current context, maybe you are able to let go of some of those that don’t really relate to your Big Dream for your course.  If you are realizing you can’t do all of the lectures you did before, maybe you can let go of some of the content that doesn’t serve your highest level learning outcomes, and instead allow students to spend more time fully engaging in the learning activities/assignments in which they practice applying the content knowledge that matters most, or reflecting critically on the content you do have time to expose them to, or making connections between that content and other aspects of their lives. 

I know there is sometimes a concern that changing things mid-stream can be disconcerting or off-putting for our students.  However, I would argue that being able to make mid-course corrections with intention can demonstrate your commitment to the learning outcomes and models a willingness to learn, and that in this current context, anything you can do to demonstrate that you care about your students’ learning and are open to learning with them is even more likely to be well-received (as long as you explain why you are doing what you are doing and connect that back to the intended learning outcomes!).  Changes mid-stream can be a data-driven process, informed by both your professional expertise and student feedback. Consider providing the opportunity for a midterm survey. Opening yourself to receiving and responding to feedback can be especially powerful for demonstrating that you are willing to learn with your students.

I recognize this is not as straightforward or easy as it may sound.  And I realize that taking a step back to think about what you care about most can feel like one more thing to do when you are already overwhelmed.  But, if you are like me, this frenzied time has made you feel a bit disconnected from what brought you to this work in the first place.  And my hunch is that spending some time to remind ourselves of why we do this (so that we can keep our dream for our courses – and, in turn, our most important learning outcomes – front and center) might not only pay off in terms of helping us decide what to keep and what to let go of, but might also help us feel just a bit more connected to why we do what we do in the first place. 


Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., & Baki, M. (2013). The effectiveness of online and blended learning: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 1-47.

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