Kevin Gannon

Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University

How to Fix the Dreaded Survey Course

Full vitae survey courses

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

"What’s the point of a survey course?" I’m not sure who asks that question more often — the students who have to take the class or the instructors who have to teach it.

It’s no secret that most students in any survey course are there only because they have to be. They enrolled, not from an inherent love of the discipline, but because the course fulfilled a requirement and fit their schedule. And if we’re being honest, many instructors who teach survey courses would admit we are there for similarly obligatory reasons: It was our turn to teach a section, or we’re an adjunct faculty member hired specifically to do so.

Often departments hope to use survey courses as a way to proselytize for the discipline before a captive audience of novices and newcomers. But that goal is not always a primary factor in deciding who teaches the surveys. I’ve worked in departments where the survey course was seen as fertile ground for potential majors, but I’ve also worked in places where people sought to avoid teaching it by any means possible, some of them shady.

(A former colleague claimed that he’d ended up teaching multiple sections of the survey one semester merely because he had left the department’s class-scheduling meeting to use the washroom. I’ve never been able to confirm that, but let’s just say it rings true.)

All too often, the survey course occupies the terrain of skepticism and derision: It’s not a "real" course to practitioners of a particular discipline, but for outsiders it’s way too much of that discipline. Faculty members ask: How can students learn 2,000 years of world history in a semester? And students wonder: Why am I being deluged with so much information? This is just a gen-ed class!

The mutual frustration and angst point to the most significant problem here: a fundamental lack of alignment between the things we say a survey course should accomplish and the ways we teach it.

In my own discipline of history, for example, we talk a good game about the survey course. It should be, we often say, a way for students to do history — to acquire a historian’s habits of mind that can help them find their way in the "new (abundant) economy of information."We also stress critical thinking and active intellectual approaches to the rich diversity of the historical record. We argue that students need to take history as part of their college education because it teaches skills and competencies that transcend the discipline and should be part of any educated person’s tool kit.

Yet when it comes to actually teaching the survey course, many (most?) history departments at midsize-to-large institutions do so by warehousing several hundred students in a lecture hall to be talked at by a distant professor on the stage. Then they are farmed out to "discussion sections" to — theoretically — engage more actively with the material under the care of a graduate student.

Moreover, even if the discussion sections are lively and interactive, the course itself is still structured as a vast content dump. Or, as we used to joke in my graduate program about the world-history survey: "Plato to NATO in two semesters." That’s the equivalent of making students drink from a fire hose, and it does not serve them well. If historians accomplish any of the goals we say are important in a survey class, it’s usually in spite of, rather than because of, the way we teach it.

Things are not much better at many small colleges, despite their concomitant small class sizes. There the survey is still most often conceived of as a largely passive transmission of content: Here are the specific things you should know to be historically literate; when we finish the list, the course will be over.

It doesn’t matter if there are 20 or 200 students in a classroom; if the course design and dominant pedagogy are predicated on merely transferring chunks of content, then the class itself will be — to use a technical term — a dud.

Based on my experience directing a teaching center, I know that this survey-course dilemma is not unique to historians. It’s one of the most perplexing issues we face in college teaching: how to make courses align in their purpose and execution. Whether we’re in STEM fields, the humanities, or preprofessional programs, we struggle to find the right balance between content and engagement, between building necessary competencies and avoiding information overload.

How do we create survey courses that invite students into a discipline, introduce them to the habits of mind from which they’ll derive significant benefit, and make sure they receive the necessary intellectual and academic tools to succeed not only in the survey but later on in other courses?

That’s a tall order, and our default approach to the survey course will not fill it. We cannot continue to profess lofty goals for a survey course, but design and teach it as a death march through wave after wave of content, and then complain when those goals go unmet. The old saying about insanity — it’s doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results — applies here.

So what do we do differently?

The good news is that some academics have asked this very question about their own survey courses and come up with some interesting answers — most recently in a 2018 book,Teaching the Literature Survey Course. Happily, then, those of us looking to rethink and reconfigure survey courses don’t have to rediscover fire. A set of robust scholarly conversations is already happening around the subject.

An important thread running through those conversations: A good survey course is, most emphatically, not a content-driven information transfer; it’s more like a curated collection. Some of the smartest advice I ever received about this came from a senior professor who told me, when I started teaching a survey: "Dare to omit."

We won’t be able to cover everything in a semester. We won’t even be able to cover most of the things. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to cover some of it. So defining the success of a course by how much content gets covered sets both instructor and students up to fail. Instead, embrace the liberating mantra of "less is more."

If a survey course is meant to inculcate habits of mind, trigger a desire for deeper study, and build an enduring foundation for subsequent academic work, then the course content is not the end in and of itself, but rather the vehicle to produce those outcomes. The key, then, is to see ourselves, not as purveyors of disciplinary content, but as curators.

Here are four specific strategies to effectively reconfigure and revitalize a survey course in any discipline:

Structure the course around questions. Design a survey course in which the purpose is to help students answer some fundamental question — or figure out how they might begin to answer it. A sociology survey could challenge students to answer the question "Why is our society the way it is?" A physics survey could be organized around the question "How does the universe work?"

Using a big disciplinary question as the backbone of a survey course can give it coherence, offering consistent signposts throughout the term by which students can organize and apply the material. Moreover, what better way to spark their interest in our disciplines than by wrestling with the same big questions that attracted us to our work?

Pick a particular theme. It could be one big theme (similar to the idea of a fundamental question), or you could divide your course into modules and assign each a different theme. For example, a survey course in communications might organize itself around the themes of interpersonal communication, mass communication, advertising and propaganda, new media, and communications theory. Or a biology survey might be divided into sections like cell biology, plant biology, physiology, genetics, and evolution.

That approach helps students experience the complexity of a discipline — but in a manageable fashion. If there are skills or competencies that apply in multiple themes, students will have several opportunities to develop those proficiencies in different contexts. Such an iterative approach can lead to better learning over all.

Offer the course as a "disciplinary tool kit." Is developing certain skills or competencies the primary purpose of your survey course? Then try using those specific "tools" to organize the class. For example, build a survey course in computer science around particular programming tasks students will need later in their studies.

That strategy is especially well suited to more technical and preprofessional gateway courses, such as those in the health sciences.

Employ a case-study approach. Rather than inundating students with content throughout the course, think about how case studies could stand in for larger course themes or competencies. Some history instructors, for example, use biographies for their survey: People’s individual stories are a window through which students can look at a particular historical event or period. In a social-science or business survey, a specific "real world" application exercise can be a more manageable focus for students’ engagement with the broader areas of your disciplinary content.

If you want to go all-in on that approach, problem-based learning is a pedagogical method that uses case studies and real-world applications as its central organizing feature, and has been deployed successfully by a number of faculty members across a variety of courses.

Those suggestions represent only a handful of the possibilities available to faculty members looking to rework a survey class. If our course goals are saying one thing, but our organization and instructional methods say another thing entirely, it can only lead to frustration.

The survey course doesn’t have to be the one everyone avoids teaching. And it doesn’t have to be an unrewarding endurance contest for our students.

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