When single, I spent hours trekking to markets for ingredients to make bread or curries from scratch. When part of a couple, I discovered the local French bakery and curry pastes in the Asian supermarket. When my family grew to three, I made do with whatever curries and breads were on sale at the local grocer. Now there are four of us, my meals have been reduced to just 3 or 4 ingredients by making the most of fresh produce and herbs and sauces.
Obviously my cooking is far less sophisticated with a much simpler flavour profile and yet, the meals are still satisfying, healthy and tasty. It recently occurred to me there are parallels with the subjects I teach. I first started at UTS in a small department with a strong teaching focus. I inherited several old patch-worked subjects and inspired by my IML Grad Cert learning I set about making them more “sophisticated” by adding extra new activities and assessments. As semesters rolled by I used the SFS feedback to add an extra tutorial here, an extra assignment there, and a new practical activity for good measure. I was essentially creating my own extremely complicated recipe except without the experience of Yotam Ottolenghi! It was as though I had received a new herb and spice rack for Christmas and I was excitedly adding a pinch of cayenne, a dash of vanilla and a sprinkling of parsley… I now realise the only way the students found their way through the unappetising hodgepodge was by me being very hands-on in the classroom and available outside formal teaching hours.
Nowadays the class sizes are growing and more of my time needs to be spent outside the classroom, so the solution to that confusing student experience is simplify, simplify, simplify. Not everything in my teaching spice rack needs to go into every subject! Using 4 Ingredient cooking as a model I’ve come up with a set of guidelines to reduce the number of different activities to 4 or less to make my subjects slicker:
1. Focus on the essential learning outcomes only – the key ingredients!
2. Drop activities related to minor learning outcomes. Yes, it feels like a waste, like throwing out a saucepan of food that’s cost me hours of work, but get rid of them! The students probably didn’t have enough time dedicated to those activities anyway.
3. Make the most of pre-prepared activities and avoid creating activities from scratch where possible. Outsourcing saves time! Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare are good examples of pre-existing material which can be used to start a class problem solving session.
4. Reduce duplicate activities. Sugar and honey aren’t both necessary so drop one.
5. Reduce the number of assessment items – so many different measuring implements surely aren’t necessary.
6. Substitute easily available activities for fancier ones. Fleur de sel and Maldon are lovely, but regular iodised table salt will still do the trick. Getting the students to download software and analyse real synchrotron data is an authentic activity, but some clean simulated data which they can analyse with software installed on UTS computers will always be less of a headache.