Becoming superhuman?

I happened upon Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-hour body a year ago. I was desperately looking for a system that could keep me more or less fit in spite of the regular academic crunch times. I confess I do not have the discipline of finding some time for exercise no matter what. My tendency is to work on a task basis, which means taking no breaks until done. That meant hours and hours sitting in front of the computer, and it was taking a toll.

The book was fun to read, and the diet and exercise advice worked for me. I do not follow it as rigorously as before, but it is still the basis of how I eat and how I exercise. (Just to be clear: I am not endorsing it or anything, just sharing that it worked for me).

If you are not familiar with Tim Ferriss, he is a sorts of accelerated learning expert as explained in his bestsellers (the latest being The 4-hour chef). In a self-deprecating and humorous manner, he shares his ways of mastering new skills, from new languages to gourmet cooking.

I was thinking about it as I started reviewing my lecture powerpoints for my current microbiology class.

One of Tim’s main points is that most activities can be mastered in an accelerated optimized way. As my teaching takes place in an accelerated environment, most of us teaching at NU explore learning strategies supportive of this approach. Traditional lecturing is not really feasible- many of us combine short lectures with group activities, audiovisuals, or more active approaches to chunk the content and keep students’ interest.

However, as I went over my lecture slides, I started noticing things. Apologies in advance that I am going to talk now about metabolism…that was the chapter I lectured on.

For starters, there were slides that did not make sense where they were except for me. For example, after an introduction to metabolism and metabolic pathways, there was a slide about oxidation-reduction. I know that this is an opening to what is coming next, which is the topic of carbohydrate catabolism. But why talk about oxidation-reduction in abstract first, when I will have to explain it later anyway when referring to what happens during cellular respiration?

The second thing I noticed was lots of material irrelevant for the particular student audience (this case pre-allied health students). Yes, it is pretty to show the names of the components of the electron transport chain, but in all honesty, I do not remember many of them (and I was a biochem major).

Tortora chapter 5

Oxidative phosphorylation, summarized.

I started cleaning up my slides. I took away all information that seemed superfluous, and arranged the slides so there was a clear narrative from beginning to end.

Lecture was yesterday. I followed the narrative of the slides, repeating several times the basic messages. Once students got the relationship between oxidation, reduction, electrons, and hydrogens, I made them look at the metabolic pathway diagrams and count carbons, NADHs, and ATPs. I was stoked seeing their faces, deep in thought as they followed the path of energy. I asked them to turn to their neighbors and explain things with their own words. They asked questions. They were engaged. This chapter is one that I usually dread to teach, but last night was an exception.

We often say “less is more,” but it is not always easy to let go of material or approaches that seemed necessary to achieve something. How much of it is really necessary, and how much of it is tradition and inertia?

Dear educators, how do you achieve a balance between the content that one is supposed to teach and what is really relevant to teach?