One of the most valuable things that I learned when I was getting a teaching credential many years ago was the concept, “less is more.” Sixteen years of teaching have further strengthened my faith in this key concept. The idea is as simple as it sounds. When students are expected to learn a large amount of information in a short time, they may become overwhelmed and end up learning very little. On the contrary, if a teacher breaks things down to a few essential ideas and covers these concepts thoroughly, students will have a better chance of retaining the information. Less material covered can lead to more material actually learned.
This concept is particularly important in a History course. One of the reasons why many people dislike history is because they view it as a mass memorization exercise in which they are expected to absorb various facts about famous events and (mostly dead) people. It is apparently nothing but a training course for either completing future crossword puzzles or impressing your friends while watching Jeopardy. So if a college History professor dumps a one hundred question multiple choice test on his or her students, it will reinforce students’ frustration with this subject. Of course, memorization is an inevitable and essential part of any type of learning, and History teachers should expect students to memorize certain key facts. The trick is separating the key facts from the trivia.
So here is a simple example of how “less is more” can work. World War II may be the most studied and discussed topic in American History. One can easily spend a lifetime studying nothing but this subject. I have met several people over the years, in fact, who could tell you practically everything about World War II and very little about anything else. (The History Channel used to be nicknamed the World War II channel.) We don’t have a lifetime in a community college History class, of course; in fact, we only have three or four hours to spend on World War II. So how do you narrow down the mass of material that could be talked about into just a few hours?
For every topic I cover, I try to break things down to a few key questions. My Power Point outline is then built around these simple questions. For World War II, the core questions are similar to those of every major war I cover, from the American Revolution to Vietnam. First, who was fighting and why? We then do a quick overview of the motives behind German and Japanese expansion. Second, how did the United States respond when World War II started, and what circumstances eventually led us to enter the war? We then talk about the reasons why the United States initially stayed out of the war and the process by which we gradually became involved, culminating in Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Third, who won this war and why? We then talk about the advantages that the allies had in the war, focusing primarily on their ability to produce more than the Germans and Japanese. Next, we discuss the impact that the war had on people living in the United States, discussing its impact on the economy, federal government power, and social change. Finally, we finish this topic by discussing issues that the United States had to deal with when the war ended, with the most important being the threat posed by our former ally: The Soviet Union.
So there you have it: World War II broken down into a single paragraph. And if you think that is impressive, you should see what I do during test reviews. Typically, during the class before a test, I go over everything that will be on the test in about ten minutes. Obviously, this is not done in tremendous detail, which is kind of the point. I want students to get the big picture straight in their minds before they worry about memorizing some of the details. They need to see that history is a story, and if you break it down to certain key questions, it is much easier to make some sense out of that story. On most of the tests that I give, half of the points are determined by two essay questions. After conducting our review, I encourage them to predict what these questions will be. All they have to do is look at the essential questions that we have covered for each topic. They are right there in the class notes. They just need to take the main headings in the Power Point outlines and turn them into questions.
Now I could give other, more detailed examples to explain the concept of “less is more,” but I think that I will stop at this point. Less, after all, is more.