Depth versus Breadth

Here’s a list of the courses I took in my undergrad career whose topics I use regularly in my job:

  • Media Arts Studio
  • Theory and Practice of Radio
  • Human-Computer Interface Design
  • Computer Science 1
  • Physics 1 and 2
  • Chemistry 1
  • Math 1 and 2

These comprise just over a quarter of my undergraduate course load. It struck me the other day that I will never use the majority of what I learned in my college courses. If I were a professor, I suspect I would be in the same situation – just replace the first three courses with upper-level physics electives relating to my research. An examination of my graduate coursework fares no better.

Note that I was a physics major, and was hired for a physics education position, so my work theoretically should align fairly well with my major. The last three lines were courses required for my major; the others were not. I have used information from several upper-level physics courses, but not more than once or twice per month, and not for calculation (which was the primary goal of the courses). I use far more high-school knowledge, especially from my English courses, than I do from anything in college or graduate school. There’s definitely knowledge from (e.g.) Physics 1 that was cemented by Intermediate Mechanics and Advanced Mechanics, but nothing that actually originated in I-Mech or A-Mech makes it into my daily work. (Thank god.)

Now, I pride myself on being a generalist, and most jobs out there are fairly specialized (at least until you start doing them and realize you need all this other stuff to do it right). There’s no conceivable job that could use all of my undergraduate courses. Perhaps being the only professor at a one-room-schoolhouse-style university. However, one quarter still seems like a pretty low proportion, especially since most of these courses have no prerequisites.

I really do believe that individual courses need to focus on depth rather than breadth. There’s research to back that up as well – the more topics you cram into your course, the worse students learn them. However, given my own experience, a major or a college or high school curriculum as a whole may not need much depth.

The wonderful side of this is that it makes little difference what I do with the other 70% of my coursework! I took all sorts of things that I simply enjoyed taking, rather than thinking that they would come in handy some day. Lo and behold, the top four courses on my list. Packing my education with more physics courses might have made more physics-oriented jobs available to me, but would not have changed my fitness for the jobs for which I was qualified. The down side is that I look at a lot of my education and say, “Well, uh… not sure why I took that when I could have taken something more fun.” It seems that there’s an equal chance of it being useful in my job.

Since a single person’s experience does not make for a good overview, I’m curious as to how this goes for other majors. I would imagine that Computer Science, for instance, might give one more practical knowledge that comes up on a more regular basis. Perhaps Accounting, or Linguistics, or some other function-oriented rather than knowledge-oriented major would fare well on such percent-wise comparisons. I’m also curious as to how folks feel about their upper-level courses reinforcing their lower-level courses.

I welcome feedback on this issue, both on the poll and in the comments.

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About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on December 14, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’m going to throw your curve, since I am a Resource teacher, and have to be able to jump to every subject that we offer, 9-12, plus whatever specialized direction interests my students. There are days I feel I am scraping the sides of everything I may have learned from my own 9th grade year, through grad school, plus creative thinking and what I taught myself last period through the powers of internet research. They keep me on my toes.

  2. I thought about it, and realized I couldn’t answer your poll–I wasn’t sure how to. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, and I’ve often worked those jobs simultaneously, so what particular coursework I rely on can change significantly. Also, since my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree were in such different fields, it’s even tougher for me to distinguish what became most useful and what I didn’t use as much. And oftentimes, it’s less about the actual coursework than what I learned about thinking, and dealing with problems, in a certain way.

    I can say, with some confidence, that the most useful course I ever took was a class on midrash (roughly, Jewish biblical interpretation) in graduate school. I don’t routinely deal with midrashim, of course, but in order to study and appreciate the field, I had to learn about a certain worldview and way of thinking about (in this case) Scripture that actually turns out to be widely applicable to how people in general think about things in their daily lives. It was truly a life-changing course, and I felt like it opened my eyes to a lot of things: I understood better how some people were processing things differently than I was. It was an amazing class. But if you’d had me guess, before I took the class, on what affect it would have on my life, I never would have imagined it would be so fascinating or so, well, instructive.

    • I hear you – I often advocate for the “teaching how to think” approach, getting folks to think like a physicist or like a historian or what have you. Two of my unexpected game-changers were “Science Fiction and Virtual Reality” and “The CIA and the Art of Intelligence.” The former was great because of all the conflicting viewpoints coming together and seeing how other people saw things; the latter because it gave me an insight into how governments view each other. Not an impact on my job, but definitely an impact on my life.

  1. Pingback: Depth versus Breadth « Don't Stop Learning | My Blog

  2. Pingback: CompSci and College « Don't Stop Learning

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