Breadth Vs Depth

Something that I’ve recently been thinking about a lot is what should be taught at Universities, particularly in my area (Computer Science). What has been bugging me is trying to think about the balance between coverage and detail. Is there a bias as in you should focus more on one and not the other, or should they be covered in equal amounts.

A great way of applying this is using development concepts. Do you teach students many programming languages, giving them experience of many different syntaxes, and methodologies of programming. Or do you concentrate on fewer languages, but going into more detail about what you can do with them.

Personally, I’m inclined to go with the latter (to a point). Concentrate your efforts and get them able to apply their current knowledge to other areas, which they have not been taught. However, this has problems. Could the jeopardise the students in the future, make them feel restricted from branching into the unknown? Could it also mean that they don’t look as good to an employer?

Although I’ve used programming as an analogy (as it’s something I’m familiar with), this balance can be applied to any learning situation.

Comments please.

  • Michael Leach

    Interesting post, Rick.

    Having attended 2 years at Salford University on the Computer Science course, dropped out, and proceeded to land myself in the career of choice (website development / programming), I’ll shed my opinion on the matter.

    Despite not achieving a degree, I feel my time at University was invaluable. I only apply myself to something if it interests me, and there was a handful of modules on Computer Science that held my attention like a vice. These subjects are the ones I often studied outside of University, in my own time, exploring and answering my own questions. The subjects I didn’t enjoy I simply studied the material that was necessary to pass the module and no further.

    One of the major benefits of coverage on a degree is providing direction to a student. A student may discover:

    – a deep interest in a subject they knew very little about
    – that they actually like a subject they thought they didn’t
    – they are really good at subject they don’t like
    – they really don’t like a subject

    This can help tremendously with finding a career and choosing which area of a field they wish to expand.

    In respect to detail and degree’s, it is impossible to go in to detail for every single module. Therefore, how does one decide which modules to elaborate on / provide more detail? A given student may benefit from the detail as they wish to persue the module in their career, where as another student may benefit from detail in a different module.

    Detail may be good for employment, in the fact that a student may look better on paper (and likely to perform better) if they have deeper knowledge on a subject that is directly related to the job they are applying for. However, personally, I think that if you have enough motivation and desire to progress in a given field, such as myself with website development, a company should be able to see that and given employement you will continue to learn – but in a much more realistic environment, from other experienced and knowledgable people, gaining real experience.

    I think coverage has the upper hand on detail. Give students a taster of what is out there, a foundation on each subject, and anybody with enough spirit and desire will go on to prove themselves, be successful and continue to learn all the way through their career.

  • Rick Ogden

    Exploration is a very good point. Breadth allows people to discover areas that they may not have known existed. Exposure is very important (goes back to the Linux/Open Source problems of “getting it out there”).

    But again it boils down to balance. You can know about something, without knowing it. What should we be trying to achieve? What is the perfect balance?

  • Andrew

    Would you look at that. It’s like a little reunion.

    Some breadth was important to me, I came planning to do software development but then realised I find that boring and without the variety of subjects looked at I’d not have found that networking was the thing for me.

    Not that it’s done me any good so far, jobs-wise.

  • Colette

    Obviously I can’t comment on Computer science (because I don’t know anything about it and what you’ve said sounds reasonable) but I can definately talk about breadth v depth in relation to Environmental Health.

    For EH, I can’t help but disagree. My ELP must cover 5 main different intervention areas (these 5 aren’t all exactly the same size) and within those areas are sub-interventions where I have demonstrate skills in 13- 19 different areas.

    At the end of this year or next year, the ELP expects me to have demonstrated skills in 83 different smaller areas.

    Although some depth is covered, all the 83 situations are meant to be very different. So for example, I couldn’t write two different reports on similar situations such as maggots in food or noisy neighbours.

  • Colette

    Oh and yes, we do have specialists but that only comes with much more experience and education past degree level.

  • This is a bit of a puzzle. At university I studied assembler, C, Java, pascal, prolog, some VHDL … and that was on an Electronic Engineering course! Basically they took the approach that each lecturer taught in whatever language/platform they wanted to and the students quickly learned that these are just tools. I learned OOP in Java but it made complete sense when I wanted to use it in PHP a few years later.

    Students need at exposure to at least three languages, so they can realise the language is not the point. The same goes for other topics, they should know what’s out there but they need in-depth understanding of some subjects, and some idea of how to react if they need to know something they don’t already know. This field moves on so quickly that if they’re going to stay employed its what they do with what they don’t know that will save them, not anything you actually teach them at this point in their lives!

    That’s my tuppence – clearly strongly influenced by my own educational experience (thankyou York University Electronics Department, I’m only now learning how much I learned there)

  • I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  • Rick Ogden

    Feel free.