August 23, 2010

The Benefits of Making the Shift to Student-Centered Teaching

By: in Effective Teaching Strategies

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Would you let your students decide when you hold office hours?

How about whether projects are worth more points than exams, or vice versa?

Would you let your students decide some of the topics that will be covered in the course?

As learner-centered teaching continues to take hold, the balance of power in college classrooms is shifting from faculty to students. Not only do students have more power and choices, but they’ve become more responsible for their own learning.

If you’re used to teaching in the traditional, instructor-centered mode, sharing power with students can seem a little scary at first. And if you teach a large class of 80 or more students, the idea sounds like an invitation for chaos. Plus, let’s face it, it’s not unheard of for college students to try to “work the system” (no matter what that system is), and in some cases what they want out of your course, more than anything else, is an A (never mind if learning accompanies the grade).

And yet, learning-centered teaching can engage and motivate students in exciting ways not seen in most instructor-based classrooms, and even small, incremental changes can make a big difference in student learning, student attitudes, and class dynamics, says Carol Hurney, PhD, executive director of James Madison University’s Center for Faculty Innovation.

In the online seminar, Practicing Learner-Centered Teaching in Large Classes, Hurney presented three case studies from professors who felt something was lacking in their courses and made the conscious decision to add more learner-centered components. For example, a biology professor wanted his students to learn the basic course content on their own, so that class time could be used to tackle more complex topics.

The professor implemented a Readiness Assurance Process where each student takes a quiz on the assigned reading. The class then breaks into groups and takes the same quiz collaboratively using special IF-AT score sheets. The IF-AT sheets work a little like a scratch-off lottery ticket, and the students need to work on each question until the correct answer is revealed. The professor can then see if the group got the correct answer in one try, two tries, etc.

“I sat in and observed the students taking their group quizzes, and witnessed a lot of good discussion. At one point a student said that he thought the answer was ‘C’ because he remembered a chart from the reading that explained the process in question and I just thought ‘Wow, a student remembered a chart from the reading!’”

Not only are the students more engaged during class, and taking responsibility for their reading assignments, but the professor reports that even though quizzes take up part of the class time, he’s actually able to cover more content than in the past because the students arrive with a good foundation of knowledge, Hurney says.

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