September 27, 2008

Instructional Design: Six Strategies to Make Courses More Learner Centered Without Sacrificing Content

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Concerns about covering content are legitimate, but they often block a whole family of techniques that more effectively involve students and promote learning. “I know I should do more active learning, but I have all this content to cover . . .” We routinely favor involving students but we do so understanding that the content-coverage dilemma confronts faculty with difficult decisions.

In two thoughtful, well-documented descriptions of his experiences making geoscience courses more student and learning centered, Mark Harris says that faculty, particularly those at research universities, face two problems. “The first involves the course-level issue of how to utilize new teaching techniques without loss of course content. The second concerns how to pursue teaching innovation without sacrificing time needed to pursue traditional research activities.” (2001, p. 51) Harris proceeds to recommend six strategies that helped him overcome the content and time disincentives.

  1. Develop a support network—Whether the network involves an organizational program like a faculty development unit or an informal cohort of like-minded colleagues, “the importance of these networks cannot be overestimated for adopting new pedagogical methods.” (2001, p. 51) Faculty struggling to balance content demands and time issues need advice and encouragement.
  2. Implement change incrementally—It takes a tremendous amount of time to overhaul an entire course and much mental focus, especially if the faculty member has limited experience with alternative approaches. Doing fewer allows the instructor to become comfortable with the strategies and to have enough time to thoughtfully assess their impact.
  3. Focus on student learning and skill development—The advice here is to start with students and learning, not on the need to improve teaching. When learning is the ultimate, explicit objective of the course, instructor priorities change. Now comprehension supercedes coverage in importance. In Harris’ words, “The shift to a student-centered perspective changes how an instructor views the goals of a course and how successful teaching is measured.” (2001, p. 51)
  4. Use assessment techniques that address learning and comprehension—Traditional, end-of-course rating instruments don’t help much when instructors need feedback on specific approaches and want to see the effect of new strategies on learning outcomes. In a more recent article, Harris describes a “weekly questionnaire” strategy he used with questions designed to “provoke a reflective response.” (2002, p. 516) He tabulates results and reports back to the class. “Initially, students are skeptical about the use of questionnaires, but they are encouraged by the in-class presentation and discussion of their ideas. They become highly motivated when an instructor modifies course plans in response to their comments because this demonstrates that their learning is a real course objective.” (2002, p. 516)
  5. Start with non-major courses—Start here because there is more wiggle room with the content issue. Harris also notes that honors and first-year seminar formats encourage innovative approaches and can provide a testing ground for strategies that might be incorporated in other courses subsequently.
  6. Make pedagogy part of your research—Even at research universities there is more openness to pedagogical scholarship. And making instructional innovations the object of scholarly inquiry certainly encourages more careful planning, implementation, and assessment. Harris notes, “This strategy involves carrying teaching experiences into research, as opposed to the more commonly encountered transfer of research experiences into teaching.” (2001, p. 52)

Also of value in these two articles are a number strategies Harris reports using that help student teach themselves content outside of class so that more class time can be devoted to activities that promote interaction. For example, he uses reading notes that direct students to material they must learn (in the 600-page text) and that assist them with particularly difficult parts of the text. “My experience is that these reading notes are highly valued by students because they can structure their out-of-class work efficiently to prepare themselves for the in-class activities.” (2001, p. 52)

In the end, Harris observes, “All of this requires planning and a willingness to understand student learning as it occurs in the classroom. For these reasons, a student-learning centered course requires more on-going effort by an instructor during a semester. However, there are many benefits: students are more engaged in solving meaningful problems, course material is more closely linked to actual practice, and assignments are worth evaluating.” (2002, p. 521)

References: Harris, M. T. (2001). Strategies for implementing pedagogical changes by faculty at a research university. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49 (1), 50-55.

Harris, M. T. (2002). Developing geoscience student-learning centered courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49 (1), 515-523.

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