Assessing the Degree of Learner-Centeredness

Since Barr and Tagg introduced the concept of the instructional versus the learner-centered paradigms in 1995, higher education institutions across the country have adopted the concept in one form or another in an attempt to create learning environments that respond both to the changing profile of our students and recent research on learning with the ultimate goal of improving student success.

Many institutions have made incremental progress in moving away from an instructional model that views learning as a passive, receptive act on the part of the student, a model that favors competition over cooperation, individual achievement over collaboration, and divisiveness and control over individual differences and choice. We talk about developing learner-centeredness at our institutions that is characterized by a new focus on active learning, collaboration, and engagement. The focus, however, has been almost exclusively on what the faculty need to achieve. Little has been said in regard to the role that academic leaders need to play to foster a true, comprehensive, systemic shift in paradigms.

The term paradigm shift was originally used by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) to refer exclusively to scientific theory. Since then its use has become more generic, referring to radical changes in thought that require individuals to completely re-envision systems or organizations. We tend to use the term so generically now that we lose sight of the magnitude of the concept. To us, the word shift makes the challenge of radical change seem too easy, like shifting gears on a bicycle. Shifting gears on bicycles allows riders to maintain their cadence uninterrupted as the terrain becomes more difficult. This is most definitely not how shifting paradigms works. Our cadences will be interrupted. Shifting paradigms is unbalancing and unsettling because it is about shifting thinking and attitudes. It is an organizational metamorphosis requiring all parties to change, to alter our cadences in response to the new landscape or else fall off our bikes. The shift is not exclusively about classroom practices, and academic leaders have an important role to play in bringing it about.

There are two fundamental concerns for leadership in this enterprise. First is the need to transform administrative approaches to be consistent with the values of the new paradigm. Second is for leadership to lead the way by encouraging, promoting, and supporting the learner-centered agenda, ensuring that policies and practices do not impede progress in order that a true learner-centered institutional culture becomes a reality. This process will be a personal challenge as well as an institutional one. It will call for leaders who can envision the goal while implementing practices that will drive the change in very practical, identifiable ways.

In our roles as academic leaders, we need to take steps to foster and even push the shift toward learner-centeredness, guiding the efforts of faculty who are making attempts to transform their practices and providing support to encourage change. But to do so we need mechanisms to assess our current academic environment in order to have a clear understanding of where we are and the steps that will be involved in making progress toward the ultimate goal.

Great strides have already been made in assessing features such as student engagement, one of the features of the new paradigm. The National Survey of Student Engagement is now used by 610 campuses to help them assess good practices in undergraduate education. Other features of the learning-centered paradigm do not have large-scale assessment mechanisms readily available. Until that time, individual efforts at developing assessment of learning-centeredness are necessary. Toward that end, we have developed a mechanism for assessing the degree of learner-centeredness in a unit/department using course syllabi and a rubric that we developed for this purpose.

Right now, if asked about the state of learner-centeredness in a department or unit, we can usually point to individual faculty members who are making significant changes in teaching practices and experimenting with innovative strategies. We may also be able to point to new technology or new policies that show progress toward making the shift, but we rarely have data that clearly delineates department/unitwide the areas of success or areas of need when it comes to the distinctive features of learner-centered pedagogy.

Excerpted from Assessing the Degree of Learner-Centeredness in a Department or Unit, Academic Leader, April 2009.