November 10th, 2009

Taking a Learner-Centered Approach in Online Courses


One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the adoption of student-centered instruction. Here are a few tips for taking this approach to teaching in your online courses:

Be a constant presence for suggestions and insights. Look at your role as that of the coordinator of a cooperative: give initial directions and guidance, but also constantly pop in to give kudos for good student postings, suggestions to help their learning, and applause for discussion or team postings that developed into long threads from one initial student’s thoughts. Be sure to point out the importance of supporting and thanking fellow classmates for ideas. All of this will go a long way in keeping students engaged and helping them to learn more.

Post mini-lectures that translate into ultra important. If I were to see lecture after lecture posted by a professor, I’d sooner take out my eyes with a hot poker than read them. Lectures like this become so much blah-blah-blah, and students soon find it difficult to absorb all the information. But by posting mini-lectures (one to three paragraphs centered on one subject), the students will recognize these as important because of their infrequency, be more eager to read them, and will certainly absorb—and remember—their contents easier. (Hint: you might want to mention these in your welcoming email.)

Offer an engaging variety of assigned and supplemental readings. Choose your assigned readings—and how much to read—wisely. And also always offer a variety of supplemental readings that are engaging, interesting, and perhaps fun—the students won’t have to read them, but you can make them want to.

Offer reality-based education approaches to material covered in class. By stressing connections between what students learn from the assigned material and its use in the real world, you are telling students they must rely on their critical thinking, interacting with others in class, and further research to “fill in the blanks” of what they have not been implicitly taught. Hold them responsible for getting this information—but don’t punish them if they get it wrong: you want them to have “A-ha!” moments of learning, not “What’s the use of trying?” thoughts.

Get students actively involved in the course. By having students offer suggestions—readings, websites, poetry, theories, organizations, etc.—to enhance various portions of the course they become more invested in this cooperative of a class you are coordinating and guiding. The bonuses are that students will be learning in deeper layers of what the course initially offered, they have another internal motivator to stay engaged in the course, and you pick up additional items for inclusion the next time you teach the course.

Know that students have a variety of learning styles. student-centered instruction is not a panacea; some students will, in fact, simply work better with a faculty-centered instruction approach. But the times they are, indeed, changing, and by placing more of the learning process on the students you offer students more options to explore and expand their own learning capabilities.

Excerpted from Teaching Online With Errol: Online Teaching: Perfect for Student-Centered Learning! Online Classroom, Dec. 2007.