April 27th, 2010

Transforming Your Teaching Style: A Student-Centered Approach


When I started teaching 27 years ago, like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz I believed that just having a brain would make me successful. And so each class session I would literally “take the stage” on a raised platform to deliver what was in my head and on my papers. Even though there were 60 students in the class, there could just as well have been none because I basically ignored the students. They were objects, sponges whose task was to absorb course content.

Over the years my approach has changed. I started making progress once I realized that a brain alone was not enough. To teach well I also needed a heart and courage. I learned to be comfortable just being myself. I no longer used the podium and came to class with a one-page plan. I lectured less and students talked more. I invested more of myself in teaching. Let me share how I reached this point.

As I’ve developed as teacher, my attention shifted from self to students. Although this is a natural progression for teachers, it is not automatic. Some teachers remain the focal point of the learning process. This transfer of focus has been the impetus for changing how I teach. In planning for classes now, I continually ask how I can get students out of the stands and onto the field. This means I design simulations to highlight important information and processes, create games to explain content, and use small-group activities to engage students. I want my students to grasp concepts, and being in an active role helps them do that.

Placing students in the center of the teaching-learning environment requires that teachers have a different attitude and a new way of relating to students. Effective teachers are comfortable with both the cognitive and affective dimensions of teaching. Achieving more genuine relationships means being available to students, being glad to be in class with them, sharing with them what’s happening in our lives that is relevant, and investing the time it takes to prepare meaningful activities.

As a college teacher, I see my role as one of enabling others to become their best. I have come to realize that it is not so much what students know as what they can do. Likewise, teaching is not about what I know but what I enable others to do. Thus, I have changed the ways in which I teach to build students’ capacities. The critical question now is: “How can students show their understanding?” Finding ways to allow such student demonstrations influences my choice of course activities and assessments.

Finally, I want students to know that I reflect on what I do. I respond to their feedback; I talk about my mistakes in teaching. I agree with Parker Palmer when he says that “…teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.” Because of this personal exposure, teaching demands courage and honesty. It is vital to view the process of teaching as a developmental journey and to share the belief that we have not “arrived” in the practice of our craft. In this way we present ourselves as more approachable; our arrogance (perceived or real) thus declines. Students become more accepting of us.

One’s transformation as a teacher should not be a one-time event but a continual process that spans the career. Focusing on students, building their capabilities, and examining our own practice can transform our teaching and students’ learning. The evolving nature of becoming a teacher definitely makes the journey more enjoyable.

Patricia H. Phelps, EdD, is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas.

Excerpted from Teaching Transformation, December 2008, The Teaching Professor.