June 1st, 2011

Changing the Way We Teach: Making the Case for Learner-Centered Teaching


“Why should we change the way we teach?” a marketing professor asked with an honest gaze and a smile that bespoke sincerity. It was early in a workshop session just after I’d introduced the idea of learner-centered teaching and explained why students should be doing more of the learning tasks themselves.

In a lot of ways the question links to one I recently asked myself: “Should I keep working on learner-centered teaching?” The folks at Jossey-Bass have been after me to do an update of my Learner-Centered Teaching book. For quite a while I resisted. Why revisit a place I’ve already been? At this stage in my academic career, do I have time to go back?

But then in January I decided I would look seriously at what’s been published since that book came out in 2002. I was amazed at what I found—all sorts of new research and discipline-based work in lots of different areas, and virtually all of it supportive of techniques that get students engaged and make them more responsible for their learning. I’m hard at work on a new edition, excited by what I’ve found to include and convinced that this evidence offers lots of reasons why we should change the way we teach. Here’s a brief summary of those reasons.

If teachers focus their attention on the learning experiences of students and make changes based on what we know about teaching that promotes learning:

Students will understand more of what they are learning – When students interact with the content, when they speak about it and work with it, they make it their own and it becomes meaningful to them. It makes sense. They see why it’s important, why they must know it and how it fits with what they already know and still need to learn.

Students will retain what they learn longer – When students are engaged and involved with the content, when they are really learning, as in understanding the material, they remember it longer. Their knowledge goes from being something crammed in their heads which bursts out and drains away on an exam to being a solid foundation on which more new learning can rest.

Students will learn more than just the content – When students are involved and engaged with the material, directing their learning of it and working on it with others, they are developing important learning skills. They are learning to ask questions, to find answers, to challenge reasons, to consider alternatives, to evaluate evidence, and to solve problems. The acquisition of those skills is enhanced further with constructive feedback from teachers. Students leave these kinds of learning experiences, not just knowing the content, but equipped to learn more on their own and for themselves.

Chances are good students will be changed by what they learn – Deep, conceptual understanding transcends whatever it is the student has learned. Understanding at that level has implications for who they are, how they think and what they see in the world around them. When students own the material and the learning process, learning is often a transformative experience—one that involves deep and profound change.

Students will love learning more – A good learning experience where the student conquers challenging content, finds out something fascinating, and through the process discovers an aptitude for doing something, this is what creates an ongoing hunger for learning.

I think these are compelling reasons to change the way we teach—to move away from instruction devoted to teacher-transmitted content and teacher-directed learning and toward more student-centered teaching. There is still a time and place for telling students what they need to know and ought to do. The process of moving toward learner-centeredness is a developmental one for teachers and students. But student discovery of what they need to know, their selection of the processes by which they learn it, their firsthand experience of the messiness of learning, and their need to assess what they have learned—we need to make more time and a larger space for that kind of teaching and learning.

  • David L. Strickland

    I really enjoyed this article in Faculty Focus. I hope that Dr. Weimer does update her 2002 book. I will look forward to reading it. I have just finished writing an Introduction to Sociology textbook called "My Sociology" which I must send to the publisher today. I took extra care to make my book learner-centered and to fill it with, in Weiner's words, "supportive of techniques that get students engaged and make them more responsible for their learning.
    If you wish to know more about learner Centered teaching before you read Weimer's entire book, then you may enjoy the online summary and review of Weimer’s book (written by Bill Peirce, Coordinator of reasoning Across the Curriculum and available at the following URL: http://academic.pgcc.edu/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/weimer.h….

  • vicki

    Is this really new? Haven't we been talking about this and teaching it in Master's Degree Adult Learning programs for years?

    • Peggy Hale

      I am in the K-12 education, and even though it has been around for years…I can say it is NOT happening as it should. There are still teachers who still choose 90% lecture style teaching.

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  • To kindly echo vicki's point, "yes," andragogy has always described a model that leads to/or incorporates the features/outcomes stated, however I see three problems which exist:

    1. Andragogy isn't widely adopted outside of Adult Educators who actually have a graduate degree in the subject.
    2. Those who support andragogy as a educational theory/model of instruction can't seem to agree on its essentials – and hence the field suffers from an identity crisis.
    3. Stemming from 1 and 2, proponents of andragogy haven't clearly found their voice (outside of http://www.AAACE.org) and, subsequently, the features of what Knowles and others presented us aren't well-known.

    In my own effort to easily communicate the major tenets of andragogy, I have created a diagram and welcome your comments:

    Very respectfully,

  • chan

    There's nothing new in the article. For years scholars in adult education have been talking about it.

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  • I teach math to technology students at a four-year university. According to an informal test a colleague and I ran for several years, our students are 95% Myers Briggs S's. I am an N. When we discovered that trend, I knew I had to radically change my teaching style. I did. She did. Years ago I found that by having students spend more than half the class period actually solving the math problems using the procedures I just developed in class was a highly effective learning experience, much more so than their doing homework in a vacuum. By having me right there to answer questions about both the math and the TI-89, the students learn only the right way to do the problem. The frustration level is low. They don't hate math anymore since they learn how to succeed in it. Since they are in class with twenty other students, they interact, they help each other – they work together on a "project". When they leave my class they go focus on courses in their majors without fretting about math. In my experience, today's students just want to learn. They get so frustrated when teachers don't teach.

  • eddoc

    I think it is true we have been talking about his idea for a while-but talking is not doing. We need to engage. The first year I taught on the college level I found myself lecturing all the time. My students were bored and so was I. Now, my students are engaged, participating, challenged and learning. It is a win, win.

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  • Doug Roebuck

    Does anyone work with/teach preservice elementary teachers in either mathematics content or methods and have ideas for learner-centered teaching? A group of us are reading "Learner-Centered Teaching, 2nd Ed."by Maryellen Weimer. I am looking for ideas/activities/etc. that I can use with such students. Thanks in advance. Doug Roebuck dwroebuck@bsu.edu

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