September 4th, 2013

Fostering the Reciprocity of Learning


In the July 10, 2013 post, I shared some ideas about learning with students precipitated by an article that made an interesting distinction between “doing for” students and “learning with” students. The post generated some good responses and prompted Aron Reppmann, a philosophy professor at Trinity Christian College in Illinois, to send me an email. “I think you have your finger on something that’s often missed in debates about professors’ posture toward students: namely that to say that we learn with and from our students is not necessarily to say that we are always learning in the same way as our students.”

It does seem a bit of hypocritical to pretend that we are learning with our students if that means we are learning in the same way (Professor Reppmann’s point) or even learning the same things. Those of us who have been in the classroom (or the online classroom) for years are teaching courses with content that we have come to know well. That doesn’t mean we know everything about what we teach. It is still possible, indeed likely, that as we teach it yet again, we gain a new insight or reach a different level of understanding. It is even possible that a student question or answer will take us into new intellectual territory. But even as we learn familiar content better, we are not learning it in the same fashion as students who are encountering it for the first time (or the second or third time in their major courses). We don’t learn with students as equal partners when the learning involves course content.

Nonetheless, we are learners just as our students are and there are parts of the quest for knowledge that’s shared by all learners. Professor Reppmann continues in his note, “Rather than presenting myself to students as their peer in learning, I have come to emphasize the reciprocity of our learning; . . .while we all should have and articulate various learning goals for a particular course, those goals can and should vary according to our different roles.”

Professor Reppmann has a unique way of categorizing these various learning goals. He shares the grid below with his students early in the course. The upper left hand quadrant is what is usually emphasized when teachers talk about learning goals. They are the goals the teacher, the department, and the institution have for students; some are specific to the course and others are goals teachers have for students in every course. But students also have learning goals for the course and for college. Some of their goals may be the same as those in the upper left quadrant, but some may be different.

Then there are the bottom two quadrants. We have (or should have) goals for our learning—in each course, in our ongoing growth and development as teachers, in our fields as scholars, and in our continuing work at our institutions. The grid is completed by the lower right quadrant which identifies learning goals that students have for the teacher. Professor Reppmann notes, “For many students, this lower right quadrant is the most difficult for them to imagine, but it does provoke significant reflection—I frequently receive appreciative comments about this on end-of-semester student evaluations.” That’s not surprising. In fact, Professor Reppmann says students have told him that they haven’t had professors who admit they learn things from students and they never thought about what expectations students might have for their professors’ learning.

Student and Faculty Learning Goals
Image courtesy of Aron Reppmann, PhD. Trinity Christian College. Create your own with this editable PDF »

What an interesting early-in-the-course discussion activity this grid could provoke. It encourages students to think about their goals for the course (beyond a good grade) and how those goals are the same or different than the professor’s goals for their learning. It also allows students to see that their teacher has a learning agenda as well, and challenges them to think about what professors might learn from students. If we are serious in our intent to make courses “learning” centered, then we must take time to talk about learning. Teachers and students should be sharing what and how they are learning. I should be sharing with those I teach how I’ve come to better understand how teachers learn with students—maybe I just have.

If you’d like to use Dr. Rappmann’s chart in your courses, download the editable PDF version below and personalize it with your name.

Student and Faculty Learning Goals | Aron Reppmann | Faculty Focus 20130904 by FacultyFocus

  • kellyboucher

    Thanks Maryellen for this great article and activity. I wonder if you have students complete the right hand quadrant individually or in small groups? In your experience, do students struggle with providing goals for you as the instructor? Would you have some examples of goals that students have provided for the instructor?

    I am going to give this activity a try this fall.


  • Rhonda

    Great activity! Can the PDF please be adjusted to include "her" in the lower left quadrant?

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  • Daniel R.

    The ideas presented in this blog were thought provoking to me as I prepare for student teaching. I know that if I truly believe that a teacher wants to advance and know his subject better and also has a genuine desire to learn about me as his student, I will have a greater respect and desire to learn from him. In my student teaching I hope to have a teachable attitude and desire to understand my students while maintaining a balanced authority in the classroom.

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  • vijay venkatraman

    Hi MaryEllen — I am a writer for Science Careers and would like to briefly interview you .
    Not sure what is the best way to reach you.
    My email is here — it would be great if you could get in touch.


  • Cindy C

    Thanks Maryellen for providing this great resource.
    I found Dr. Reppmann's learning goals to be a great start because they encourage reflective thought and motivational awareness for the students. His chart highlights that influence is reciprocal and part of the learning process.

    • Bob G.

      Cindy C. I also enjoyed the view of learning as a shared, reciprocal process. I would not have thought of students having goals for what the professor might learn, but doing so might dramatically change the student's levels of participation and engagement. It would add an entirely new dynamic, wouldn't it?

      • Cindy C

        Yes, indeed. I consider it would bring a good dose of responsibility to the classroom that is not often attained.

    • Tim K

      Wow what a novel and simple approach. Well there you go for asking how one knows if his instructor is interested in connecting with them or not. I like the feedback from the students that they have never had a professor "admit" they learn things from students. Shame on us all for missing the greatest aspect of learning, namely making known and being known.

      • Cindy C

        Yes Tim, I consider the real goal for teachers (as well as all people) is to present our authentic self and not be placed on some pinnacle of omniscience.