March 2nd, 2011

Great Expectations: Helping Students Take Responsibility for Learning

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This week I’ve been reading up on a variety of group structures now being used, mainly in the sciences, to get students working together on understanding and mastering course material. As I read about these interesting models, I keep hearing faculty respond: “Great, but I teach content that must be covered in this course.” And that excuse prevents them from considering any strategy that diminishes the amount of content they can get through in a class period, even though most are wise enough to know that just because it’s been covered doesn’t mean it’s been learned.

Is there any way students can learn course content on their own? I know, the first and almost automatic response is, “Are you kidding?” But I also read a wonderful article this week written by a professor who teaches large physiology classes using a highly interactive method. She only lectures a bit, here and there. The rest of the 90-minute class sessions students are talking and working on problems. Her method works because she expects students to have read and learned the basics before they come to class.

“Based on my teaching experience, I think that given well-written objectives and access to good resources, most students can teach themselves the basics … I decided that it was a waste of my time to stand up in lecture and say, ‘the functions of the cardiovascular system are …’ and wait while students wrote my list down.” (p. 137) To help students learn material on their own, she has created a workbook that includes preclass reading assignments, information that students will be using during class, and lots of problems, including test questions from the past three years. The workbook also includes basic content questions, such as “list the functions of the cardiovascular system.” Class begins with an overview of the topic and a quiz if she thinks students aren’t doing their preclass preparation. Then it’s group work with intervals of questions and answer and short lectures on the really tough topics.

Sometimes I think we lose sight of students’ capabilities. Of course, they like to be spoon fed, or at least many of them do. It is easier that way … for them and for us. But they need to learn how to feed themselves and they aren’t going to learn that unless we put a plate of food in front of them and give them a spoon. Those of you who have kids know what happens next and it isn’t pretty, but is there another way to learn how to eat? I think we sometimes forget that students not only need to learn the material, they must also learn to make decisions about what they need to know and how they will acquire that knowledge.

We also underestimate the power of teacher expectations. I think a lot of time we teach expecting students to be unprepared, disengaged and unmotivated. And so they meet our expectations. How do we break the cycle? We take actions assuming a different set of expectations. I used to tell my students to bring their books to class. Few did, but I brought mine and when I asked students to open their books, I pretended not to notice the few books present in class. No, I turned to page 43 and showed students a sentence I had underlined in the second paragraph. Those with books quickly underlined the sentence; most of those without showed up next class with their books and markers. That day I asked them what they had underlined.

The physiology professor writes, “I believe that by having the expectation that they will learn the material on their own, we are fostering the skills and attitudes that they need to become self-directed life-long learners.” (p. 137) I think she’s nailed it with that observation and later she makes this equally insightful one. “Successfully creating an interactive classroom requires a teacher who believes that students are capable of independent learning, given proper guidance and support.” (p. 139)

Reference: Silverthorn, D. U. (2006). Teaching and learning in the interactive classroom. Advances in Physiology Education, 30, 135-140.