March 2nd, 2011

Great Expectations: Helping Students Take Responsibility for Learning


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.

  • Chris

    Points well taken for a F2F class. In an online environment, my experience has been that students don't seem to understand student responsibility – even when it's on my syllabus and the 'how to' page. What I get is that I've been 'too harsh' on grading. My rubrics have to clearly spell out what is 'interaction'; what is a 'complete assignment'; even then, it doesn't mean I get it. For some students, the fact that they just submit assignments on time should constitute full points and an A. Interaction means they posted their response and responded to the minimum of three classmates.

    I agree that we can create projects and assignments to help students with their own learning, but students need to understand early on that learning comes with personal responsibility. I have found some great online tools that I use from OnCourse that speak to this subject. I do them the first class/week to (hopefully) make the 'responsibility' point – here's the link –….

  • Sal

    I would suggest you try a method which is fun and engaging. I use a site called Enter The Group to manage a virtual classroom which an extension of a regular class. You can post messages there, create polls, students can interact with me and with other students etc. It's like a private social network where they learn and discuss. It's also free.

  • Simon

    This seems to pre-suppose a class size that is manageable. Consider the following difficult situation though. I regularly lecture undergraduate economics. The total class size is approximately 1200-1300 students depending on registration that year (This is a southern African university). Although I love it when I teach smaller groups with much greater interaction, the fact is that for these undergraduate classes I lecture 3 times a day for groups of 100-500. I get to know the names of a few of the students and I regularly chat to them after class and assist them. Other students I interact with using our online tools. But, although I would aspire to the kind of facilitated learning you espouse here, I just don't see how it's feasible with class sizes that large. Am I wrong? Do you know of strategies one can adopt to make a class of 500 more interactive? I invite individual students to answer questions regularly, try to get them to interact in 'breaks' during the class, and propose other (minimally) interactive activities, however I remain uncertain that the kinds of activities that would best facilitate engaged learning are possible in the context of massive classes.

  • Bill Goffe

    I teach economics as well, but to smaller classes of 300. I've been using something like ; see… for the paper and for a longer video. It is a different way of teaching, but it appears to increase engagement. Good questions are difficult to develop, however. But, Peer Instruction does increase engagement.

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