May 15th, 2013

Learner-Centered Teaching: Good Places to Begin

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It’s probably the question I’m most asked in workshops on learner-centered teaching. “What are some good places to start? My students aren’t used to learner-centered approaches.” Sometimes the questioner is honest enough to add, “and I haven’t used many previously.” Before the specifics, here’s some general recommendations: start slowly (for example, don’t add 14 learner-centered strategies to a mostly lecture course); try simple, reasonably straightforward activities first; and define success before implementing the activity. As for those “good places” to begin infusing your teaching with learner-centered strategies, here are some approaches to try.

The Learning Question – If you want students to be more focused on learning, then you need to start asking them questions about their learning: “What are you learning …?” It’s a question to ask as you chat with individual students before class or see them on campus. “What have you been learning in biology this week?” I jokingly interject that “nothing” is not an acceptable response. It’s a question to ask after every class activity. “What did you learn for the test that you’ll still remember when I see you next semester?” and “What did you learn about test preparation that you need to remember?”

The Exam Review Session – Teachers don’t need to review the material; students do! So, plan a review session in which students are doing the reviewing. Have them work individually or in groups to answer the ultimate review session question: “What’s going to be on the exam?” Assign students to prepare the study guides on the reading material or task them with generating possible test questions that are then completed by others in the class. In other words, students should be working way harder than the teacher during the review session.

Before and After Class Previews and Reviews – Same point as above: teachers already know how to preview and review. It’s the students who need to practice and develop the skill. Here are a few ideas for facilitating that kind of learning: 1) Ask students to review notes with another person at the beginning or end of class and identify three important points. 2) Assign three students to tweet a summary of the day’s lesson. 3) Give students bonus points, brownie points, or a high five from the class if they offer a minute review of essential content from a class session last week and suggest one connection between that content and what was presented today.

Assignment Options – Take an assignment and redesign it so that it includes several (not too many) options¬; perhaps different topic choices or different format possibilities. Let students choose how they will complete the assignment but not without justifying their choice in terms of how it relates to them as learners. Or, let students determine the relative weight of two assignments with specified ranges. Quizzes may count 10, 15, or 20 percent of the amount of the final grade determined by quiz and exam scores. Maybe you could have participation count for a variable amount. When students make these choices, they should confront and explain the reason why. Why would you want quizzes to count more or less?

Setting the Assessment Criteria – “What makes you want to read and participate in an online discussion?” Responses to a prompt like that can be transformed into criteria that can be used to assess an online exchange (the whole exchange not just individual contributions to it). It may be that the teacher will need to add some missing components, but even using some of the student criteria changes the dynamic. Practice generating assessment criteria (say for essay answers, presentations in class, or contributions to group work) develops a new level of awareness that helps student prepare and participate in those activities.

In the August 8, 2012 post I identified five features that I believe make teaching learner-centered: It is teaching that: 1) engages students in the hard, messy work of learning; 2) includes explicit skill instruction; 3) encourages students to reflect on what and how they are learning; 4) motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes; and 5) encourages students and teachers to learn from and with each other.

These activities are first steps that move teaching and learning in these directions and are part of a longer list that appears in the recently released second edition of my Learner-Centered Teaching book (pp. 234-235) available from Jossey-Bass.