college students in class February 23, 2015

Learner-Centered Pedagogy and the Fear of Losing Control

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In the spring of 1991, I returned to teaching after more than five years as a Benedictine monk. The monastery had been founded in China in the 1920s, and when exiled after the Chinese Revolution, the community had relocated to the Mojave Desert in California. During my novitiate, I had taken up a private study of modern Chinese history, even though my research and academic formation at Cambridge University had been in early modern English puritan studies. When my community sent me to study theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, I also studied the history of missiology and continued to read about the modern emergence of Christianity in China. So when the history department of a small liberal arts college in Santa Barbara asked me to teach a non-Western course after I left monastic life, I suggested Modern Chinese History.


November 7, 2014

Threshold Concepts: Portals to New Ways of Thinking

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“A threshold concept is discipline-specific, focuses on understanding of the subject and … has the ability to transform learners’ views of the content.” (Zepke, p. 98) It’s not the same as a core concept, although that’s a useful place to first put the idea. “A core concept is a conceptual ‘building block’ that progresses understanding of the subject; it has to be understood, but it does not necessarily lead to a qualitative different view of the subject matter.” (Meyer and Land, p. 4)


May 15, 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.


January 16, 2013

Teacher-Centered, Learner-Centered or All of the Above

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In November I had the great privilege of interviewing Parker Palmer. If you don’t know his book, The Courage to Teach, it’s one not to miss. If you haven’t read it in a while, it merits a reread. After reading it again, I found new ideas I missed the first time, old ones I have yet to understand completely and others I hadn’t thought about for far too long.


students in group discussion August 8, 2012

Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching

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In May I finished a second edition of my Learner-Centered Teaching book. Revising it gave me the chance to revisit my thinking about the topic and look at work done since publication of the first edition ten years ago. It is a subject about which there is still considerable interest. The learner-centered label now gets attached to teaching strategies, teachers, classes, programs, departments and institutions. Like many trendy descriptors in higher education, with widespread use comes a certain definitional looseness. Active learning, student engagement and other strategies that involve students and mention learning are called learner-centered. And although learner-centered teaching and efforts to involve students have a kind of bread and butter relationship, they are not the same thing. In the interest of more definitional precision, I’d like to propose five characteristics of teaching that make it learner-centered.


August 2, 2012

Are We Preaching to the Choir about Student-Centered Learning Practices?

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I’d like to report on a nonscientific study I have been conducting, without human-subjects approval or even a clear research plan. This won’t make it into the research journals, but the results are still compelling.

My “study” has been continuous for over two years. During that time, I have made numerous trips, at random times, from my administrative office to a building on the opposite corner of campus. For nearly three months, I made the round trip twice a day or more. Every time, I have walked through the ground floor of our main general classroom building, which has about 14 classrooms, mostly 30- to 50-person rooms, but also with one 120-person tiered lecture hall. The classrooms are assigned to courses covering a wide range of disciplines, mostly first- or second-year classes.



February 7, 2012

Long-Term Benefits of Learner-Centered Instruction

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Often these questions are raised about courses using learner-centered approaches: What if this is the only learner-centered course taken by the student? Is one course enough to make a difference?

There is growing evidence that courses with learner-centered approaches—those approaches that use active learning strategies to engage students directly in learning processes—enhance academic achievement and promote the development of important learning skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to cooperatively work with others. But does the experience of being made responsible for learning transcend that individual course?



June 1, 2011

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

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“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.