Pedagogy: Learning Centered Teaching
The pressures to cover material are real, but if our students do not learn the material we cover, what is the point?
Judging by the qualifiers that accompany the word “teaching” these days, it seems that simply teaching is no longer enough. We have transformative teaching, inclusive teaching, responsive teaching, and so on. One of the qualifiers that generate some pushback is learner-centered teaching. Some professors interpret its exhortation that we put students at the center to mean that we cater to their every whim and entitlement. Learning-centered teaching also sets up a dichotomy by creating the opposite straw concept of teacher-centered teaching, seen by some as a narcissistic exercise. To avoid that kind of confusion, we prefer the clarifying term Learning-Centered Teaching. When we make learning the focus, we realize the original aim of teaching, creating significant learning experiences (Fink 2013). Conversely, Tom Angelo and Patricia Cross (1994) remind us that “teaching without learning is just talking.” Unfortunately, the traditional model of education tends to make coverage as the competing starting, with the effect that most educational experiences exist on a continuum from content-focused to learning-focused (Palmer, Bach, and Streifer 2014). The pressures to cover material are real, but if our students do not learn the material we cover, what is the point?
In order to put learning at the center of the educational experience, we need to start with a solid understanding of the insights from learning sciences. This section explores the 7 principles of learning in more detail <link to Learning Principles section>
Equipped with that understanding, we can undertake the work necessary to intentionally situating our courses toward the learning end of the continuum. This section provides resources for learning-centered course design <link to Course Design section> and facilitation. <link to Facilitation section>.
Before exploring those sections in detail, it might be helpful to understand the philosophical underpinnings of the learning-centered philosophy. Mary Ellen Weimer (2013) has distilled this pedagogy into 5 shifts.
- The balance of power. In traditional courses, most if not all the power is in the hands of the instructor. We decide the schedule, the assignments, the policies, the grading, and more. It is true that learning is a transformative experience and professors, who have already made that journey are in a good position to determine course variables. But if we are serious about starting from learning science, we know that students are more likely to persevere in their journey and arrive to the destination when they are motivated. Autonomy and control, and choice are great motivators. Input on ground rules, choice of topics for papers or presentations, peer feedback, are but some of the ways in which instructors can share power with students but still retain final responsibility for course decisions. In addition, Paulo Freire (2000) points out pedagogies where students have no control only reinforce existing patterns of societal oppression. Conversely, our courses can become “radical spaces of possibility” (hooks 1994) if we open them up to our students.
- The function of content. “Coverage is the enemy,” Nobel prize and founder of learning science Herb Simon used to say. When coverage is our starting point, the immediate mode of engagement with the material is memorization and regurgitation. If we want our students to acquire meaningful understanding, learning science tells us first we must find out what students believe about the content and dispel any misconceptions. We must provide opportunities for students to arrive at their own understanding through inquiry and discovery. We must allow different perspectives to be shared. We must check student’s evolving understanding and correct emerging fallacies. All these musts do take time away from coverage, and require a rethinking of how we use our in class and outside of class time. In a learning-centered class, learning to relate to the content by asking good questions and drawing connections is just as important as remembering it.
- The role of the teacher. The traditional curriculum emphasizes the teacher’s role as the expert and the gateway to the content. Learning-centered teaching underscores that instructors play a plurality of roles and that they are all equally important (Pratt and Smulders 2016). Some times the instructor is the content expert and focuses on content transmission. Other times the instructor is the embodiment of the discipline and focuses on apprenticeship, acculturating students in it (like in a science lab, teaching students hot to “do” science). Instructors can also focus on developing learners, building their critical thinking skills. At times, instructors can play a nurturing role, stemming from an awareness that students learn better with encouragement, especially traditional-age students who are transitioning to adulthood. And some instructors have a keen awareness that they are communicating not just the content, but the values behind it, disciplinary, institutional, and societal, such as leadership, citizenship, civility, collaboration.
- The responsibility for learning. Many instructors complain that students do not take responsibility for their own learning. Responsibility is the flipside of the power coin. When we share power with our students, the stage is set for them to take responsibility for their own learning. Still, learning science advises us that students who fail to do so aren’t just recalcitrant. They genuinely do not know what that means and how to do it. Responsibility unpacks into a variety of learning skills (e.g., self-assessment, planning, monitoring, reflection, adjusting). The traditional curriculum does not teach these skills, but we know that skills acquisition works through practice, feedback, and more practice (Ambrose et al 2010). Learning-centered teaching emphasizes learning-how-to-learn next to the content itself.
- The purpose of evaluation. Traditionally, evaluation comes at the end of teaching, with the purpose of measuring learning and translating it into a letter grade. When we put learning at the center, however, everything becomes in service of learning, including evaluation, which therefore has a dual purpose: to measure and to extend learning. This conceptualization is realized in a multiple ways. Both summative and formative, graded and ungraded, high stakes and low-stakes assignments are used. The evaluation has a 360 focus and can include instructor evaluation, peer evaluation, and self-evaluation. The assessments are conducted in a variety of ways, designed to match the learning objectives as closely as possible. Authentic assessments are prioritized, those that ask students to use the knowledge gained in ways that mirror what will actually happen in real life. And finally, assessments are transparent, meaning that students understand why they are being assigned and how they are supposed to be carried out successfully (Winkelmes et al. 2016)
Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., and Norman, M. (2010) How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Angelo, T., & Cross, P. (1994) Classroom Assessment Techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fink, D. (2013) Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic.
Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning-focused syllabus rubric. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 33(1), 14–36.
Weimer, M. (2013) Learner-Centered Teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. (2016). A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success. Peer Review, 18(1/2). Available online at https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/Winkelmes