Characteristics of learner-centered teaching

advantages of learner centered teaching and learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective a meta-analysis
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Learner-Centered Teaching Five Key Changes to Practice Maryellen WeimerLearner-Centered TeachingLearner-Centered Teaching Five Key Changes to Practice Maryellen WeimerPublished by Copyright © 2002 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Jossey-Bass is a registered trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, except as permitted under Sections 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without either the prior written permission of the Publisher or authorization through payment of the appropriate per-copy fee to the Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA 01923, (978) 750-8400, fax (978) 750-4744. 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Some content that appears in print may not be available in electronic books. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Weimer, Maryellen, date. Learner-centered teaching: five key changes to practice/Maryellen Weimer.—1st ed. p. cm.—(The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-7879-5646-5 (alk. paper) 1. College teaching. 2. Learning, Psychology of. I. Title II. Series. LB2331 .W39 2002 378.1'2—dc21 2002005662 FIRST EDITION HB Printing 10987654321The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education SeriesContents Preface xi The Author xxv 1 Lessons on Learning 1 Part One: What Changes When Teaching Is Learner-Centered? 21 2 The Balance of Power 23 3 The Function of Content 46 4 The Role of the Teacher 72 5 The Responsibility for Learning 95 6 The Purpose and Processes of Evaluation 119 Part Two: Implementing the Learner-Centered Approach 147 7 Responding to Resistance 149 8 Taking a Developmental Approach 167 9 Making Learner-Centered Teaching Work 184 Appendixes A Syllabus and Learning Log 203 B Handouts That Develop Learning Skills 213 C Reading Lists 224 References 233 Index 243 ixFor my aunt Barbara R. Friz, in celebration of our splendid friendship and in honor of her ninth decadePreface With more books on instruction than most faculty members have time to read and few professional incentives that encourage faculty to read pedagogical material, it seems prudent to begin by asking why. Why do we need yet another book on learning and teaching? It may be that authors lack some objectivity when it comes to answering the question, but it seems to me that there are five rea- sons that might be offered in support of this particular book. I did not have them this clearly in mind when I started, but as I now see the book in its entirety, I believe they justify yet another book on pedagogy, specifically one that explores how teaching might facil- itate more and better learning. This particular book is needed because after many years, the higher education community has finally discovered learning, and we need resources that further cultivate and capitalize on that interest. That we have so long ignored learning is somewhat diffi- cult to explain. It seems more a case of benign neglect than willful rejection. Most of us just assumed that learning was an automatic, inevitable outcome of good teaching, and so we focused on devel- oping our teaching skills. That we all but exclusively focused on them is a fact documented by even a cursory content review of the pedagogical literature. Its books, journals, magazines, and other publications address every aspect of how to teach, beginning with planning and ending with evaluation. No corresponding cadre of volumes describes learning at this level of detail. As a result, practicing pedagogues know considerably less about learning than they do about teaching. We need resources that direct attention to learning in the same way they have focused attention on teaching. However, we do need to understand that the previous disconnect between teaching and learning has proved xixii PREFACE counterproductive. The learning outcomes of teaching cannot be assumed or taken for granted. This book aims to cultivate our un- derstanding of learning, and it does so by connecting that knowl- edge to instructional practice. It addresses a simple question— the same question we should have been asking as we considered teaching: What do we know about learning that implicates teach- ing? That makes this book about learning also a book about teaching. Second, despite the widespread interest in learning, few resources translate the talk into concrete policies and practices. Few identify the things a teacher should do if instruction is to pro- mote learning. I am regularly perplexed and dismayed at how ideas and issues in higher education become trendy and faddish. Con- ferences feature them as themes, periodical publications prepare special issues on the topic, and blue ribbon committees write reports on their state within institutions. But does all this attention generate change in instructional practice? I am doubtful, in part because most of the talk occurs at such a high level of abstraction. The discourse advocates for learning, but seldom gets down to the level of detail. We are now all in favor of learning, just as we all aspire to be thin, but we have not changed what we cook and serve students. To produce change at the level of practice, we need to translate what we know about learning into concrete instructional policies and practices. We need resources that set out to teachers who want to promote learning what to do about attendance, assignments, tests, papers, lecturing, group work, classroom management, con- tent, and grades. I believe that most faculty care about learning and would like to teach in ways that promote it. If resources would deal with the nuts and bolts of instructional practice, I think most fac- ulty would attend and start making some of those changes. It would be presumptuous and inappropriate to present a defin- itive set of policies and practices that promote learning, but faculty need ideas and examples, and that is what this book aims to pro- vide. It seeks to answer this question: What should teachers do in order to maximize learning outcomes for their students? It aspires to move the talk about learning down to the level of details and to make it more nourishing. I am concerned that if we continue to feed the interest in learning with nothing more than rhetoric, it will not flourish and grow into better instructional practice.PREFACE xiii Third, we need resources that propose learner-centered strate- gies based on what is known about learning. The need to connect practice to what has been discovered empirically is obvious. Behind all the policies, practices, and behaviors used to facilitate learning ought to be some theoretical or empirical rationale. The justifica- tion ought to be more substantive than doing something because it has always been done that way. And yet many of us have taught for years, operating from an eclectic, idiosyncratic knowledge base grounded almost exclusively on personal experience. It is as if the two closely related territories of research and practice are separate planets, unknown and seemingly inaccessible to one another. Who should build the bridges necessary to connect research and practice? Those who do the research tend not to be faculty who daily face passive students who are taking required courses. I once worked with a well-known researcher who studies college stu- dents and has multiple books and publications to show for it. We were working on a project in which we conducted focus group interviews with students. My colleague was very excited; I was amazed and appalled when I discovered why. “This is the first time I’ve done a research project where we actually talked with stu- dents,” this researcher told me. After that experience, I thought differently about the propri- ety of researchers’ drawing implications from their findings. But if not researchers, should the task be left to practitioners untrained in the relevant disciplines? As it stands now, the task is the respon- sibility of no one, and so few in the academy try to connect re- search and practice. Those of us who do build the bridges with no blueprints to follow and few rewards to honor our work. But we keep building because it seems so clear to us that these territories are beneficially connected in theory and practice. Looking toward practice from the research side, it is clear that teaching needs to change in some fundamental ways. I have con- fessed to some of my colleagues that I am glad I am writing this book now and not at the beginning of my career when my skin was thin and optimism unrelenting. Many will find the changes I propose disturbing. They challenge long-held assumptions and tra- ditional ways of thinking about instructional roles and responsi- bilities. I expect they will spark controversy. My hope is that this disagreement will motivate others to review the research, study thexiv PREFACE theory, reflect on practice, and then build better and stronger bridges between research and practice. Much more of what we do in the classroom needs to be based on what we know. In addition, but in some ways in contrast to resources that build on the empirical knowledge base, we also need books on teaching and learning that treat the wisdom or practice with more intellectual robustness. What little scholarship that practicing ped- agogues complete is almost exclusively experientially based. And what we have learned in the school of hard knocks and by the seat of our pants is definitely worth knowing and worth passing on. However, much of that knowledge is idiosyncratic, isolated, unre- flective, nonanalytical, and sometimes even anti-intellectual, and it gets lost in the great undifferentiated mass of anecdotal evidence about teaching. This great repository of experiential knowledge— what is justifiably called the wisdom of practice—remains unknown and devalued. Until it becomes characterized by the kind of intel- lectual rigor that faculty associate with scholarship, it will ineffec- tively advance instructional causes. We need books on teaching and learning that treat experien- tial knowledge more analytically and more objectively. I have aspired to write such a book, one that deeply and honestly traces my own growth and development as a teacher and positions my ex- perience against that of many other pedagogues who are working to make teaching more learner-centered. My efforts do not stand- alone; they need to be reported in the context of what is known and what others have experienced. I have aspired to write a book that is more than just another technique-based, how-to treatment of teaching skills. It includes many techniques, because faculty find instructional details of great interest. But techniques need to be presented in ways that reflect the dynamic, complicated milieu in which they will be used. Hav- ing instructional techniques is one thing; being able to manage a repertoire of them is something quite else. Techniques need to be presented cognizant of the process by and through which they can be transformed to fit the content configurations of different disci- plines. Techniques should not be presented as isolated ideas but as working parts of a coherent, integrated approach to teaching. And finally, I have aspired to write a book on teaching and learning that is intellectually robust—one that makes us think,PREFACE xv challenges unexamined assumptions, asks hard questions, and does not offer facile answers. I wanted to write a book that makes us appreciate what hard, mentally stimulating work teaching and learning can be. That kind of book values, indeed honors, the wis- dom of practice. We need many more books of that caliber. Finally, we need this book because it offers a positive way to improve teaching. Despite efforts during the past twenty-five years, instructional improvement has been slow in coming. Little docu- mentation can be summoned that supports overall improvement in the level of instructional quality. Faculty development continues to operate at the margins, thriving in times of supportive adminis- trations and withering when the institutional commitment to the teaching “excellence” center culminates in being able to say that we have one. Faculty development has taught us some important lessons, one of the clearest being that efforts to improve instruction can- not be based on premises of remediation and deficiency. If faculty must admit they have a problem before they get help, most never seek assistance. Ask faculty members if they are interested in improving their teaching, and the response is almost always defen- sive. “Why? Did somebody tell you I need to?” Or, “Why should I? Teaching doesn’t matter around here anyway.” But asking the learning question changes the paradigm com- pletely. What self-respecting, even curmudgeonly, faculty mem- ber can respond any way other than positively if asked, “Are you interested in how much and how well your students learn?” And once they have said yes, what we know about learning easily and clearly links to teaching. But now we talk about ways of changing teaching that promote more and better learning. It is no longer about what is wrong and ineffective; it is about what best achieves a goal that faculty endorse. This book makes a contribution by basing instructional improvement on a positive and productive paradigm. Distinctions Worth Noting A couple of distinctions about this book are worth noting. First, this book is about being learner-centered. Some may associate that with being student-centered and use the two terms interchangeably. Ixvi PREFACE make a number of significant distinctions between the two phrases and have chosen not to use the student-centered descriptor. Being student-centered implies a focus on student needs. It is an orientation that gives rise to the idea of education as a product, with the student as the customer and the role of the faculty as one of serving and satisfying the customer. Faculty resist the student-as- customer metaphor for some very good reasons. When the prod- uct is education, the customer cannot always be right, there is no money-back guarantee, and tuition dollars do not “buy” the de- sired grades. Being learner-centered focuses attention squarely on learning: what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the con- ditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning. The student is still an important part of the equation. In fact, we make the distinction between learner-centered instruction and teacher-centered instruc- tion as a way of indicating that the spotlight has moved from teacher to student. When instruction is learner-centered, the action focuses on what students (not teachers) are doing. Because the instructional action now features students, this learner-centered orientation accepts, cultivates, and builds on the ultimate responsibility students have for learning. Teachers cannot do it for students. They may set the stage, so to speak, and help out during rehearsals, but then it is up to students to perform, and when they do learn, it is the student, not the teacher, who should receive accolades. One of this book’s reviewers recommended changing learner- centered to learning-centered. I opted not to make this change because I want to keep the focus on learners, on students, not as customers to be satisfied but as the direct recipients of efforts aimed at pro- moting learning. Learning is an abstraction, and much like con- tent, for an audience that by its culture tends to gravitate toward that which is theoretical and abstract, I want to keep us firmly rooted and fixed on the direct object of our teaching: students. We do not want more and better learning at some abstract level; we need it specifically and concretely for the students we face in class. We do not need teaching connected to learning on some concep-PREFACE xvii tual plane; we need instructional policies and practices with a direct impact on how much and how well students learn. Finally, in addition to focusing on learning and students (as opposed to an exclusive student- or learning-centered focus), the learner-centered approach orients to the idea of “product quality” constructively. Being learner-centered is not about cowering in the competitive academic marketplace. It is not about kowtowing to student demands for easy options and is not about an ethically irre- sponsible diminution of academic standards in an attempt to pla- cate “shoppers” who may opt to purchase educational products elsewhere. It is about creating climates in classes and on campus that advance learning outcomes. It is an orientation that advocates for more, not less, learning. It is about offering a better product. Overview of the Contents Chapter One recounts the story of how this book came to be and introduces the literature on learning on which it is based. Out of the experiences and literature described there, I have come to believe that in order to be learner-centered, instructional practice needs to change in five areas. Each of those changes is introduced and described in detail in Chapters Two through Six, with each change the focus of one chapter. These chapters are the heart of the book. The last three chapters are devoted to implementation details. Thus, this book is not just about what teachers need to do; it also addresses how they should go about implementing what has been proposed. Chapter Two explores changes associated with the balance of power in the classrooms. It documents the extent to which faculty control learning processes and how those authoritarian, directive actions diminish student motivation and ultimately result in depen- dent learners, unwilling and unable to assume responsibility for their own learning. The solution is not an abrogation of legitimate faculty power—that born of content expertise and long experience as learners and teachers. Rather, it outlines some policies and prac- tices with the potential to redress the power imbalance, ways that responsibly share power with students in the interest of positively influencing their motivation and learning.xviii PREFACE Chapter Three tackles the function of content when the goal is instruction that promotes more and better learning. Here the problem is “coverage” and all that metaphor has come to imply about the amount and complexity of content necessary to gain credibility for a course and its instructor. But content coverage does not develop the learning skills needed to function effectively on the job and in society. When teaching is learner-centered, con- tent is used, not covered, and it is used to establish a knowledge foun- dation, just as it has been. In addition, and just as important, content is used to develop learning skills. These learning skills are not only or mostly basic study skills, even though these are needed; they are the sophisticated skills necessary to sustain learning across a career and a lifetime. And finally, when teaching is learner- centered, it uses encounters with content to create an awareness of the self as a unique, individual learner. The function of content is enlarged and diversified, and this has implications for how much content can be covered in a course. When teaching is learner-centered, the role of the teacher changes, as detailed in Chapter Four. Learner-centered teachers are guides, facilitators, and designers of learning experiences. They are no longer the main performer, the one with the most lines, or the one working harder than everyone else to make it all happen. The action in the learner-centered classroom features the students. Teaching action expedites learning. This includes the careful design of experiences, activities, and assignments through which the students encounter the content. It also includes being there during the encounter to offer guidance, explanations, wise coun- sel, critique, and encouragement. It means being there afterward with praise and with the kind of constructive critique that motivates an even better performance next time. It is a very different role for teachers who have sought to improve their teaching by cultivating effective presentation skills and one we are finding difficult to exe- cute, even though we may understand and accept the intellectual rationale on which it rests. Chapter Five’s contents are inextricably linked to those of Chapter Two. Faculty share power so that students can make more decisions about the terms and conditions of their learning, but with increased freedom comes more responsibility. The responsibility for learning changes when the environment is learner-centered.

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