TLC Conference Offers Perspectives
on Learner-Centered Teaching
— By Kime Lawson, assistant editor
Over 130 faculty members attended the first Teaching and Learning Center event of the year on January 13th, entitled “How to Maximize Student Learning.” The conference featured Dr. Maryellen Weimer as its keynote speaker. Dr. Weimer is an Emeritus Professor of Teaching and Learning at Penn State and has a disciplinary background in communications. She is a nationally recognized expert in both the United States and Canada on the topic of learner-centered teaching. Weimer has offered her insights formally to faculty at over 400 colleges and universities, and has authored eight books about learner-centered teaching. She is also the editor of The Teaching Professor monthly newsletter.
Dr. Weimer’s keynote address, based on her influential book Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, identified essential areas where learner-centered teachers should be willing to relinquish some specifically delineated sovereignty: “the teacher’s shifting role,” “power,” “content, ” “responsibility,” and “evaluation.”
According to Weimer, instructors can create class activities that inspire students to exercise more
agency in the classroom and build their confidence as self-regulated learners. To facilitate learner-centered teaching, Weimer insisted that teachers should first de-center their own role in the classroom to make more room for student contributions.
One way to solicit more comments from students that Weimer suggested is to challenge them in
class to create their own examples and summaries from the course content. Another main theme of learner-centered teaching is that instructors should share the dynamic of power in the classroom just a little. Weimer advised leaving it up to the students to make a few decsions of consequence, such as letting them generate possible test questions or have a choice among multiple prompts for satisfying a written assignment.
Learner-centered teaching also requires a reorientation toward course content. Rather than striving to cover all of the remaining content in some Sysiphean gesture during the last five minutes of class, Weimer recommended having students use the content to shape and share their own summaries during that time. Pushing students to organize material on their own or in small groups could foster their greater feeling of involvement in the classroom. Promoting more student responsibility is also a key goal in learner-centered teaching. Weimer noted that an effective way to start promoting responsibility early in the semester is to forego the ritualistic reading of the syllabus on the first day, but then to quiz students on specific syllabus policies a couple of classes later. Doing so should prompt students to comprehend the policies on their own and to assure that there will be consequences for not learning the material. Weimer continually stressed making the syllabus the first learner-centered activity of the semester so that it could set the tone for the rest of the course.
Finally, Weimer argued that allowing students to have a miniscule role in the teacher’s evaluation of them can also facilitate a learner-centered approach. Having students determine their own class participation rubric or reviewing their peers in group projects could help them sharpen their own critical evaluation skills. All in all, Weimer asserted that the students of teachers utilizing learner-centered methods should experience deeper learning and gain a stronger sense of self-direction.
In the true spirit of learner-centered teaching, the rest of the day’s activities encouraged conference attendees to develop learner-centered strategies among themselves. At lunch, faculty from across disciplines mingled gregariously and shared their thoughts about Weimer’s address and what had worked in their own teaching experiences. At my table a professor from the Broadcasting Telecommunications and Mass Media department reported success with having students generate their own video content, and an English professor told me how peer evaluation had made her first-year writing students much more confident in editing their own work. I overheard a professor at another table recounting how learner-centered methods in one particular class had prompted the students to genuinely connect with their classmate who had a disability. After lunch, conference attendees split into six breakout sessions to discuss special topics and practice learner-centered methods. Judging from the number of professors who stayed to attend the sessions, I got the general feeling that most of the attendees found Dr. Weimer’s presentation to be thought-provoking and inspiring.
Learner-centered teaching has many risks and rewards, and there are also a number of misconceptions about it. These methods are by no means reinventing the chalkboard, or asking professors to never lecture again. Students ideally are still paying tuition to encounter the expertise expressed in the course content selected and produced by their professors. What Weimer is suggesting, along with a great deal of recent pedagogical research, is that if teachers manage portions of class time more patiently to include a range of feedback outlets for students, more students will engage the course material and be invested more deeply in learning. Teachers may encounter student resistance in a variety of forms, but probably most often from the ubiquitous Type-A student who constantly worries if student-generated content is faulty or if it is going to be on the test or not. Student-written evaluations are often the only quality control record for NTT faculty and “gradjuncts” who work on per-semester contracts, increasing their temptation to try to be liked by spoon-feeding content to students and ultimately inflating grades. A significant number of the students I have known at Temple, however, have told me that the university’s trademark diversity drew them to attend here in the first place. Learner-centered teaching approaches can specifically augment students’ experience of that diversity in the classroom and more actively represent the mission of Temple University. Every roster and every teacher is different, but facilitating activities that allow your students to open up to you and to their peers can transform their college experience.