Challenges of implementing more participant-centred learning

My mother spent her career in the Modern Languages department of a secondary school near Southampton, England. When people asked her what she did, she’d say, “I teach”. The typical follow up question is “what do you teach?” to which she’d reply “students”. At some fundamental level this captures the perennial debate about pedagogy. We typically act as though we teach subjects, (in my mother’s case, French and Russian), and that the purpose of teaching is to transfer knowledge about that subject from teacher to student. The alternative approach is to recognise that we actually teach students, and therefore the role of teacher is not to demonstrate mastery of their subject but to “shape that environment in a manner conducive to learning” (Finkel, 2000, p.8).

The simple truth is that students often struggle to motivate themselves to learn. The prospect of an exam is an important tool but when the subject matter is viewed as the defining feature of the course, and is seen as content that needs to be covered, it is understandable that students become bored. The art of teaching is bridging the content with the practical relevance, to demonstrate the value of the material. If a student isn’t interested in the class, it’s often because she doesn’t have an interest in learning. But “if a student is interested in what she is learning, she will never question why she should learn it” (Finkel 2000, p.52).[1]

The downsides of lecturing are both intuitively obvious and empirically verified. We have all sat in classes, bored, where words flow from the board of the teacher to the page of the student without passing through the mind of either. It is commonly accepted that lectures have one of the worst possible retention rates of all teaching methods, despite the fact that it has been such a predominant one, for so long[2]. The word “lecture” derives from the Latin “to read” (which is why in Britain some senior academics are known as “readers”), and follows from the traditional practice of teaching: a lecturer would literally read from a book, and students would make their own copies by taking notes. Students are thus primarily engaged in the act of reproducing written works, and as Finkel says,

“in these classes it made sense for students to focus only on careful transcription during the lecture; they could read, digest, and think about the content of the lecture later, at their leisure, since they took away from the classroom their own written text of the lecture” (Finkel 2000, p.76).

If there is only one copy of a particular text then this is a sensible (albeit time consuming) way to enable students to contemplate their disciplines. However the invention of the printing press destroyed the necessity of this exercise. With the advent of books, and in particular textbooks, the raison d’etre of the lecturer disappeared. And there are really only two directions to turn in response.

The first is to create the “performance” lecturer. This is the charismatic, enthusiastic, and insightful expert that entertains students and puts on a show. The second is to take the focus away from the lecturer and place it on the students themselves. My aim is not to favour one or the other, it is to raise awareness of the latter as a complement to the former. And in cases where a teacher lacks the skill set to excel at both, the latter is an often-overlooked option. Often junior faculty strive to “be a better lecturer”, but they might not realise that it is the lecturing that is the problem. Indeed being a better lecturer almost internalises the evaluation procedure, because it can be tempting to judge our performance ourselves. By moving from an instructor-centred to a participant-centred approach one confronts the fact that it is the students who determine whether or not you are succeeding. As Don Finkel says, “good teaching is the creating of those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others”, or as John Wooden repeated, “you haven’t taught until they have learned” (see Nater and Gallimore 2005).

My own experience is that a poorly managed case discussion is a worse educational experience than a low quality lecture, and therefore lecturing is the more robust method (which is possibly a reason for its endurance)[3]. It is entirely natural for new faculty to feel more comfortable mimicking their PhD classes and compensating for a lack of confidence and inexperience by relying on a lecture format. Although most lectures are dull, they are a safe bet. And it would be a mistake for good lecturers to become weak discussion leaders. However the power of participant-centred learning, (and the satisfaction it can bring to both students and faculty) present it as an endeavour worthy of investment — especially if one can separate the pedagogical basis from individual examples that may or may not be successful.

When it comes to implementing these sorts of ideas it is important to realise that students can be as hostile to alternative pedagogical techniques as faculty. We all know professors who stand at the front of class and recite in a drab, monotone, manner, providing little additional information to what a student can glean from simply reading the required textbook. But similarly there are students who demand handouts containing detailed lecture notes (in which case the class may as well be over once they have been handed out…),[4] or students that attempt to transcribe every spoken word, scribbling in a frenzy amidst a blaze of garish highlighter pens and an annotation system so complex no living sole could decipher it. Indeed there is institutional lock in from both sides, and attempting to forge a new path is a genuine challenge.

I attended Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant-Centred Learning in Summer 2009, and tried to update my teaching accordingly. The “Economics for Managers” course is part of the Master in European Business (MEB) course and I have taught it since 2005/6. It is a 30-hour module covering micro and macroeconomics for general management students many of whom have no prior training in economics. Each year I have updated the material but following my exposure to the case method in 2009/10 I made significant changes — not only in terms of spending more class hours doing case discussion but reflecting this in the course outline and assessment criteria. Students evaluate faculty on 6 counts: reading materials, overall satisfaction, teaching methods, structure and organisation, method of assessment, and added value of content. For simplicity Figure 1 shows my evaluation for overall satisfaction and teaching methods.

As is obvious, the initial reaction from students was deeply negative and my attempt to place students at the centre of their learning experience failed miserably. However because of this shock and disappointment I was able to refine the course and receive high evaluations in the following years (2010/11 and even better in 2011/12). Therefore I wanted to share some brief observations about implementing change:

  1. Focus on communication

Students understandably want clarity in terms of assessment criteria, and I made a mistake in the way in which I communicated this. In the Course Outline I explained that the following would be evaluated: (i) class participation; (ii) out of class activities (such as commenting on blogs); and (iii) use of the eLearning platform. When students asked for more information during the semester I provided a reasonably detailed explanation of my marking system, but since this had not been communicated clearly from the beginning students were taken by surprise. Many students were hostile to having to contribute to online discussion, and resented the feeling that they had “discovered” half way through the course that I was indeed serious about rewarding it. This lead to some gaming of the system (although it also led to some perceptive and interesting commentary), and general umbrage.

2. Liaise with colleagues

Some of my colleagues also teach using the case method, and some do not. Of those that do, some incentivise class participation heavily (and make a serious effort to record the contributions of each students after each class), whilst others only provide a small amount of the final grade for participation and do not reveal these grades to students. By not being explicit from the beginning about how I would grade participation students made an inference that I would follow other colleagues, and this turned out to be faulty. I had taken it for granted that students would assume my methods would be different to my colleagues, and that students would ask me if they required more detail. Consequently, once I provided details about how I was grading participation students began querying my decisions and demanding even greater detail. Therefore if faculty are grading in a similar way, or grading similar things, it is imperative that they coordinate so that the message to students can be clear and unambiguous.

3. Deal with ambiguity

One of the biggest challenges of the case method is that it deliberately creates something that students tend to abhor: ambiguity. I am uneasy when students complain, “things weren’t clear”. The message I tried to give was that I wasn’t intending for it to be “clear” as soon as the lecture ended. For me the case discussion was one stage of the learning process, which is complemented by wider reading and contemplation. Entering the classroom is not like entering a pit lane. You don’t drive in, get your tyres changed, and then go back out onto the track. You are supposed to be experience feelings of confusion, because you can’t learn anything unless you leave your comfort zone and travel through a state of ignorance.

The case method is fundamentally ambiguous. It deals in ambiguity. It takes complex situations and weighs up conflict. There is never a “solution”, and students leave class with many unanswered questions. Many instructors will refuse to summarise at the end of a session, and actively avoid a “takeaway”. This is because if you end class with a neat summary the student will consider the learning process over. In fact, you want them to continue thinking about the topics. You want them to be agitated, and restless. Ambiguity is a fact of life, and it is therefore imperative that students realise that it is not accidental — it is something that you are deliberately trying to create.


[1] Finkel points out that the word “interest” stems from the Latin words inter (meaning “between”) and esse (meaning “is”) — having an “interest” means that one is “between a desire and its fulfilment” (Finkel 2000, p.53). Therefore to ensure that the material is in the self-interest of students to learn, the instructor must provide situations in which students need to circumvent an obstacle.

[2] See Van Eynde and Spencer (1988) for a study comparing lectures with experiential learning methods such as cases.

[3] Also note that there is a large difference between teaching case method to MBA and to Executives (Garvin, 2007).

[4] Ironically in this regard there is something to be said for the restriction of handout copies. Finkel keeps written lectures on reserve at the library, and avoids making copies freely available: “I don’t wish to foster the illusion that the students actually have some knowledge simply because they possess a written text” (Finkel 2000, p.77). It is often worth restricting handouts because then the material that is distributed is more likely to be read. The instructors role is not to reduce the costs of learning, but not to make sure that the costs imposed are worth bearing.

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