“Teachers teach someone, something, in that order.” -Samuel M. Natale

3 Ways Learning Centered Instruction Drives Effortless Engagement

By: Chris Merlo

“You’re working too hard,” a senior faculty member told me. I stopped venting about trying to teach difficult material to an unresponsive class and looked at him with incredulity. There are not a lot of industries in this world where a senior coworker will advise a junior not to work so hard, but higher education, I thought, is apparently one of them.

How am I supposed to give my students what they need without putting in the effort?

Turns out, my colleague’s advice about working too hard wasn’t meant to get me to do less in class–it was meant to motivate me to get my students to do more.

What Learner Centered Instruction Is Not

Different types of learning work best for different students, and a pedagogical strategy has emerged that treats students–all students–as partners and collaborators, rather than audience members.

In hindsight I see that what my colleague was asking me to embrace is what we now call “learner-centered instruction.” You might ask, “Isn’t all teaching ‘learner-centered’?” It may be a surprise to many of you (as it was to me!) that the answer is a resounding no. The mere condition of having students in the room while you talk about your favorite subject is not sufficient.

Heck, my own mother who’s been a professor for years, has warned me against becoming a “sage-on-the-stage” ever since I started teaching college. “Don’t think that, as a teacher, you’re the star of the show!” she’d say.

As professors, we can be very proud of our research, and of all the hard work it took to get to the front of the classroom. Also, people generally like to boast about what they’re good at. It’s easy to feel that we’ve earned the right to stand in front of the room and pontificate, and to feel that students are lucky to be able to witness such greatness. You might even know some professors who believe that any student who doesn’t learn from such performances is surely unfit for college.

Alas, such problems are often incorrectly identified. During my fifteen brief years as a professor, I have seen drastic changes in students’ level of college readiness. Today’s students lack the most basic education preparedness. Foundational skills like note taking and how to use study notes are far more frequently absent in students today, than those I taught ten years ago.

If professors are genuinely interested in helping students achieve success both during and after college, we must be willing to introduce our students, often for the first time, to strategies and tactics they will need to excel.

How to Do Learner-Centered Instruction

Thankfully, as the years passed, education researchers have done excellent work defining and refining how learner-centered instruction works. Current research highlights some of the theoretical ways to help students learn how to be students while continuing to explore course material.

Here are a few practical methods that can be incorporated into your own classroom preparation that will help students maximize their success in your course and help you (as they helped me) to avoid becoming the “sage-on-the-stage”.

1. Questions and Answers

Most professors give students time to ask questions in class. But have you ever analyzed how many of your students actually ask questions? Have you ever paid attention to the quality of the questions themselves? Are you sure that all your students know how to ask useful questions?

Some students are just too shy to ask questions, and some students just aren’t paying enough attention to have any. But there are also good students out there who are so confused that they don’t even know what to ask. These students need our help.

To borrow an analogy from baseball, the conventional wisdom is that every team will win 60 games a season, and every team will lose 60 games a season, and so how the team performs in the other 42 games determines how the season will go. Similarly, you’re always going to have a couple of students who will earn As with or without you, and a couple will earn Fs no matter what you do, but lots that can be done to either push the middle students up to the B range, or to let them slip back to the C and D range.

2. Read Body Language, Be A Guide

When I teach something complicated or tricky, and I can see a lack of understanding on the students’ faces, I encourage them to ask whatever they want to ask. I frequently say “If you need to ask a question, but you don’t even know what to ask, raise your hand anyway.”

When a student musters up the courage to risk recognition, guide him or her through the most recent discussion — “Do you get this part? Do you want me to say that again?”. Guiding in this way, allows a student to discover exactly where their confusion is, and offers them an opportunity to articulate a specific question.

This process often pays dividends in the future, as students become more confident in asking questions, and then play a more active role in class.

3. Rethink Assignments

Why do you assign homework? Is it to have something to record in your gradebook? Maybe it’s because we enjoy reading our own words, our own delivered wisdom, in someone else’s voice? I recently decided that the assignments I was giving my students in one particular class were in need of some attention, and as I tried to discern exactly what should change, I asked myself two questions.

You may find yourself motivated to change things up as well once you can honestly answer these 2 questions for yourself:

A) How does this assignment benefit the student?

  • What is the purpose of this paper, short homework assignment, or this research project?
  • How will it help students learn the course material and engage in classroom discussion?
  • Are there any guiding discussion questions that could be offered to help focus a students reading?
  • Are students meant to soak up received information, or will they have a chance to share their understanding of it with classmates?

I once gave an assignment to my Operating Systems class on filesystems (the software that tells your computer how to talk to your disk drives). A few days before the deadline, students were required to post to the course blog which filesystem they had chosen to research, and I offered bonus points to anyone who made a unique topic selection. I also asked each student to present what they’d learned to the class for a minute or two.

This assignment gave students an opportunity to become familiar with one topic in depth, but also to see the similarities and differences across various topics as well. As an added bonus, I personally learned a couple of things during these short presentations, and students were delighted to see that they had taught me something.

Not only that, since this was the first assignment of the semester, I found students looking forward to the next one. That’s genuine student engagement.

B) What is the value of the grade on this assignment?

I teach an introductory Computer Science class, which is designed to get students to think about problem solving in a general way before delving into the specifics of the discipline. As I assign the first few assignments, I tell students that while correct answers will earn a grade of 100, any answer that shows they thought about the problem will earn at least a 90.

This strategy rewards exactly the habits I want students to develop — critical thinking, formulating ideas, brainstorming, intellectual risk taking, without penalizing things that novice scientists shouldn’t be penalized for, like a well-thought-out, well-intentioned, wrong hypothesis.

Could I give a 75, or a 60, or a zero for wrong answers, like I’ve done in most of my other classes? Sure, but for students who are just learning how to think and solve problems, that type of reinforcement would be counterproductive at best, and might drive away students who have a natural ability to do the work, and just need to be cultivated to succeed.

You can use grades as a carrot, or you can use them as a stick. Think about the message that grades send, and whether it’s the right message. That’s what the heart of learner-centered instruction is all about.

When it’s time for you to reevaluate your course, and levels of student success and engagement, consider ways that you can increase student responsibilities and student engagement. If are having any difficulties, or questions, please comment below!

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click here.


Originally published at blog.tophat.com on November 12, 2015.

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