In a famous essay about characters in fiction, the novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, “We are the hero of our own story.” I’m often reminded of this in my work, helping faculty to improve their teaching. After classroom observations, when I ask instructors how they thought it went, they naturally think in terms of “Did I perform well? Did I capture the attention of students?” I used to do this too, congratulating myself after a lecture that I felt was well-delivered and well-received.
As teachers we tend to make ourselves the heroes of our classroom stories. I call this “teaching in the first-person.”
The problem is that a teacher-centered perspective does little to reveal whether students are learning, and it misses opportunities to help them learn more. As Herbert Simon, the late Nobel laureate who inspired much of the work in the field of learning science, famously said, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.”
Accounting for the student’s critical role in learning—what we call learner-centered teaching—may seem obvious, but the natural tendency to teach in the first-person is very strong. When we are conscious of the need, some faculty may worry that transitioning to learner-centered teaching requires a time-consuming overhaul of their current practices.
But learner-centered teaching doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. If instructors keep in mind a few basic rules, then actionable and achievable opportunities to incorporate learner-centered teaching will present themselves. Let’s consider some of those precepts and how to put them into action:
1. You are not your students in terms of knowledge.
It’s easy to forget that what students know is not the same thing as what we expect them to know or what we ourselves know. Learner-centered teaching tries to gauge what students know, because learning happens when students make a connection between prior knowledge and the new knowledge we’re facilitating.
Assessing the prior knowledge of everyone in a lecture hall may seem impossible, but a variety of manageable and effective tactics is available. A category of activities called Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) ask for fast, low-stakes comprehension checks.
For example, a “muddiest point” activity asks students at the end of class to jot down the concept they are still most confused about and the instructor can review some or all of these brief notes. If there is a common area of difficulty, the instructor can take a few minutes at the start of the next class to address it.
2. You are not your students in terms of values and motivation.
Motivation determines, directs and sustains what students do to learn, and their motivation is rarely the same as ours. When you know what is important to students, you can design experiences that connect the material to what they value.
One effective assignment has students explain how they see a key concept of the class as relevant to their lives. This has both a cognitive and a motivational benefit, because they’re grasping the concept more effectively by connecting it to what they know and what they value. Meanwhile, you are also getting more insight about who they are and what motivates them.
3. Learning is a change process, not a content-delivery process.
When we think about what we need to accomplish during a semester, we tend to think in terms of the information we need to get in front of students. What we really want to accomplish is a change in their skills and knowledge. Learning is change, and learner-centered instruction is based on fostering it.
The most reliable way to do that is to create opportunities for practice and feedback. It is tricky to know where to fit more practice in, and you may fear that more practice means more grading, but not necessarily. For example, you can design activities where students learn to give feedback to one another or even to themselves by applying a rubric to their work.
Technology is enabling many teachers to improve the quantity and quality of practice and feedback. Some of the most exciting innovations in this area blend face-to-face teaching with adaptive learning courseware that creates frequent practice opportunities and gives timely and targeted feedback. Even in very large enrollment courses, the technology can observe what students know and where they are in the change process, and it can therefore personalize the learning experience at scale. Moreover, the technology can also provide you with this information so you have a better gauge on your students’ learning states.
Take a LEGO Approach
Tearing up our scripts and rebuilding our classes using learner-centered teaching principles isn’t practical for most of us. The good news is that benefitting from the learning science on this subject doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can “modularize” these tactics and introduce them one piece at a time, learning and improving as you go.
Faculty can succeed at learner-centered learning when they take small steps to remove themselves from the action and let students be the heroes of their stories. If teachers do that even for just for a few minutes it can have a real impact on learning gains.