Evaluation and Assessment in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

“Grades matter…but learning matters more.”

final exam

Do you ever feel like grades get in the way of learning? Wouldn’t it be great if, after getting an exam back, our students wanted to discuss the ideas it addressed instead of to arguing for another point? And I’m sure you have those students who you wish could be easier on themselves when they don’t get a perfect score. In this chapter on learner-centered evaluation methods could be summed up in a short statement: “Make your evaluation methods formative.” According to the author, this requires two things.

1. Lowering the stakes of assessments. This decreases anxiety, and alleviates the pressure to focus on grades instead of learning. By lowering the stakes, we are not lowering the importance; we are simply removing an obstacle to learning.

2. Redesigning our evaluation process to promote learning

Grades Out the Window?thrownoutwindow

Weimer doesn’t throw grades out the window. As a teacher, I’m still surprised by how both parents and students obsess about grades (and not about learning). I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of grades; I view them as a necessary evil. Weimer is more rationale. She does presents several pages of research detailing the problems that grades can create: performance mindset instead of mastery, reinforcing lower, rather than higher-order thinking skills, etc. However, she recognizes that grades can provide a legitimate motivation for learning, and more importantly, grades are what we use to certify mastery. So, we have a responsibility to create a grading process characterized by integrity. That means our assessments will promote learning instead of just getting the grade.

“The ability to accurately assess the quality of one’s own work, as well as that of others is a skill useful during college and in most professions subsequently.”
-Maryellen Weimer

This chapter is a goldmine of ideas. You’ll find detailed descriptions of a variety of assessment methods for exams, review sessions, debriefs, self-assessments, and peer assessments. Because most of her work is with college students, her ideas can be scaled up for university students and tweaked for high school students. It’s a dense chapter, so I’ll share just two concepts that I found valuable as a teacher.

My Two Takeaways

1. Tricky Exam Questions?
I’ve been accused of creating tricky exam questions. When my students express their frustration, I say something like, “I’m trying to get you to do more than just spit back the right answer. I want you to think about it and apply it. I want you to be able to solve problems with what you have learned.” I’ve always seen this as a legitimate practice. I now see that I was wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with having those kinds of questions on my exams. What was wrong was that I was not giving my students a chance to practice problem solving and application. Most of what we did in class was about information transfer. In other words, if I want to test my students’ ability to apply the content, I have to do more than simply cover the content; my students need opportunities to practice applying it in class.

“They [learners] must learn how to recognize what’s good, what needs to be fixed, and how to make it better. And how are those skills best developed?”

2. The One Thing that Has Held Me Back as a Teacher
If I had to pinpoint one thing that has held me back as a teacher, it’s been this: the  idea that I have to provide my students with a solid foundation of content they could do things like apply, evaluate, and solve problems. There is a modicum of truth in that. But how much content is enough? It’s like Rockefeller’s response to the question , “How much money is enough?” His response: “Just one more dollar.” For me, it’s been, “Just one more week of content.”

It’s taken me ten years to realize that very little content is needed before moving students into those higher levels of thinking.

But what does that have to do with assessment?

Most of the assessment examples that Weimer gives us in this warpzonechapter could be or need to be implemented early in the semester. The advantages of this become clear. When we give our students opportunities to evaluate their own work, and the work of others, we  launch them into a new way of interacting with the content–right from the start. Like in the game Super Mario Brothers, there’s a warp zone tunnel that will take you straight from level one to level four. This doesn’t mean that our students will immediately do well at level four, but Weimer gives some practical strategies for helping students develop these skills.

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgI’ll admit that I wasn’t jazzed to read this particular chapter in the book, but I’m surprised by just how practical it turned out to be. I’ve tried peer and self-evaluations with some success and with some failure, and these pages helped me to identify why things worked when they worked and why they fell flat.

The Next Installment

Students don’t initially love the learner-centered approach simply because it’s different, it requires change and more from them. But students are not the only ones who question this model of teaching, faculty are often just as critical. In, the next installment of this book review of Learner-Centered Teaching we’ll look at how to hand student and faculty resistance.

Get the book on Amazon

Part 1 – Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

Whose Responsibility is it for Learning?

Part 5 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

messy room In grad school, I took a few counseling courses as a part of my degree program. In one, the the professor related this story. A woman comes in for a counseling session and she is at her wits end with her fourteen year old daughter. She lists a litany of issues: staying out past curfew, smoking, talking back, and leaving her room a wreck. The counselor chooses to tackle the messy room because it looks like the easiest to change on the list.

Counselor: “What happens when you ask her to clean her room?”

Client: “She just ignores me now; that, or she starts yelling about something being unfair and unreasonable.”

Counselor: “So, what do you do when that doesn’t work?”

Client: “Well, it gets so bad that I go upstairs and clean things up.”

Counselor: “Why do you do that?”

Client: “Well, she wouldn’t have anything to wear for school if we just leave her dirty laundry laying all over the place.”

The principle that my professor was trying to explain to us was this: Our real problem is often our attempted solution. The author starts this chapter, The Responsibility for Learning, with that same concept.

She says that the first step in shifting more of the responsibility for learning into the hands of our students is to recognize the practices we may have in place creating passive and dependent learners. Our syllabi get longer and longer with added clarifications and new policies, we use extrinsic motivators like points and pop quizzes, and it’s still an uphill battle.

So what’s her solution? Classroom Climate.

Learner-centered teaching is about creating classrooms in which students begin to mature and act more responsibly about their own learning an toward the learning of others.
– Maryellen Weimer

My first response to this was, “How can changing something as abstract as ‘climate’ in the classroom transform students into active and responsible learners?”

Well, it turns out that classroom climate is not all that abstract. In fact, a group of researchers created a classroom environment inventory for colleges and universities, and found a set of defining characteristics of a preferred classroom environment. What’s it look like?

  1. There are opportunities for professor-student interaction and concern
  2. Student are involved in classroom activities
  3. A high quality of student-student interaction
  4. Learning activities are well organized
  5. Students really enjoy class
  6. The instructor creates innovative learning activities
  7. Students are given opportunities to make decisions to correspond with their learning needs

The author goes on to list five relational dynamics that create this kind of climate. They are the kind of thing you might find in any good book on parenting.

  1. Logical Consequences
  2. Consistency
  3. High Standards
  4. Caring
  5. Commitment to Learning

The rest of the chapter explains how to involve students in creating, maintaining, and enhancing the the classroom climate. She offers sample activity ideas, and addresses some of the common challenges a teacher may encounter when trying to make this shift.

 A Story – First Grade Scholars

I have been reading Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch. In the book they relate a story about a young teacher who took her below level first grade class (some who didn’t even know how to hold a pencil) to 90% of the kids reading at 3rd grade in the course of just one school year. When you read the story, it’s all about climate. She presented them with a goal: to become 3rd graders. She had high standards, and decided to call here students “scholars.” One day a young scholar was called away from class for an appointment. The other scholars groaned. Why? Because their classmate was going to miss out on learning. Now that’s classroom climate!

How about Classroom Climate Online?

Let’s just take Weimer’s list and look at some examples:

  1. Logical Consequences – Build the course reading into meaningful and interactive learning activities. For instance, create discussions that require your students to use content from course texts.
  2. Consistency – Model social presence, injecting your voice and presence into the course through consistent communication and timely responses. Hold your ground on your policies. Students will often want extlearner-centered-teaching-book.jpgensions, or for me to make an exception. However, they won’t come out and ask. So, I put it back in their court and ask, “What exactly do you believe would be the best way to handle this and why?” While I may not hold to my guns 100%, what happens in the process of our exchange is that they craft a reasonable solution.
  3. High Standards – Give your students what the Heath Brothers call a Destination Postcard, a vision of what they will learn or who they will become as they proceed through the course (like the first grade third graders).
  4. Caring – Check your student participation reports and check in with students who have not logged in for a while. Ask if they need any assistance.
  5. Commitment to Learning – Let your student’s know what you’re reading and learning. Communicate your love for the subject matter in your recordings.

Those are just some quick examples of practices that create this kind of online course climate.

The next installment of this book review will look at how learner-centered teaching handles assessment.

Get the book on Amazon

Part 1 – Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

 

 

Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

Concerns about content are not trivial–for those of us committed to getting it covered and for those of us who want to change how it functions in courses.
-Maryellen Weimer

textbooksIf I Don’t Cover Content, then What Do I Do with It?

The author lays out several options:

1. We build a knowledge base through active teaching strategies. Earlier in the book, Weimer presents a lot of research that could be summed up in the phrase “use it or lose it.” Deep learning, learning that is retained, happens when students are interacting with the content and with one another.

2. We use content to develop our student’s learning skills. This is called strategy instruction.

Thankfully, we are not left to figure out how. She details how to begin the shift from covering to using content through making small changes and scaling back out content as we become practiced in new teaching skills. The rest of the chapter spells out a handful of effective learning strategies that aim at both deep learning and learning skill development.

Using Content in Our Online Courses

Reflecting on this chapter, I thought it would be helpful to at least provide three examples of using course content instead of covering course content in the online environment.

1. Focus an online discussion on course reading and reading skills.

Here’s an example discussion prompt:

In your reading this week I would like you to note three to four statements that you found most helpful in understanding…(this period in history, this scientific concept, etc.). Type these out in your discussion post and label them statement #1, #2, and #3. Then, below each statement write a brief paragraph for each of them that explains why you found the statement helpful or significant. Finally, take a moment to reflect on what questions arise about…(the course reading, the specific topic)…and end your post with 2-3 of those questions.

 2. Develop Research Skills

Teachers bemoan the poor research skills of their students. I’ve been one of those bemoaners. But are we giving them opportunities to practice and develop the skills before they are expected to write a paper? For most of my years teaching, I wasn’t giving my students that opportunity. I’m working with a professor who is. He designed a research paper for his online course where many of the research materials, because they are so specialized, have to be delivered directly to the students.

The strength of this is that he gets to make sure his students have access to high quality articles and commentaries. The weakness, and his concern was this: giving them all the materials short circuits their process of finding and evaluating resources. His solution was excellent. He decided to require students to locate 2 scholarly articles (electronic versions) using our library’s databases, to evaluate each, and to submit them to him for evaluation. He would then give them brief feedback on whether or not the articles met the criteria for the paper.

By incorporating this process, he is giving his students an opportunity to think critically about the articles they are choosing. He is also providing them with the tools to do it: direction on how to use the specific databases, and criteria that they can use to evaluate articles.

3. Make your syllabus review interactive

I’ve been in grad school for the last eight years and I can’t tell you how painful it has become to sit through a whole hour of having a brilliant professor read through a syllabus. I figure I’ve spent an entire work week (5 eight-hour days) listening to syllabi. What’s worse is watching a recording of a syllabus review.

Why not make it a brief required discussion? In a similar format to the first example above, students could be asked to identify three important elements from the syllabus, then to pose three questions for their classmates based on learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgthose elements. For example, let’s say the syllabus stresses the importance of the late-work policy, gives a 35% weight to course discussions, and that the readings for each week must be completed by Saturday evening in the week they are assigned. The student would post: 1) Explain the course late-work policy. 2)How much do discussions count toward the final grade. 3) What day are the readings for week 3 due(month and day) ?  Then,students are expected to respond and answer another group member’s questions.

Those are just a few ideas. The next post will look at how to involve students in creating a classroom climate where they are responsible for their own learning.

 

Get the book on Amazon

Part 1 – Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 3 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

power

Photo by JAS_photo on Flickr

This chapter handles the most contentious topic in the entire book, sharing more power with our students. Practically, this means allowing them to make more decisions about assignments, course policies, course content, and even evaluation. To be blunt, that’s just sounds threatening to most of us. Loss of power in the classroom might mean loss of control, or worse, a classroom characterized by shared ignorance. Weimer demonstrates that power is just one side of the coin; the other side is responsibility. Students and teachers cannot have one without the other.

A Power Sharing Story

I’ll give an example from my last semester. I teach an online course to high school seniors. When they returned from a week of spring break followed by an out-of-class enrichment week, there was not much time left the quarter. On top of that a devious thing know as senioritis had infected the everyone (this syndrome is know to infect teachers, too). The next 7 weeks involved collaborative research, a project, a project evaluation, and a group presentation. I mocked up a schedule and posted it to the course site. Then I got a couple nice emails drawing my attention to the fact that some of the dates were not lining up. I began to question if the whole thing was just too much and if I just needed to go back to my reading-quiz-online discussion format.

So, I put it in their court and asked their teams to pick due dates that they thought would be more realistic. I even presented them the option to drop the assignments and go back to the more conventional learning activities (which I thought would be their choice). To my surprise, they chose to go through with it, created a schedule that worked, and did some of the best work I’ve seen from 4th quarter Seniors. Here’s what I learned: Choice begets ownership, and ownership plays well in the classroom.

In learner-centered classrooms, power is redistributed in amounts proportional to students’ ability to handle it. Parents of a teenager with a new driver’s license don’t hand over the keys to the family car Friday night and say, ‘Have a nice weekend. We’ll need the car back Monday morning.’…Students are not running the class, and teachers are not abrogating legitimate instructional responsibilities.

-Maryellen Weimer

 How to Change the Balance of Power

The author gives several concrete examples from giving them a variety of assignments to choose from, to creating policies for how student participation will be evaluated. This one on participation caught my attention. Will the teacher cold call students to answer questions, or will it be necessary that students volunteer? Should there be a minimum or maximum number of student comments per class period? Weimer found that when her students were allowed to create participation policies, they were “more aware of the participation dynamic in the classroom,” and that overall participation improved.

Power Sharing is an Art, Not a Sciencelearner-centered-teaching-book.jpg

The chapter ends with several important questions: How much power is enough to motivate? How much decision making are students ready to handle? How do you know when you are abrogating legitimate instructional responsibility? These aren’t easily answered, and my guess is that they are answered in real-time and in a process of trial and error. Every group of students has a different dynamic, and every age group presents particular developmental realities. However, it seems that our students are usually able to handle more than we first believe they can handle. Isn’t that one of Chickering’s 7 Principles, “Good Practice Communicates High Expectations.”

In part 4 of this review, we’ll look at how content is not covered for students but used by them.

Get the book

Part 1 – Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

What happens in the typical college classroom? Who’s delivering the content? Who’s leading the discussions? Who’s previewing and reviewing the material? Who offers the examples? Who asks and answers most of the questions?…In most classrooms it’s the teacher.
– Maryellen Weimer

Part 2 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgIn the learner-centered model, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator: guide, coach, conductor, midwife, gardener. Why?  Because the students are doing the work of problem solving, reviewing, discussing and creating. Initially, this may feel like the teacher’s job has been replaced by her students. However, the teacher’s voice becomes more critical because she is now engaging her students as they work through higher order thinking skills of application, evaluation, and creation. This doesn’t mean that learner-centered teachers stop giving examples, telling stories, and exploring content in front of their students. As the author explains, “That’s [demonstrating critical thinking, illustrating points, etc.] a legitimate part of teaching. But they shouldn’t be doing these tasks all or even most of the time. Ultimately, the responsibility for learning rests with the students.”

Weimer offers seven principles for teachers who want to develop their facilitation skills. Throughout the chapter, she provides very helpful, concrete examples from her own teaching experience and from other teachers.

 7 Principles of Facilitative Teaching

1. Let Your Students Do More Learning Tasks: Set your students up to do all of the things mentioned in the quote at the top of this post. The challenge we encounter here is that our students aren’t going to do these tasks as well or in the same way as we would. It’s like learning to walk, they will pick up the skills of our discipline as they try it out.

2. Teachers Do Less Telling so that Students Can Do More Discovering: Most teachers I know spend an entire class session reading through their syllabus. Weimer offers a totally different and interactive approach where here students explore and discuss the elements and structure of the course.

3. Teachers Do Instructional Design Work More Carefully: In short, the lion’s share of a teacher’s work is done before class. I think that online teachers have an edge here because their classroom time has been displaced and is most often asynchronous. For those of us moving our courses to a hybrid format, we are offered an opportunity to rethink and better integrate the learning activities in our courses. Instead of just preparing lectures, we are designing learning activities for our students to participate in.

4. Faculty More Explicitly Model How Experts Learn: In the place of a polished talk, we explain our own process: what we do when we encounter difficult learning tasks, how do we decide if a resource is worthwhile, and how they are encountering new information in their field. She explains that “Students need to see examples of learning as hard, messy work, even for experienced learners.”

Group Projects

Credit: Endless Origami

5. Faculty Encourage Student to Learn From and With Each Other: Most students and teachers groan when they hear about “group work” (see the image ->).
But I think that’s because we expect collaborative projects to work right out of the box. They don’t. Later in the chapter, the author shares one such experience and what she learned from it. Given time by perseverance, and improvement through redesign and skill development, group work can be a very effective teaching strategy.

6. Faculty and Students Work to Create Climates for Learning: When students are given responsibility for their classroom experience,  classroom management becomes a secondary issue.

7. Faculty Use Evaluation to Promote Learning: Students learn to evaluate their own work and the work of their peers. Teachers still issue grades, but the evaluation process becomes formative as well as evaluative.

I’m impressed with Weimer’s reminders that this is a “messy” process, and that even in this 2nd edition to the book, she doesn’t have good answers for teachers who are trying to figure out when to intervene and when to hold back. My final reflection on this new role is that it demands a modicum of humility. Students will have insights we’ve never thought of, and others will try our patience. The facilitator role means that our students will see the limits of our expertise and our abilities to perceive and communicate. For us, turning the tables demands deeper character and developing new skills.

Get the book

Part 1 – Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

Learner-Centered Teaching Book Review – Part 1

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgThis book went to the top of my reading list because a colleague (an Associate Provost at a respected graduate school) shared that he was buying copies to give to every one of his faculty members. In the last year, I’ve  moved my online course to a learner-centered model, and I wish I had heard about Maryellen Weimer’s book sooner; it would have saved me some time and frustration. My goal here is to do that for you, to give you an in-depth overview of her book, and to encourage you to pick up a copy.

Quick Overview

When she went back to teaching in the undergraduate classroom, Maryellen Weimer hit a mid-life-teaching crisis.  She relates that, “Like any mid-career faculty, I was looking for new ideas–partly out of need for growth and change, and partly because a lot of what I saw in classrooms was so ineffective.” So, she tried something new, and she turned the tables of learning. Instead of dispensing knowledge, she began to move her students into the driver’s seat of their own learning. What she witnessed was a profound change, a profound change in her students’ quality of learning and in her own role as a teacher.

Weimer boils learner-centered teaching down into five key aspects of instructional practice, and she gives each its own distinct chapter. I’ll be devoting a blog post to each these  key aspects. (scroll down to the bottom of this post for the different parts)

The Five Key Changes to Practice

1. The Role of the Teacher
2. The Balance of Power
3. The Function of Content
4. The Responsibility of Learning
5. The Purpose and Process of Evaluation

The Goal of Learner-Centered Teaching

The goal of conventional teaching has been to impart knowledge. Weimer says that this is not enough. She tells the story of how her husband graduated from an engineering program “…keenly disappointed with what he had learned, and stressed by the conditions under which he was expected to learn.” His confidence as a learner came, not from his formal education, but from his experiences learning with his father. That is what the educational process should do: it should develop learners, instead of impart knowledge to students.

“The goal of learner-centered teaching is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed  and self-regulating learners.”

What’s it Like to Make the Switch?

Learner-centered teaching is not easier, it requires more planning (instructional design), and we lose some of our trusty props and scripts. We lose our position as the central figure in the classroom, but we gain new learning partners as our students begin to do the discipline with us. You may assign many of the same assignments, but they will have new elements and goals. You may even change the layout of your classroom.

As I mentioned earlier, this year I transitioned my high school online course to a learner-centered model.  It took me ten years of thinking  “there has got to be a better way”, and it probably took me that long to get over myself enough to consider a different role as a teacher. My online classroom now looks more like my own early years learning alongside my own dad while we worked together in the wood shop, the garden, and his art studio. It would have been strange if he had lectured for a full hour and never let me try out the tools. That’s how it feels after having made the switch to learner-centered teaching. It’s hard to imagine going back to the conventional, content-centered model.

Want to Learn More?

In this series of posts I’ll review the five aspects of LCT, as well as Weimer’s tips for transitioning your course to a learner-centered model. She devotes an entire chapter to how to handle resistance (because LCT requires more from your learners), so I’ll be giving you a summary of that as well.

Get the book

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon