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

"Pedagogy of Ironic Minimalism"

Often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a 'pedagogy of ironic minimalism.' Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the 'endless breadth and depth' of my 'vast wisdom and knowledge' then my students learn the most."

- R.J. Nash

The Most Important Factor In Student Evaluations

photo by David Silver

I'd love to say that it's how well you facilitate student discussions.

I'd love to say that it's your amazing use of technology and media.

It's not how well you communicate and explain assignment instructions.

It's the feedback you give on assignments. And the criteria our students use to determine whether our feedback is good or awful is the same criteria we use for their assignments.

1) Timely Feedback

Can your students expect to get feedback from you before that next big paper? Do you surprise them at times with how quick you are? Have you posted time frames for your grading? I know a lot of us are afraid of that. But, if the most important element of our course (from our student's perspective) is timeliness of our grading, then why not create a goal and make it public? I put this one first because it's more important to your students than #2. That means, if you have to make a concession (and we always have to with grading), make it one of quality and not one of timeliness.

2) Substantive Feedback

It's pretty simple, students want to know what you think and how they can improve. Okay, there are some who don't, but a majority of them do. In the same way that we want work with substance, our students want feedback from us that is both legible and helpful to their learning process.

In my book, Excellent Online Teaching, I detail some ways to speed up grading, ways to give substantive feedback, and tools that will help you to cut down on the time it takes to get feedback to your students.

Just Flip it - Lessons From Flipping the Classroom

Flipping the Classroom Video5 Reasons Why You Should You watch This:

1. Professor Ralph Welsh shares his strategy for how he transitioned to the flipped model. His incremental approach is wise.

2. There is a TON of content in here.

3. Welsh is not a tech-geek; he uses everyday teacher language.

4. The Q&A session will probably answer your questions.

5. Welsh shares the good and the bad. This is one of the more balanced and honest presentations of the flip method.

You can click here or on the video image to go to the Mediasite hosted presentation.


The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

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

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

Bloom's Taxonomy Resources for Online Course Design

orange bloomDesigning an online course requires us to rethink our learning goals. Bloom taxonomy is both a touchstone and a guide. Andrew Churches has developed a fantastic resource, Blooms Digital Taxonomy, and has a host of resources at his site, Educational Origami. The site can be a bit overwhelming, but I highly recommend checking it out. Here's a list of several useful Blooms related resources.

New Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy

Using Bloom's Taxonomy to Create Learning Outcomes

Verbs for creating your learning outcomes based on Bloom's Taxonomy

Rubrics for Assessment based on Bloom's Taxonomy

Writing Objectives Using Bloom's Taxonomy

Can Your Online Students Hear Your Voice?

Your VoiceSix of us are unwinding after dinner in a friend's living room. The kids, all 7 of them, are upstairs playing when several children erupt into crying and screaming. Immediately, one of the parents says, "It's mine." She knows the bravado of her two year old's wailing and the pitch of her four-year old's screech. She can discern their voice.

Hopefully, there is no wailing or screaming going on in your online course, but can your students discern your voice? Does it stand out among all the other voices vying for their attention. Author, Jeff Goins, asks the question, "What do you sound like to your readers?"

Are you motivating, positive, encouraging, fun, sarcastic, snarky, perturbed? What do you sound like to your students?

Your voice matters to your students.

First, your voice helps your online students know what to expect from you. For example, I'm profuse with emoticons, especially smileys :) , because I don't want my students to read a negative tone into my emails. After a while, they begin to expect a positive response from me, even when I'm having to be hard-nosed. Because of my voice, my students are likely to email me when they encounter problems. Before I sound like I'm just standing here tooting my horn, I have to admit that it wasn't always like this. For a few years I had become terse in my email communication; I wrote it off as being "efficient." In reality, I was shutting down student communication.

Second, your voice lets your online students get to know the authentic you. This is why we read certain authors. A hundred others authors may have written a book on the same subject, but we love how Anne Lamont, or George Saunders, or Mitch Albom says it. We love to see life through their eyes.

How can you develop your voice?
I'd recommend Jeff Goins post, 10 Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice, as a great place to start.

"I Hate Online Classes!"

"And I don't like sharing about myself online! I'm uncomfortable with it."

That's the short version of an email I received from a student. The email was much longer (about as long as this post), and the exact words have been changed to honor the student. If you teach online for a while, you'll run into this. In your efforts to build community online, and to establish your presence in the course, there will be some students who decide that this all feels fake and it wasn't what they signed up for (which leaves you wondering why they signed up for an online course in the first place).

girl at ancient computer

So, what's going here?

It could be one of several things:
1. Perhaps online learning is just a bad fit for them. I think it's a great choice for a lot of people; but it's not for everyone. Minnesota State recognizes this and has provided an online self-test at Minnesota Online.

2. Perhaps they had a bad experience. From reading around to a thousand courses evaluations, I can't tell you how many times I've seen a student comment, "I guess online classes just aren't for me"; but in the back of my mind I know that their experience could have been 100 times better if the course had been designed correctly, or if the instructor had been engaged with her students.

3. It's not about you. From my experience, more often than not, it's about something external to the course. One former student was angry and had no safe place to vent at school. Guess what an online course offered him?  The space and sense of safety to express his anger.

What should we do when this comes up?

1. Respond promptly and with perspective. You may get offended by their email or post. If that's the case, don't worry; that's normal. Go for a walk and talk with a colleague, to get some perspective. It probably has little to do with you and your course, and a whole lot to do with them.

2. Thank them. I've noticed something that these students have in common: they value genuineness. They can detect a fake from a mile a way. The distance inherent in an online course feels suspicious to them. So, thank them for their honesty, and their willingness to communicate their thoughts with you. They are probably expecting you to argue with them, so this kind of reply is disarming.

3. Offer your support. In your reply, ask how you can make this a better experience for them.

In the end, whether we love online classes or despise them, what we want more than anything is to be heard. If you listen well, you've done your job.

For more on communicating with your online students, check out our book, Excellent! Online Teaching.