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


"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


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


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.