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In this much needed resource, Maryellen Weimer-one of the nation's most highly regarded authorities on effective college teaching-offers a comprehensive work on the topic of learner-centered teaching in the college and university classroom. As the author explains, learner-centered teaching focuses attention on what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning. To help educators accomplish the goals of learner-centered teaching, this important book presents the meaning, practice, and ramifications of the learner-centered approach, and how this approach transforms the college classroom environment. Learner-Centered Teaching shows how to tie teaching and curriculum to the process and objectives of learning rather than to the content delivery alone.
"By staying with the book the reader will discover the book's value as a guide to the current literature about learning and teaching." (Teachers College Record, 1/13/04)
"Expertly written by Maryellen Weimer 'Learner Centered Teaching' is an invaluable resource..." (The Midwest Book Review, August 2003)
Weimer (teaching and learning, the Berks-Lehigh Valley College of the Pennsylvania State U.) focuses on learner-centered teaching in the college and university classroom. Coverage includes an overview of relevant literature on learning, changes associated with learner- centered education in five areas<-->the balance of power, the function of content, the role of the teacher, the responsibility for learning, and the purposes and processes of evaluation<-->and key issues in implementing the learner-centered approach. Three appendices contain practical sample materials, and reading lists of additional books on active learning, successful small group dynamics, personal accounts of learner-centered teaching, and texts on learning. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Maryellen Weimer is associate professor of teaching and learning at the Berks- Lehigh Valley College of the Pennsylvania State University and is editor-in-chief of The Teaching Professor newsletter. She has author and coauthored numerous books including Teaching on Solid Ground: Using Scholarship to Improve Practice and Improving College Teaching: Strategies for Developing Instructional Effectiveness both from Jossey-Bass.
What I have come to believe about learner-centered teaching grew out of a serendipitous confluence of events and experiences. I will highlight three of the most important, roughly in the order in which they occurred, although all three overlap and are so intertwined that a stream-of-consciousness recounting would more accurately reflect the nonorder of their occurrence.
In 1994, after almost fifteen years of working in faculty development, disseminating educational materials, a variety of administrative assignments, and teaching the occasional upper-division and graduate courses, I returned to the classroom to teach entry-level required courses to beginning students. It was a sort of a midlife career move. As I took stock in midcareer, I realized that the most important and personally satisfying work I had done, the work with the greatest chance of making a difference, was work I completed in the classroom. I decided to return, finishing out my career as it had started, by teaching undergraduates.
At that time, I was motivated not to teach as I had during the first years of my career. Students had changed, and much more was known about their learning needs. As I thought about the beginning communication course I was to teach, it seemed to me that what prevented students from doing well was a lackof confidence. They needed to find their way past self-doubt, awkwardness, and the fear of failure to a place where they could ask a question in class, make a contribution in a group, and speak coherently in front of peers. It came to me that I might address the problem by making the students feel more in control. Would it help if I presented them with some choices and let them make some of the decisions about their learning?
That first semester back, I tried this approach. I designed a beginning public speaking course that had only one required assignment: students had to give one speech. The rest of the syllabus presented a cafeteria of assignment options: a learning log, group projects of various sorts, credit for participation and the analysis of it, critiques of peers, conducting an interview or being interviewed or both, and conventional multiple-choice exams. Each assignment had a designated point value and evaluation criteria. Students could opt for as many or as few assignments as they wished, given the course grade they desired. Each assignment had a due date, and once past, that assignment could not be completed.
Initially, students were totally confused. I remember arguing with one about whether the exams were required. Here is how the conversation went:
"They must be required," the student insisted. "If the test is optional, no one will take it."
"Sure they will," I replied. "Students need points to pass the class."
"But what if I don't take it?"
"Fine. Do other assignments, and get your points that way."
"But what do I do on exam day?"
"Don't come to class if you aren't taking the exam."
Several students asked me to identify the assignments they should do, and virtually everyone wanted some sort of approval once they finally decided.
But what happened the rest of that first semester took my breath away. I had no attendance policy, but better attendance than in any class I could remember. More (not all, but most) students started to work hard early in the course, and some students determinedly announced that they would do every assignment if that was what it took to get enough points for an A. I was stunned by how willing they were to work, and with no complaints. Less concrete but no less real was the change in atmosphere and energy in the class. These students were committed to the class; they appeared genuinely interested in the content. They asked more questions, sustained discussion longer, and in the end disagreed with me and other students far more than I remembered my former beginning students doing. It was not instructional nirvana, but it was a decided improvement, and I was motivated to continue refining this approach.
Early in my experimentation with the course, I was asked to review a manuscript under contract with Jossey-Bass and subsequently published as Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (Brookfield, 1995). Few other publications I read before or since have so dramatically influenced my pedagogical thinking. The book took me in two different directions. (I describe the second later in this chapter when I get to the third major event that motivated me to write this book.)
Through Brookfield's book, I discovered how much about teaching can be learned by and through critical reflective practice. Brookfield describes methods that allow one to take a common instructional practice and through a process of analysis see the assumptions about teachers, students, and learning embedded in that particular practice. It was as if someone had held a mirror up to my teaching. In that reflection, I saw a different, and not very flattering, instructional image: an authoritarian, controlling teacher who directed the action, often totally unaware of and blissfully oblivious to the impact of those policies, practices, and behaviors on student learning and motivation. Displays of instructor power were present everywhere. I came to realize that the classroom environment I created ended up being a place where I could succeed and do well. Student learning just happened, an assumed outcome of instructional action that featured me.
Before reading Brookfield's book, I had redesigned my course; afterward, I attempted to redesign the teacher. Getting the course reshaped turned out to be much easier than fixing my very teacher-centered instruction. Flachmann (1994, p. 2) captures exactly how I felt then and now:
I'm a little embarrassed to tell you that I used to want credit for having all the intelligent insights in my classroom. I worked hard to learn these facts.... I secretly wanted my students to look at me with reverence. I now believe that the opposite effect should occur-that the oracle, the locus and ownership of knowledge, should reside in each student and our principal goal as teachers must be to help our students discover the most important and enduring answers to life's problems within themselves. Only then can they truly possess the knowledge that we are paid to teach them [p. 2].
A second event strongly influenced my thinking about learning and ultimately became another reason for writing this book. For years, my husband, Michael, aspired to build a wooden boat. He collected books, bought plans, subscribed to Wooden Boat magazine, and faithfully watched "Classic Boat" on Speed Vision (a cable TV channel devoted to racing). Then we bought property on an island, and it was time to build the wooden boat. We planned to build a house on the island and needed a boat big enough to haul supplies to the site. Armed with a set of blueprints (selected after having reviewed hundreds), he started on the hull. First, it was the frame and battens. His vocabulary changed; he talked of chines, sheer clamps, the kellson, and garboard. Then it was covering the hull with marine plywood, not something easily obtained in land-locked central Pennsylvania. The whole neighborhood showed up to help turn the hull. Next came the floor, designing the cabin, and finally the motor. At every step, there was a whole new set of tasks to learn. In our video collection, we have several tapes demonstrating fiber-glassing techniques. We still get catalogues from more marine supply companies than I ever imagined existed.
From nothing but hours of work and an unwavering confidence that he could figure out what he needed to know emerged Noah's Lark, a twenty-four-foot, lobster-style, wooden boat. She has a sleek white hull and dashing yellow stripe and a beautifully finished ash cabin, and she's powered by a fully rebuilt but not terribly fuel-efficient Merc Cruiser. She sits gracefully in the water, rises to a stylish plane, and cuts steady and stable through whitecaps and waves. She reliably tows barge loads of micro lam beams, bags of concrete, and sheets of plywood. Dockside, Noah's Lark turns heads. The bold inquire, "Where did you get that boat?" "Built her," my husband replies, unable to hide the pride in his voice.
It takes much more time and money to build a wooden boat than I had imagined. But after dealing with those realities, what amazed me most was the confidence my husband brought to the task. Where did it come from? On what was it based? He had never built a boat before-houses yes, furniture yes, but not a boat. As the bills kept coming in, I felt it financially prudent to keep asking, "Do you know what you're doing? Is this really going to turn out?" His answer was always the same, "No, I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm learning. Of course, it will turn out. We need a boat, don't we?"
At some level, I was really asking myself if I would tackle a project this complicated, this expensive, and this time-consuming if I knew as little as he did about it. And at another level, I knew the answer: I would not. Furthermore, I could not imagine any of my students doing it. Neither they nor I had faith that we could figure out this or many other complicated learning tasks that came to mind once I started thinking about them.
There was an irony here that stuck in my craw: Michael's confidence as a learner did not come from his experience of obtaining a degree in industrial engineering. In fact, quite the opposite had occurred. He graduated from college feeling that he had just squeaked by, keenly disappointed with what he had learned, and stressed by the conditions under which he was expected to learn it. He credits experiences with his father for developing his confidence. It irritated me that rather than reinforcing his confidence, his college experience had undermined it.
College should be the time when and the place where students develop prowess as learners. I started thinking about what kind of college experiences would result in learning skills as sophisticated and confidence as heart-felt as his. I came to accept that one of my tasks as a teacher was developing lifelong learning skills and the confidence to use them. What kind of teaching, assignments, and classroom environment would accomplish that? How would those kinds of learning experiences be evaluated?
Having accepted that goal, I saw course content in a whole new light. It moved from being the end to being the means. It went from being something I covered to something I used to develop learning skills and an awareness of learning processes. I saw evaluation as something much more meaningful than the mechanism whereby grades are generated. It become a potent venue for promoting learning and developing self- and peer assessment skills.
Although both of these experiences were instrumental in my early and continuing development as a learner-centered teacher, they are by no means the only events of consequence. Across the years and lessons learned, I have been informed, inspired, provoked, and encouraged by the occasional article and book, most of them personally reflective, that describe the attempts of others to move teaching to a different and more learner-centered place. My favorites are in the reading lists in Appendix C. If you learn more about yourself as a teacher by reading thoughtful reflections of other teachers, I recommend that reading list.
The Literature on Learning
In addition to these firsthand experiences, there was a third significant force in my development as a learner-centered teacher. Brookfield's book took me in two directions. In addition to introducing me to critical reflective practice, it was the starting point for a lengthy and still not completed trip around and through the literature on learning. After reviewing that manuscript, I realized how little I knew of and about learning, and so I started reading some of the radical and critical pedagogy referenced in that book, which led me to work on constructivism. Next, I got into self-directed learning and from there into the work in cognitive and educational psychology on deep and surface learning, motivation, perceived control, help-seeking behavior, and a host of other topics. Somewhere along the way, I explored feminist scholarship on pedagogy. I could not believe the trove of literature on learning that exists.
Before I knew it, I was imagining summarizing all this work, condensing and integrating it, and writing about it with clarity. Then I would extrapolate instructional implications from the findings, finally closing the gap between theory and practice. Had I been twenty years younger, I can see myself pursuing this noble and needed objective. But being older and wiser, I saw the folly of trying to corral a literature this vast. Understanding even a bit about the nature of this literature makes it obvious why that task is not easily accomplished. Three features in particular show how difficult it is to summarize what we know about learning.
First, the literature is vast. Interest in learning may be recent, but the study of it is not. It spans decades, starting in modern times with the work of Dewey. It crosses disciplines with work being done in education and various subfields like educational psychology, higher education, and adult education. Other relevant work is underway in women's studies and psychology. Still more work has been completed in fields with content totally unrelated to learning, like engineering and math. And finally there are interdisciplinary initiatives, like practitioner-oriented work on active learning, group work and inquiry-based approaches, the writing across the curriculum movement, and multicultural curricular reforms. Besides occurring across the decades and in multiple disciplinary contexts, the research and theory on learning is literally being completed around the world. It is a body of literature that would take a lifetime to read and another one to summarize and integrate.
Second, add to the vastness of the literature on learning the fact that this body of knowledge remains largely unassembled. It resembles a giant jigsaw puzzle that has a whole community working on it. A few sections are more or less finished. Collections of related but not yet connected pieces lie close together in other sections. And there are still a lot of individual pieces, definitely part of the puzzle but currently just spread out on the table. I do not mean to convey the impression that what is known about learning exists in some exceptional state of disarray. Like all other puzzles, this one comes with the picture on the box: we know what learning looks like when it happens. And what is still not known about how it all fits together could be said of the state of knowledge in many other fields.
Excerpted from Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer Excerpted by permission.
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