As universities look for opportunities to improve learning outcomes for nontraditional students, to personalize learning experiences, and to close the degree attainment gap, it’s necessary that they consider traditional pedagogies. In addition to data-driven instructional design, which we’ve written about from a number of angles on our resources page, one pedagogical adjustment getting a lot of attention is learner-centered instruction. After all, personalized learning for today’s students is unlikely to result from yesterday’s teaching practices.
As Marsha Lovett, director of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, has said, “the teacher-centered perspective does little to reveal whether students are learning.” Lovett argues in her essay How to Move from First-Person to Learner-Centered Teaching that teacher-centered learning misses opportunities to “let students be the heroes of their own stories.”
A growing body of research embraces that view, making a compelling argument for a paradigm shift from traditional teacher-centered classroom practices to learner-centered instruction. Below is a short digest of several other recently published articles on the subject of learner-centered instruction. Combined, these pieces illuminate what is driving this shift and how others are addressing the need for classroom transformation.
The need for transformation in education
Some researchers see an urgency in moving toward learner-centered environments, as today’s students are proving to be unprepared for higher education. Delane Ingalls Vanada and Dean Adams make this case in Learning-Centered Instructional Strategies: A Crash Course, reporting that many students now entering college are deficient in the problem-solving, creativity, and decision-making skills necessary in the modern world.
Related reading: Moving Toward Learner-Centered Models in HigherEd
In the somewhat controversial book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa echo some of Vanada and Adams’ ideas. They point to findings in the Collegiate Learning Assessment that found 45 percent of college students in 2011 demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, or written communication in their first two years of college.
Vanada and Adams blame testing-rich K-12 education systems, contending that the current method of lecturing, memorization, and testing impacts students by leaving them:
- More comfortable being told what to do.
- Anxious about dealing with a level of ambiguity.
- Unused to doing the work as learners.
While Vanada and Adams concede that lecturing in the classroom can be an effective method for teaching complex material that students can’t learn on their own, they argue that lecturing overall is less likely to develop self-directed, critical thinkers. In their view, lectures must be paired with other experiential exercises, such as discussion, role playing, and collaborative problem-solving. This helps students practice how to communicate effectively in a global world, creatively analyze and solve complex problems, and collaborate well with others.
The classrooms these publications describe are becoming more prevalent. Also known as incorporating “active learning,” such courses are designed to involve students rather than simply feed them information. Research is finding that classes that embrace active learning can achieve improved outcomes in engagement, competency, and completion rates.
Integrating technology into learner-centered instruction
Managing the proliferation of technology is another key element to consider in adopting the learner-centered approach. In the Handbook of Research on Learner-Centered Pedagogy in Teacher Education, Judi Simmons Estes, associate dean and associate professor of Education at Park University, stresses the importance of integration.
There is a difference, says Estes, between simply using technology in education and “technology-integrated instruction.” The latter, she says, “connects instructional technology with standards, learning objectives, instructional strategies, learning activities, assessment strategies, and follow-up procedures.”
Estes cites Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies (eMINTS) as a model of learning-centered and technology-integrated instruction. The four components of the model include:
- High-quality lessons and assessments designed to meet the needs of diverse learners and valuing self-directed learning.
- Authentic learning based on standards where questioning promotes critical thinking and inquiry, as well as complex thinking and knowledge construction.
- Community of learners, including the teacher, who work in teams, take risks, respect and push each other while taking turns being leaders and becoming lifelong learners.
- Seamless technology integration into the classroom as a fundamental tool for learning, with students becoming media literate digital citizens.
Much of what Estes outlines is attained through good instructional design that follows principles based in learning science. Acrobatiq, for example, uses a Skill Graph — built on the elements of the course design triangle — to map out clear connections between individual learning objectives, component skills, practice activities, and assessments related to those skills.
Integrating learner-centered instruction – a case study
Perhaps most instructive to anyone exploring learner-centered instruction are insights gleaned from those undertaking this transition. Gili Marbach-Ad and Carly Hunt Rietschel of the University of Maryland, College Park, documented a case study of two university instructors and their teaching assistants, who redesigned a biology course to incorporate learner-centered instruction into their courses.
Related reading: How to Manage Objections to Student-Centered Learning
The instructors, named Julie and Alex, were aware of research that suggests teacher-centered instruction is inferior to learner-centered instruction and that underrepresented groups tend to do poorly in traditional courses. They were seeking a way to help students learn the processes of science, teach fewer course topics in greater depth, decrease reliance on memorization, and increase conceptual understanding and problem solving.
The first year, they incorporated a series of small-group active-engagement (GAE) exercises by replacing one lecture per week with a 30 minute GAE. They also incorporated online pre-class lectures as a way to minimize loss of content coverage.
At the end of the year, according to the case study, “the instructors were pleased with how the GAE provided an opportunity for students to more closely experience the scientific process in the classroom relative to traditional lecture.”
They also noted some activities needed modifications such as increasing student engagement and time for reflection. Students needed to be better prepared when they came to the GAE and assessments needed to be better aligned with GAEs. There was some resistance from some of the students to change, and some challenges with seating in an auditorium setting. Lastly, the teaching assistants needed more training.
Julie and Alex decided to teach all sections for the upcoming year with learner-centered instruction. They learned from models of flipped classes and sought to integrate more technology.They revised some of the GAEs, developed preparation activities, revised the group settings, and added more and better trained TAs. Overall, the changes were a success. The instructors saw improvements in areas they targeted while noting other areas that needed more improvement.
Finally, the study concluded with these insights for those universities considering learner-centered instruction:
- Administrators play a key role in the importance of learner-centered teaching and there must be support for these efforts.
- Transitioning from lecture-based teaching to learner-centered requires a large commitment from instructors. Funding and release time are valuable supports needed from administrators.
- Learner-centered instruction requires more human resources; administrators should consider ways to assign more TAs.
- Faculty should be incentivized to adopt innovative teaching methods; providing state-of-the-art teaching and learning facilities that include round tables in classrooms and the best in technology can help with this.
- Universities should provide support for a campus teaching and learning expert and a Faculty Learning Community, important factors in this case study.
The case study describes making this transition as challenging for students and instructors. But in the end, authors Marbach-Ad and Hunt Rietchsel say, both the instructors and the TAs were overall very satisfied with the move from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction.
Changes in education: three megatrends
Curtis Bonk, professor of cognitive sciences at Indiana University and a thought leader in the world of online education, agrees that, while today’s education needs a wholesale transformation, progress is underway. Bonk’s paper, What is the State of eLearning? Reflections on 30 Ways Learning is Changing, reflects on how much education and its delivery methods have already changed in the past several years. Today, Bonk says, “education is open, global, and highly collaborative,” thanks to web technologies.
But he also suggests that “the real world is far too technologically sophisticated” and today’s learners need enhanced creativity and decision-making skills to be successful. Because of the change in the way that learners need to consume knowledge, Bonk says the role of the instructor must transform as well.
Bonk describes three trends:
- Learner engagement is a key concern but there are now a greater number of learning technologies available to foster greater learner involvement.
- Humans can access learning any way and any time, creating pervasive access to learning and education. Learning is more online and video-based today. It is more global, immediate, direct from experts, synchronous, open, free, informal, and ubiquitous.
- Learning is more customized and personalized. It is more blended, self-directed, competency-based, on-demand, massive, modular, communal, modifiable, flipped, and personal.
These changes, Bonk asserts, are driving the need to transform from instructor-centered classes to learner-centered instruction.
Indeed, adaptive learning software that collects student performance data can provide instructors with real-time data to guide better support and intervention with students. The right courseware can transform an online class into a dynamic, asynchronous, endlessly accessible learning environment.
Pam Baker is a freelance writer specializing in human resources, information technology and online learning technology.