Learner-Centered Teaching at Vanderbilt
by Nancy Chick, CFT Assistant Director
Some of us at the CFT recently read and discussed Maryellen Weimer’s new edition of Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2013). Simply put, learner-centered teaching aims to create active, independent thinkers who understand the processes and value of learning and apply this understanding to new contexts. Weimer starts by pointing out that this is not the norm:
“What happens in the typical college classrooms? 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? Who calls on the students? Who solves the problems, provides the graphs, and constructs the matrices? In most classrooms, it’s the teacher. When it comes to who’s working the hardest most days, teachers win hands down. Students are there, but too often education is being done unto them.” (Weimer, 2013, p. 60)
This is the ubiquitous teacher-centered class. In contrast, the learner-centered class shifts more of this hard work to the students:
“…students are engaged in learning tasks. They aren’t just copying down teacher-provided examples, but generating their own. They aren’t just recording what the teacher does as she works through a problem, they are working problems on their own or with other students. They are asking questions, summarizing content, generating hypotheses, proposing theories, offering critical analyses, and so on.” (Weimer 72)
For those who envision this approach resulting in rampant misconceptions, anarchy, or silence, Weimer clarifies that the shift is neither sudden nor complete: it’s “about gradually doing them less, until the point is reached when doing them is the exception, not the rule” (72). She recommends starting by thinking about the role of the teacher, and offers seven principles to guide those interested in making this transition:
- Teachers let students do more learning tasks.
- Teachers do less telling so that students can do more discovering.
- Teachers do instructional design work more carefully.
- Faculty more explicitly model how experts learn.
- Faculty encourage students to learn from and with each other.
- Faculty and students work to create climates for learning.
- Faculty use evaluation to promote learning.
I recently saw one manifestation of learner-centered teaching action in one of the CFT’s Teaching Visits. A handful of visitors sat quietly in the back of Mark Wollaeger’s ENGL 116W: Introduction to Poetry’s class, one of two periods devoted to critical approaches to literature. Most of the 75 minutes were focused on questions students generated while reading about four specific approaches: Gender, Reader-Response, Deconstruction, and Cultural Studies. On the syllabus for today, he’d written, “For two of these four, come in with a typed question about the reading.”
He started class by projecting an absent student’s question on the screen and then asking students to contribute their questions as well. He wrote them on the board (or the gist of each), grouped by similarity. They asked about the validity and utility of the different approaches, potential conflicts with the author’s intentions, and how an interpretation might change by knowing the poet’s sexuality. For the rest of the class, he guided the discussion to consider each of these significant questions about studying literature. The students who authored the questions explained why they asked the questions, referred to relevant passages in the text, and served as major voices in puzzling over the poetry. When they struggled or said something especially insightful, Mark asked, “What do the rest of you think about that?” Occasionally, he picked up on an idea and explored it himself. He called on some students, and others raised their hands.
It’s easy to mistake this approach as teaching without a net, spontaneous and risky, requiring little preparation and depending completely on the quality of the students’ questions for the quality of the discussion. However, in the discussion after class, I asked him how he’d prepared for the day. He showed us his notes and his text, revealing a variety of topics and annotations. He explained that he’d prepared the common issues that come up for these critical approaches and these poems, as well as some ideas he would add. It turns out that the students’ questions hit enough of the topics that he didn’t have to introduce any of them.
While Mark facilitated the discussion, the content was largely determined by those students’ questions on the board. At the same time, though, he didn’t disappear into their questions and comments; he nudged, encouraged, extrapolated, and extended.
These students were experiencing what it’s like to be invited into the heart of the learning process. Their curiosities, confusions, and connections were taken seriously. As the class ended, I huddled in the back with the other visitors, and we all whispered some variation on “I wish I were still a student!”
You may think that your students would struggle with developing sophisticated, discipline-appropriate questions about course material, so this strategy wouldn’t work for your classes. But Weimer emphasizes that learner-centered teaching isn’t a collection of strategies; it’s a fundamental way of re-thinking teaching—with many different ways of being implemented. Her book offers dozens of possibilities across the disciplines. If you’re curious about how you could bring some of these principles to your classes, call 322-7290 to talk to any of us Assistant Directors at the CFT:
- Cynthia Brame (STEM and medical school)
- Joe Bandy (social sciences and Peabody)
- Nancy Chick (humanities and the divinity school).
For more information on learner-centered teaching, see two of Weimer’s blog posts on Faculty Focus, “Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching” and “Learner-Centered Teaching: Good Places to Begin.”