"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink!"
I have heard this comment numerous times from my department chair and colleagues as we discuss the challenges of creating an undergraduate curriculum that produces students who have mastered the core concepts of the discipline and who demonstrate skill in higher-order thinking. In her book Learner-Centered Teaching, Dr. Maryellen Weimer provides a solution to that old saying: "Salt the oats so the horse will want to drink!"
Dr. Weimer has extensive experience in the area of instructional design and innovation. She has served as the director of the Instructional Development Program at Penn State University and the Associate Director of the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. She is perhaps best known for her work in the area of active learning. In this latest contribution, Dr. Weimer has created a guidebook for those of us who are looking for a new and (we hope) better way to educate our students.
The title of the book reflects the growing movement away from a focus on "teaching" and towards a focus on "learning" at all levels of education. Based on her personal experiences, Dr. Weimer describes five key areas that she believes must change in order to create a learner-centered environment within the college classroom. These areas include a) the balance of power in the classroom, b) the function of course content, c) the role of the teacher, d) the student's responsibility for learning, and e) the purpose and methods of evaluation. Each of the proposed changes is considered in some detail. The chapters all follow a similar format in which the topic is introduced and discussed, suggestions and examples are given for the implementation of the change (e.g., "In the Trenches") followed by discussion of likely problems or complications (e.g., "Questions that Emerge"). I found this to be a very useful format as it allowed me to consider how I might make small, immediate changes in my class, what to do if problems arose, and what long-term goals I might establish for future classes. An extensive appendix provides resources for the implementation of the proposed changes including a sample syllabus, assignments, and other relevant materials.
Several general issues related to the implementation of learner-centered teaching are considered in the second half of the book. One critical issue is the resistance that you may encounter from students and colleagues. I appreciated the frank discussion of potential drawbacks to innovation by untenured faculty--a sad comment on the state of the academy. The ability of students to be self-motivated and responsible for their own learning is discussed in the context of their intellectual and personal development. While this book helped to identify the questions I should be asking myself as I design my course, no direct answers were provided on how to deal with the diverse mixture of students that I typically find in my classes. Diversity of preparation and motivation as well as cultural diversity is the norm in my introductory courses. In addition, many of my students are the first in their families to attend college and the majority of my students must work to support themselves and/or their families. These additional stresses impact the classroom environment and must certainly influence the development of our students as independent learners.
Finally, Dr. Weimer discusses the steps involved in "Making it Work." Here, the critical message is to make curricular innovations part of a coherent pedagogy. All too often, innovation in the classroom devolves into a few "parlor tricks" that are judged successful because the professor or the students "like" the activity. The most important factor in a coherent pedagogy is educational value and not amusement. Activities or innovations may be challenging or engaging, but the critical question is "what did you learn?"
Another strength of this book is that it avoids trying to provide all the information that is available on the topic of teaching and learning. For faculty members already pressed to keep up with the literature in their own disciplines, the idea of staying current with the literature on pedagogy can be overwhelming. The first chapter of this book provides an abbreviated review of the field and identifies major themes in the literature. This brief review is supported by a substantial, annotated reading list, organized by topic in the appendix. The introduction and the numerous references provided within the text work to "salt the oats"--creating the motivation for the reader to find out more!
I asked myself two questions before I started reading this book. The first question was whether the ideas presented would have the appearance of being "catchy" or "the hot new fad." The second question was whether the ideas were attainable and applicable across disciplines. It is my sense that postsecondary educators are particularly wary of the college equivalent to "new math" (a less than successful innovation in K-12 education). The changes espoused in this text may be controversial, but the rationale for a learner-centered approach makes sense. By creating an environment that encourages and enables our students to become independent learners we are having a long-term influence on their education. Faculty perceptions regarding the usefulness of a particular pedagogy are often very stereotyped ("that might work in a communication class, but not in biology" or "that might work with a small class, but not in my large lecture", etc). Learning is the common denominator to the college experience. Consequently, any pedagogical innovation of that enhances learning necessarily has application across the curriculum.
Posted February 5, 2003
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