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Adopting learner-centred strategies has major implications for faculty and individual students. This issue of CDTL Brief on Learner-centred Teaching/Learning explores how certain learner-centred approaches may be adapted to improve student learning in various contexts.

April 2006, Vol. 9, No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Learner-centred Practices and the Necessary Changes
 
Ms Ng Boon Yuen
Department of Information Systems
 

Coming from the premise that teaching is supposed to facilitate learning, I am a strong advocate of learnercentred methods that focus on students (i.e. learners) rather than the teacher. Weimer (2002) highlights five key areas that need to be changed when using learner-centred teaching approaches. In this paper, I will discuss the five areas briefly and show how they have been incorporated into my teaching.

  1. The Balance of Power

    In most courses, teachers make most, if not all, decisions pertaining to syllabus, textbooks, assignments and course policies. However, Weimer (2002) challenges that students could be given more power to make decisions for their own learning and argues that student involvement in making decisions associated with learning not only has a positive impact on students' educational experiences but also motivates students to work harder for the course. From my own experience in both undergraduate teaching as well as honours-year project supervision, I find that students are indeed more motivated when they participate in the decision-making process. For example, students enjoy working on their projects more when they are given the autonomy to choose the nature and scope of their projects. This is a simple way a teacher can 'share power' with learners. However, one would probably need more courage to experiment with more radical approaches mentioned in Weimer's book!

  2. The Function of Content

    As teachers, we often wonder how much content is enough or which chapters of the textbook to cover. Weimer (2002) challenges her readers to consider a new content-learning relationship. Firstly, she argues that content, though important, is only a vehicle to help students develop communication or study skills. Secondly, content is used to promote self-awareness of learning (i.e. content as a means for students to understand how they learn and discover their strengths and weaknesses). In her book, Weimer (2002) defines self-awareness as "the foundation on which further development as a confident, self-directed, and self-regulated learner grows" (p. 51-52). Finally, content also provides the context for students to learn and apply the information.

    I agree totally with the author's views on the functions of content. As university teachers, our teaching goals should not be confined to merely helping students master the subject; we should aim to develop students' communication and critical thinking skills as well as the ability to apply their knowledge to solve problems. In my teaching for example, I attempt to help students learn independently and develop their communication skills by getting them to research and present to the class a topic of their choice. Such assignments help students learn from supplementary course materials when they do research and develop communication skills when they make presentations. From the student feedback I received, they do appreciate the skills they develop through such an exercise.

  3. The Role of the Teacher

    In learner-centred teaching, the teacher's role is similar to that of a guide, facilitator or coach. On the surface, the learner-centred approach may seem to simplify the roles and responsibilities of teachers, but it actually requires teachers to put in more effort and work. As the approach focuses on learners and what they are doing, teachers have to put more time and effort in designing instructional activities and assignments which are to become the main vehicles through which learning occurs. In addition to tasks associated with traditional modes of teaching such as organising content, generating examples and crafting questions, teachers have to create and maintain classroom conditions conducive to learning-centred activities and methods.

  4. The Responsibility for Learning

    In learner-centred teaching, the responsibility of learning is shifted from the teacher to learners. Students have to be responsible for their own learning while teachers help by building student autonomy and responsibility in class. While this may be possible for motivated students who are interested in the subject, the teacher would need to put in extra time and effort to help weaker students who are unmotivated to learn. Weimer (2002) suggests several different policies and practices that could develop students' maturity and help them take responsibility for their own learning. One of the approaches I have tried is to invite students who did badly for the midterm test to meet me individually. During the meeting, I would find out more on the student's study practices, and allow him/her to suggest what he/she could do to be better prepared for the exam. Encouraging students and expressing confidence in their abilities can help students take responsibility for their own learning.

  5. The Purpose and Processes of Evaluation

    Weimer (2002) suggests that evaluation can be used in learner-centred teaching to generate grades and promote learning. This is one of the most important teaching practices I have adopted. For example, in addition to the grade students receive for their assignments, I always make it a point to provide detailed feedback and comments. Weimer (2002) goes one step further to suggest that comments and grades should be separated. For example, the teacher could return the assignment with comments only and get students to write their responses to the comments before giving the grade. According to Weimer (2002), other practical approaches which could help students become self-directed learners include peer-assessment as well as ways to reduce exam-related stress so that exams can promote better learning.

    In short, changes to the above-mentioned five areas are a paradigm shift from traditional teaching practices that we may be used to, but they are worth considering if we are serious about learner-centred teaching. From my own experience, I find it more manageable to introduce changes incrementally each semester, instead of implementing them all at once. I highly recommend Weimer's book as she provides many real life examples from her own experience in teaching undergraduates and offers practical suggestions supported by pedagogical theories as well as studies that have been conducted. The book has certainly helped me to reflect on my teaching philosophy and practices and inspired me to introduce new ways to encourage student learning.

References

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 
 
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Inside this issue
‘Divide and Conquer’: Breaking a Big Class into Small Teams for Tutorials
   
Teaching Patient-centred Care in the Community
   
Case-based Tutorials
   
Learner-centred Practices and the Necessary Changes
   
The Philetics of Teaching
   
Teaching Students with Different Learning Styles
   
Student-led Tutorials