Learner-Centered Teaching with Dr. Maryellen Weimer

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MaryellenWeimer.JPGDr. Maryellen Weimer, a Penn State emeritus Professor of Teaching and Learning, has a dossier on the scholarship of teaching and learning. She opened our session by sharing her experiences with a nightmare of a class, showing that even master teachers can have those experiences. She remembers having a sense of wanting to teach differently - not quite as driven by content, but not sure what she wanted to do. Starting with the use of different techniques, it just grew from there. It was a process of reflection and analysis.

The nineteen faculty in attendance had participated in a book discussion on Weimer's book, Learner-Centered Teaching, prior to her visit, and easily made connections to the five areas discussed:

1. The Role of the Teacher: The term "paradigm shift" seems overused, and Maryellen prefers to use it as a significant reorientation. To illustrate, she shared a metaphor of her "beater" farm truck that has a shift on the column and requires a full range of motion to change gears. When she shifts that truck into gear, something significant happens, unlike the smooth, almost unnoticeable change in an automatic. Changing her role as a teacher was like shifting gears in that farm truck, thinking about what students are doing was tough for her to do. Do you care how much and how well your students learn? Try some new techniques and see how it improves student learning.

It's hard for us to let students play ball with the content in the classroom. Why is that? She agrees that they don't play ball very well at first - it's messy. We need to provide scaffolding. Provide them with one example and allow students to provide the additional examples. She suggested something similar to speed dating to familiarize students with the syllabus. Each student could ask one personal question and one syllabus question.

2. The Balance of Power: Taking away student control impacts their motivation. There are ethically responsible ways to give students some control, and the intellectual maturity of students has to be a consideration. Let them make choices within constraints: assignments with due dates, must get 50% of points on an assignment or they get zero points. She suggested incremental changes. Try to create conditions conducive to learning. She found that her methods really helped the "B" and "C" students, but she still had students fail. How do we instill the love of learning in our students and have them see learning as an ongoing part of their career?

3. The Function of Content: For this section, she was not talking about teaching content, but rather using content. How much content is enough? There are two variables: how fast information has exploded, and how technology has changed access to information. Students need to be able to evaluate information. Students can learn from and with each other. There is a lot of research on this. As we become experts, it becomes more difficult to remember being a beginning learner. She suggested using instructional strategies that marry covering and using content. For instance, during the last five minutes of class involve students in summarizing. Simply providing students with a summary results in the notes of the professor becoming the notes of the students and don't pass through the minds of either. Students notes are full of answers but they don't know what questions they answer. Have them frame questions.

4. The Responsibility for Learning: One example shared here was on group exams. She creates the groups with mixed abilities. All take the quiz individually and hand it in. Then the group takes the quiz together. If a student scores 50% or lower, that student is out of the group grading and bonus point possibility. However, they still participate in the group exam since she doesn't know at that point who has scored below 50%. When she hands back the group exam, she circles group questions answered correctly by at least one group member but answered incorrectly by the group. They have a debriefing. She calculates the average of individual quiz scores for all five students in the group (exception is any student who scored below 50%), and compares those scores to the group score. The difference is the bonus. She allows students to have a crib sheet for the exam, but they must hand it in with the exam.

Have students reckon with decisions they've made about their learning, realizing that some are not very good decisions. For example, students who don't do the reading wait to see what happens to them. If their professor tells them what was in the reading, they don't need to read. So how do we get them to read? A quiz doesn't teach them the value of reading. It's about discovery. To get them to bring their book to class, this is what she does: "Turn to page 24 in your book, look at the second paragraph. See, I have this sentence highlighted. Do you have that sentence highlighted?" She uses the book in class, shows its value.

She had students from last semester visit her class during the third week of the semester. She left class and let students ask questions.

5. The Processes and Purposes of Evaluation: Let students set the participation policy and grade their own participation. They each set a goal and provide a self-evaluation. Their participation partner watches their participation and provides a review. Provide feedback and have students respond to your feedback to receive their grade. Have students get more involved in self-evaluation and peer review.

A final metaphor she shared was in creating a climate for learning in the classroom, a need to know. You create a climate by building relationships: student-to-student, and faculty-to-student. On the board she makes two columns, one for the best class I ever took, and one for the worst class I ever took. Under each column she provides two more columns, one for what the professor did and one for what students did. A class discussion helps to fill out the columns, and then they can discuss which class they want this class to be and what that means as far as the students' responsibilities and the professor's responsibilities.

She provided a list of resources on learner-centered teaching that have been published since her book. This has been provided in the ANGEL group used for the online book discussion, along with all of the articles available digitally.

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