Here are three significant barriers (and solutions!) that can dramatically impact the learning outcomes of a student-centered environment.
Many professors in recent decades have begun to make a switch in their teaching practices to embrace pedagogy that focuses on student-centered learning. Student-centered learning includes a wide variety of learning experiences, instructional approaches, and support strategies that address the needs, aspirations, abilities, and cultural backgrounds of individual students within the larger student body. A student-centered approach embraces the student voice first and gives agency to the student in making decisions about how they will learn and how they will assess their learning. It is the goal of student-centered learning to create students who are “active” learners, as opposed to traditional methods of instruction where the instructor assumes the primary “active” role and students assume “passive” receptive roles.
Student-centered learning is the product of a social-constructivist theory where students learn best when they have the ability to learn from each other. These ideas are not new to the 21st century. In the 1930’s education theorists John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky developed the idea of the “Zone of Proximal Development.” This “zone,” now more commonly referred to simply as “ZPD” is a space where students learn best by making their own efforts at critical thinking, problem solving, and self-discovery before the need for instructor instruction or correction. Today, many instructors embrace different methods of student-centered learning, including Integrated Teaching, or the “flipped classroom” developed by L. Dee Fink, Cooperative Learning where students perform problem-solving tasks in small groups, and Jigsaw Classrooms where members of student groups are given different tasks to bring back to their group and to the classroom, among many other methods. Advocates of these student-centered approaches avow that they promote better learning outcomes and metacognition, help students see connections between subjects, improve student motivation and participation, reduce racial, economic, or gendered conflict in the classroom, and create more enjoyable learning experiences.
It is the goal of student-centered learning to create students who are “active” learners, as opposed to traditional methods of instruction where the instructor assumes the primary “active” role and students assume “passive” receptive roles.
The goals of student-centered teaching sound ideal to instructors in many fields of education, but there are unseen barriers to student-centered learning, no matter which method the instructor uses. I will focus here on three significant barriers that can dramatically impact the learning outcomes of a student-centered environment. More importantly, I will offer some solutions to these barriers aside from bringing awareness to their existence.
Barrier #1: No Student is a Tabula Rasa
The first barrier most instructors miss is their own, often unconscious, idea that the students in their classroom do not know anything about the subject of the course. Students are not a “blank slate” waiting for knowledge to be written upon them. Students will often disengage or start complaining about “busy work” if they do not understand the point of the student-centered activity, or if that activity does not challenge what they already know. Please note that I did not say that the activity was “not challenging,” but rather, I said that it did not challenge their previously-held ideas. This is an important distinction. Every student comes into a class with some ideas about the subject of the course. Although knowledge gaps will always exist, it is the responsibility of the instructor to scaffold their course material and model techniques in their course so that self-reflection helps the student understand what their previous notions were and how they compare to course content they are learning.
Confusion, surprise, and even amusement at one’s own loss for words can be an instructor’s friend in helping students continue to sculpt the elements of the coursework that they do understand while challenging them in constructive ways to work with their peers to learn more about what they do not already understand.
In the classroom: Why not challenge your students on day one? Create a short, low-stakes, in-class assignment that challenges commonly-held ideas of the students you are teaching. What are the pitfalls in your field? In my introductory music history courses, the greatest pitfall I find is that students are confident that they already know a great deal about how to listen to music. The problem with this idea is that they assume that they can also articulate responses about specific musical features they are hearing using correct musical terminology in a way that adequately describes the music. I often turn this activity into a game where students are partners and each is given a YouTube link or an mp3 with a musical excerpt to listen to on their headphones or ear-buds. They must then describe to their partner, who has not heard the musical excerpt, what the music “sounded like” using correct descriptions of musical features. Then, the partners switch. Within minutes the members of the class are both confused and surprised at the same time since both partners usually wind up having no idea what the other one is describing. The activity outcome is the same in both my classical music history classes and classes about popular music history. If you are also an instructor of music, you can probably guess how many more times slang words such as “flowy” and “feels” were used in comparison to musical vocabulary terms such as “tempo,” “timbre,” or even “dynamics.” Once each partner has had a chance at trying to describe their musical excerpt, I have them each write a short assessment about what they thought would happen in the activity compared to what did happen in the activity, and why they think the confusion arose. Confusion, surprise, and even amusement at one’s own loss for words can be an instructor’s friend in helping students continue to sculpt the elements of the coursework that they do understand while challenging them in constructive ways to work with their peers to learn more about what they do not already understand.
Barrier #2: The Student-Centered Classroom
There is nothing more disheartening to a professor who uses student-centered teaching methods to walk into her classroom on the first day only to find rigid rows or tiers of desks bolted to the floor and only one area, supposedly designed as space for “teaching” at the front of the classroom where the only white board or projection screen can be found. I will admit, there have been times I have daydreamed about raiding my husband’s toolbox to find something that will at least unbolt the desks from the floor! Due to increasing awareness and use of these methods, universities have begun to design classrooms that are better designed for student centered teaching. In her recent article featured by The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Does Redesigning Classrooms Make a Difference to Students?”, Shannon Najmabadi makes the point that “classroom space is not neutral.” By looking to the example of the new Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, built with round, moveable tables, glass writing boards, “smart” computerized projectors, and large touch screens, Najmabadi makes the point that spaces such as these affect both the students and the instructor. Students were more able to engage with one another with their moveable chairs and round tables, but what was more surprising was the changes made by the professors who found they altered the ways they taught by lecturing less and walking among the tables of students more. But, classrooms like these are not a one-size-fits-all solution for student-centered learning. Najmabadi points out that classes of different disciplines need different kinds of spaces. She gives the example of a science course needing lab space in comparison to a different type of course that would be more conducive to the room full of writing boards and round tables.
So, what’s an instructor to do when they are put in a large lecture hall with seats and desks bolted to the floor? Najmabadi states, and I agree, that instructors can still find ways to conduct student-centered activities, no matter the shape or set-up of their physical classroom space. In classrooms like this I do not have the luxury of having the students sit in tables in groups, but I can ask them to turn to the person next to them in a “think-pair-share” activity. I can also quiz them with questions that give multiple-choice answers, some of them with commonly-held misconceptions. Do I need clickers or special gear for this? My answer, after attending a workshop led by Stephen Chew, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Samford University, is no. “Most everyone has a hand, right?” asked Chew. “Students will forget their clickers, but they can’t forget to bring their hand to class!” he exclaimed. So, like Chew, I only have up to five options on my screen, and then I ask the students vote with their fingers. What is more gratifying (and socially constructed) is when I ask the students to look around at each other’s fingers and decide if they want to change their vote, and perhaps even ask them why they might do so. If you have not had the honor of working with Professor Chew, you can check out his wonderful educational videos here. So, before you give up hope or go looking for the perfect wrench to stuff in your bag, know that any space can still be a good space for student-centered learning – it’s just how the instructor imagines they will use it.
Barrier #3: “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”
The Good and the Bad:
I have blogged previously about finding student strengths over using outdated assessments or judgments of students that broadly categorize them in ways that can hurt learning outcomes. But what I am still confounded by in conversations with my colleagues are comments such as “Oh, she’s a good student, I’m sure she missed her test for a legitimate reason,” or, conversely, “He’s always been like this, kind of a bad student… he probably just skipped the test.” I think somewhere in our minds, all teachers are guilty of this type of thinking. But I am here to tell you that there are no “good” or “bad” students. What is more, asking oneself if a student is “good” or “bad” is asking the wrong question altogether. What we really need to be asking ourselves as instructors is “where are my resources for a multitude of student issues?” These range from missed work, issues of mental health, family responsibilities, financial problems, to even harrowing traumas such as campus sexual assault or hate crimes. Like a good Boy or Girl Scout, your motto is still to “be prepared.” Sadly, most instructors reading this have likely had students talk to them about these issues at some point in their teaching career. My advice is to know email addresses, campus phone numbers, and web addresses that you can refer to in a matter of seconds in order to help a student. Do you know where the office of counseling services is? Do you have the phone number for campus security or the student health services? Are you ready and willing to ask an administrator to call the police if necessary to help protect the young person who is standing before you? I keep a list in every lesson plan binder and a helpful folder of emergency procedure protocol created by Belmont University in my bag at all times. I have personally walked with my arm around distressed students across campus to the counseling center, University Ministries, and the financial aid office – wherever they can find the help they need.
But, here’s the other side of making judgements in the classroom: the students do it too. That’s right! Students will make very quick judgements about your course based solely on your appearance. In his very handy and insightful book, Discussion in the College Classroom, Jay R. Howard introduces studies on the idea of homophily, or the perception of the student that the instructor is in some way similar to them. While homophily has been positively correlated with better student participation and discussion, the problem lies in the fact that it is correlated specifically with student perceptions of the instructor’s attractiveness. When I first started studying the phenomenon of homophily in my own reading of educational psychology articles, I thought to myself, “are you kidding me?” I’m short with frizzy hair and… and… But then I saw that this idea of “attractiveness” is complex. It isn’t about attractive versus ugly just in a physical sense. Students are also acutely aware of and judge their instructors based on social attractiveness, their backgrounds, beliefs, attitudes, and values that may or may not be the same as the student’s. It does present significant challenges for professors who may differ from their students in terms of social class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and ability or disability. However, we as instructors cannot changes these things and should not change them in order to appear to be more like our students. What we can do is appear to be “more human” as Howard says, and use self-disclosure in honest but careful ways. I like to tell stories to my popular music classes about how I snuck out of the house to go to a rock concert in high school, or how I used to hide rap albums in my box spring. These always get a good laugh out of them as I stand there in my Dolores Umbridge-esque pink suit and heels. But laughter also creates social attractiveness! If I can smile at my students, laugh with them, call them by their names, and learn about them as people without fear of letting them also do the same for me, my classes will run more smoothly.
I am a professor who embraces socially-constructed pedagogy. I have dozens of binders, at least two for every course I have ever taught, full of student-centered activities and lesson plans. But I have learned that these are not enough. I have to be ready to go “off-script” to challenge false ideas and encourage critical thinking without “busy work.” I actually have no idea which wrench would unbolt those desks, but I know I can work around them. I have to remind myself not to be so ready to judge as I am to empower my students to learn, even in the worst circumstances they may face in their young lives. Most importantly, it is my role as the instructor to create an environment where students are “active” learners – where they can learn best through self-discovery and from each other.