Hand It Over

“The overriding message from students is that ...

“The overriding message from students is that active learning… (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)

Learner-centered education….one of those buzz phrases that we hear bandied about at conferences and read about in journals and education newsletters.  It’s one of those concepts that we know is a “right” answer when the multiple-choice question asks: “Which of the following are valid educational techniques?”

What’s the hold-up?

But for those of us in the oldie-but-goodie category, learner-centered education is something we may not have experienced personally, at least in higher ed. When we recall our own distant college days, we remember a professor standing at the front of the room, holding forth on the topic of the day, while we frantically scribbled notes.  It’s all too easy to think, “If it worked for me, it should work for my students.”


bored-students (Photo credit: cybrarian77)

…except that it didn’t work…not really.  How much did we actually learn in most of those classes? How much excited us and made us want to know more? How much of the stuff that we dutifully recorded in our blue books at finals time can still be found on the dusty upper shelves of our memory closets? For me, not so much. Maybe not for you either. And yet we are still tempted to apply our teacher’s techniques to our classes today, even when we know better.

Why old school is bad school

Buckets of research conclude that students learn more when they learn actively. Not surprisingly, sitting at a desk for hours as I point out body parts on slides and models doesn’t result in the students knowing those terms. Watching me diagram and explain a complex physiologic sequence does not result in the student being able to replicate, much less understand, the same process. It’s far too easy for my class to become the Dr. Dougherty show…dazzling to be sure, but unlikely to inspire my students or assist them in learning a lot of complex material.

Students work on the urinary system. (Note kidney hats made by a student for the occasion!)

Students work on the urinary system. (Note kidney hats made by a student for the occasion!)

So why was I apprehensive about allowing my students a more active role in their own learning within my classroom? Well, as previously mentioned, I didn’t have much personal experience with learner-centered activities, and some of the ones that I had participated in at conferences seemed sort of “lame,” to use my students’ preferred terminology, conjuring up the voice of one of my high school teachers.  She would stand before the class and solemnly intone: “There is no virtue in pooled ignorance.”  She was right, and I have sat through far too many sessions wherein all the participants were invited to toss in their opinions with little direction and no real outcome. Bleah!

 Not a day off for the instructor!

Also, when learner-centered activities are used effectively, they can be a lot of work. If they’re done well and things run smoothly, it may even appear that the instructor isn’t doing much.  In her book Teaching Unprepared Students, Kathleen Gabriel quotes Barr and Tagg in a passage relating a true incident:

“A biology teacher was experimenting with collaborative methods of instruction in his beginning biology classes. One day his dean came for a site visit, slipping into the back of the room. The room was a hubbub of activity. Students were discussing material enthusiastically in small groups spread out across the room; the instructor would observe each group for a few minutes, sometimes making a comment, sometimes just nodding approval. After 15 minutes or so the dean approached the instructor and said, “I came today to do your evaluation. I’ll come back another time when you’re teaching.” (Quoted from Change, 27(6), 16.)

Sigh. If educators don’t recognize how much effort goes into presenting a successful collaborative, learner-centered activity, should I be surprised if my students sometimes tease me about “taking the day off”? renal3 Fortunately, they truly are teasing.  While students may feel awkward and uncertain, even reluctant to participate, the first time I turn the room over to them, they quickly realize that they can learn a lot in a short time during these activities. They frequently request that I include similar exercises more often.

Tips from a novice:

I’m still no expert in employing the learner-centered strategy, but I’ve come a long way. Here’s what I have learned so far:

1) Activities need to be carefully and thoughtfully structured.  I need to be clear in my own mind about what I hope my students will glean from an activity. When I clarify learning objectives as I create the activity, my students have a better experience.

2) Logistics are important.  How many groups do I want to have? How will they be selected? What materials should be available? How will space be allotted? Do students understand the order of rotation for multi-station activities?

3) Each student needs a copy of the plan for the exercise, as well as any graphic organizers to be used.  The plan should make my expectations clear and should include a sequence of steps for students to take in approaching the problems posed in the activity.  When I provide specific, intentional prompts for approaching challenging problems, students are able to “discover” relationships for themselves.

renal24) Manage time deliberately. I post a schedule for activities on the board with the time listed for each station or event.  Usually I work backward from the time class is scheduled to end.  The timer on my cell phone and my “hotel desk” bell help me to stay on schedule and keep students moving.  They quickly realize that they need to move efficiently because the timer doesn’t stop.

5) Assign groups and provide materials in advance.  Students continually surprise me with their creativity in finding ways to present material to their colleagues. Often their efforts highlight aspects of their personalities I might have missed, like internet search skills, graphic arts, and aptitude for using analogies to offer clear explanations.

6) Monitoring participation is critical. Because I assign a higher point value to these activities, students are motivated to work. I circulate in the room, grade book in hand, observing and clarifying. I recognize and applaud good work. On the rare occasions when I note “slacking,” I require the group to make a list of each member’s contribution and require all members to verify the list by signing it.  I never have to do this more than once.photo

7) Little doses of pleasure make a big difference.  Students love applying sticky arrows to models. They like looking at interesting depictions of the body in printed material other than their texts. They like recognizing things they’ve learned in  formats they haven’t seen before. Offering a couple of bonus points to the group from whom fellow students learned the most is a great reward.  I don’t announce the voting in advance, and I provide numbered ballots that prevent voting for one’s own group (see logistics above.)

Clearly, I’m still figuring out how to do this, but I am ever more convinced that collaborative learning is a good thing. I’ll discuss some specifics in later posts, but I would really love to hear about your experiences, too.  Please share.


One comment on “Hand It Over

  1. Brian says:

    It is funny how teaching works backwards from what is first assumed. People say, “I’m working myself out of a job,” but when it starts to look that way, folks get rattled.” B

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