This semester I am participating in a faculty seminar on student-centered teaching and learning, sponsored by UMW’s Teaching Innovation Program. While the topic interests me, I suspect the best part of the seminar will be the opportunity to share ideas on a continuing basis with a group of colleagues, all of whose opinions I value.
In this space I plan to post “minutes” of each meeting. I make no pretense that this will be an objective record of what occurs; rather, they will be my interpretations which will hopefully benefit from reflection after the fact.
It probably makes sense to begin by defining student-centered teaching and learning. For now, I think I’d define it as empowering students to take genuine responsibility for their learning. I know this sounds like a platitude but I really mean it. Student-centered learning requires students to see education as something they create for themselves, not something that is done to them. It also requires that students have the power to do that creation, which implies significant changes in the way courses are perceived.
Several tensions revealed themselves in our conversation yesterday.
The first was content versus process. SCT/L seems to be more oriented to the latter. Many faculty I know worry that the need to cover the content limits their ability to teach in non-traditional ways. It is of course legitimate to be concerned about being able to cover content. As one example, if you are teaching a course that is a prerequisite for another, there is an expectation that you will cover certain content. (But when I asked if faculty have actually discussed these expectations with the instructor of the subsequent course, the response was ‘not really.’) A related issue: When the content is too sophisticated for students to grasp on their own, it makes little sense to force them to learn it by themselves. (Could you write a commentary instead of presenting the interpretation yourself. Yes, he said.) Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a trade-off between content and process since at one level the purpose of process is to better learn the content.
A second tension involving the question of whether student-centered methods imply a reduction in the rigor and thus the learning in the course.
Not surprisingly, some of the group expressed hesitancy to take the risks of experimenting with SCT when our student course evaluations are an important component of tenure, promotion and merit pay decisions.
One conclusion we seemed to draw yesterday: the degree to which one can incorporate SCT may depend on the type and level of the course; perhaps.