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A Clear Rationale for Learner-Centered Teaching

"Although it may irritate the teacher, one of the most intelligent questions a student can ask is, 'Why do we have to do this?'"
— Robert Sylwester

The first step to helping students adjust to learner-centered teaching is to explain WHY this approach is the best possible way to enhance their academic success. This includes explaining how the new learning roles and responsibilities expected of them in a learner-centered classroom will allow them to better meet their learning and life goals.

Perhaps the best way to help students understand why we have changed to a learner-centered practice is to simply say—this is where the research has led us. New discoveries about how the human brain learns and the subsequent recommendations for how to teach in harmony with these discoveries have guided the learner-centered approach to teaching. Our students need to see that we are following the best research in designing our teaching approaches, just as we require them to follow the best research in doing their course work.

There are three rationales I believe are key to helping our students understand why we need them to take on the new roles and responsibilities required of them in a learner-centered environment.

Changes in Our Understandings of How Humans Learn

Many of the changes students will see in our teaching approach can be explained by our desire to bring our teaching into harmony with the new discoveries about how the human brain learns. For example, we want students to do more firsthand learning, group learning, practicing, reflecting, teaching of others, and presentations because all of these learning activities require active learner engagement. We know from neuroscience research that the dendrites of our brain cells only grow when the brain is actively engaged and the neuron-networks formed in our brains only stay connected when they are used repeatedly (Ratey, 2002, p. 19). We need to continually reinforce to our students that the learning tasks we are asking them to take on, which require them to adopt new learning roles, are done to optimize the development of the neuron-networks they need to be successful college learners.

We are Preparing Students for Their Careers

The rationale for teaching many of the learning skills, behaviors, attitudes, and critical thinking strategies now a part of learner-centered college courses is that our students will need these skills for their careers. For example, we put students into small groups not only to promote a deeper level of learning but because learning to talk with or listen to others is, perhaps, the single most important skill needed to be successful in any career field. A rationale for asking students to make presentations before the whole class is that learning to speak in front of others is crucial to career success. The simple point is that most learning activities or content knowledge we teach has relevance to students’ career goals. We just have to continually point this out to them.

College must Prepare Students to be Lifelong Learners

The new reality our students need to accept is that college is no longer a terminal educational experience. The big change we must accept is to rid ourselves of the idea that if we don’t teach it to them then they will never learn it. Replacing that idea with one that says, if we don’t prepare them to be lifelong learners, capable of independent, self-motivated learning, then we have done less than a satisfactory job with their college education.

One of the reasons students are being asked to take on more responsibility for their own learning is because they will be responsible for it the rest of their lives. The responsibility we have to develop our students’ lifelong learning skills is justification for many of the changes we are asking our students to make in a learner-centered classroom. When we ask them to write copiously, read large amounts of information, learn to manage their time, work well with others, accept and give feedback and criticism, express ideas in clear, concise ways that can be easily understood by others, listen attentively, defend a position or idea, or find a proper source, we do so because they will have to do these things the rest of their lives if they are to be successful.

Each time we conduct a class activity or give a homework assignment or assessment, we can help increase our students’ understanding of why we want them to do these things by pointing out how these activities are building the lifelong learning skills they will need to compete in the global economy of an ever flattening world.

A Learner-Centered Classroom Requires Students to Have New Skills

One of the basic facts that all teachers know about the learning process is: the one who does the work does the learning. But being able to successfully do the work in a learner-centered classroom will require most students to advance their learning skills.

  • I have identified eight areas where students will likely need our help in developing their learning skills:
  • Learning how to learn on their own.
  • Developing the communication skills needed to collaborate with others.
  • Taking more control for their own learning.
  • Teaching others.
  • Making presentations.
  • Developing lifelong learning skills.
  • Developing their metacognitive skills—knowing what they know, don’t know or misunderstand.
  • Developing the ability to evaluate themselves, their peers, and the teacher.

Each of these areas takes a more prominent role in a learner- centered classroom. All, however, are areas where most students have only limited experiences and are often not highly skilled. For example, the ability of students to evaluate the quality of their own work is crucial to their career and life success, but few students have ever been asked to do this.

Our students will need to be taught how to do meaningful self-assessment of their work; we cannot expect them to know how to do something they have never been taught. Among the most important skills we need to help our students develop are speaking and listening. These are also the most overlooked in our teaching. The ironic part of this is that these are the very activities that our students will do more often than any other on a day-to-day basis at work. As such, they are crucial skills to their professional success.

The key to helping our students to learn in this new environment is to take a lesson from basic teacher training—always check to see what the students already know and can do before making learning assignments. If we find our students are unskilled or under-skilled, then we must teach them these learning skills before expecting them to be successful learners in a learner-centered classroom.

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Published In

8-Oct-08


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