Weimer, Learner-Centered Teaching

I love that my school is making a push to have a more learner-centered learning experience for our students. As part of this, English and History classes frequently use the Harkness method and the year before I arrived at the school, a group of teachers did a book study of Dr. Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. The book uses research to advocate for a philosophy of education that, practically speaking, often involves group work, problem-based learning, team-based learning, Socratic Seminars, and discussions. Since I was interested in this topic and they had an extra copy of this book, they gave me one. Here are some of the main ideas, suggestions, and potential new practices that I have taken away from this book.

It is worth noting that this book is very much a book by a college professor for other educators at the college level and so many of the activities are geared towards college students (with the assumption that they have long-ish attention spans).

Main Ideas

  • In learner-centered teaching, teachers are facilitators whose role is like a guide, coach, orchestra conductor, or midwife. They are focused on what the students are doing and learning alongside the students. They carefully design tasks and units so that students discover more often than students are told. Students are engaged in learning tasks, learn from and with each other, and frequently develop their own examples. As part of this, teachers model how experts learn and investigate items.
  • Students and faculty create an environment together, and controlling environments decrease people’s interest (and therefore ability to learn).
  • Teachers are hesitant to adopt learner-centered teaching due to a fear of vulnerability and losing control.
  • When students have a little more control, they are more motivated to learn, are more able to make connections and see the value in the subject matter, are less disruptive, and have a greater sense of community.
  • We need to teach study skills as well as content. To do so, we need to meet students where they are, teach reading comprehension and encourage metacognition about learning, and thereby encourage students to learn more deeply.
  • In order to teach students to be self-regulated learners, we need to stop micromanaging them with rules, policies, and prescriptions (i.e. extrinsic motivators). Intrinsic motivation for learning can be encouraged through a good classroom environment (i.e. the sum of the relationships among the students and the relationships between the teacher and each student).
  • A good classroom environment is encouraged through personal interactions between students and teachers, students’ active participation, cohesiveness among the students, student satisfaction in the class, clear and organized class activities, the number of innovative activities in class, and the degree to which tasks are individualized to student needs and desires. Each student and teacher has an ideal for each of these factors; but a teacher takes the lead in setting the tones for them.
  • Students should be given the opportunities to evaluate their own work and the work of their peers in order to give themselves the skills to determine what is good and bad work. Initially, they will not be very good at this, but their skills will improve through carefully crafted and framed activities that treat their ability to evaluate work as a skill under development.
  • Students may resist to learner-centered approaches because the approaches involve more work for the students, the approaches are different from their prior experiences so they are uncomfortable, and the approaches result in a loss of certainty and clarity. Resistance may be non-verbal (e.g. slow to follow directions, offering excuses, appearing to work but really talking about other topics), partial compliance (e.g. doing tasks halfheartedly or quickly, preoccupation with procedural questions), or explicitly challenging the methods. This resistance is best managed through calmly explaining the rationale for and benefits from learner-centered practices, positively reinforcing good work, and regularly soliciting feedback from students.
  • Students and teachers will develop at different paces and sometimes in jolts as they transition from teacher-driven courses towards student-centered learning. To help students along this development, focus on slowly and progressively giving students independence and/or on developing certain skills that are important for your course.

Suggested and Potential New Classroom Practices

  • Ask students what they want to learn in a course. Assuming the curricular sequence allows it, you can proceed based on their desires. For example, this past year, a few times, my Latin 2 students voted on the culture units that we studied next, and my Latin 4 students voted on the genre or author that we read next.
  • Set high, attainable standards and help students reach them.
  • Do icebreakers or team-building activities early and often. Some can be found at teampedia.
  • Students could determine classroom norms or how participation will be graded. There may be certain things, such as school rules and your philosophy regarding technology use, that make certain policies non-negotiable, and they could all be guided by your school’s values. Weimer says that many of the proposed policies actually line up well with the norms that teachers would have implemented. To me, this seems like one of the best ways to establish a community from the beginning.
  • Discuss norms for group work, especially if students will continue working with the same groups for awhile. Make sure you keep tabs on the work being done as well as how the group is interacting so you can help students think about how to improve the group dynamics too.
  • Students can determine how much certain portions of the course grade will be worth. For example, you can allot 50% of the final grade to participation, quizzes, tests, papers, and exams, and students must allocate the other 50%.
  • Ensure that students face consequences of their decisions. Stay true to the policies about late work, attendance, etc.
  • Consistently apply policies to students so that your response is predictable, or let them understand how and why you are differentiating among students. Non-verbal actions are more important than verbal statements here.
  • Wean students off micromanaging policies.
  • If the classroom is flipped and students received content outside of class, the in-class activity can be driven by asking the students what they are unsure about, what they need reviewed, and how you can help.
  • When introducing or reviewing new constructions, have students develop the examples. You may need to adjust it based on the vocabulary and grammar they already know, but they do enjoy this more.
  • Use more formative assessment.
  • When reviewing homework in class, have students identify problems with it. In my experience, students can sometimes be reticent to critique other students’ answers or volunteer to be critiqued. They often do not want to be judged publicly or feel unqualified to evaluate each others’ work. It sometimes helps to identify the number of mistakes in a translation. It is also about how you frame the practice. I have had some more success at getting volunteers by saying that it is normal to make mistakes and that this is a form of feedback to encourage learning. This year, I’d like to frame it very much as a way to teach students how to evaluate their own translations (such as on homework and tests) so that they know if their answers make sense and/or are right. Similarly, activities like Are you smarter than Google Translate? can help students learn how to evaluate the accuracy of translations.
  • Show students that you care about them by calling them by name, humor, personal examples, informal conversations, smiling, moving around the classroom, prompt feedback, replying to e-mails, and kind comments. You can also show compassion and grace in tough circumstances, but do not let this behavior become so prevalent that you are no longer consistent in applying consequences.
  • Demonstrate your own commitment to learning–say why you love something, talk about what you’re learning, or explain how to learn skills.
  • Let students choose what assignments to complete. This could be choosing between homework or practice sentences that teach the same construction, or choosing various activities to help gain knowledge. In terms of studying vocabulary, students could be required to use physical flashcards, Quizlet, Textivate, or a similar method as long as they proved that they used one of them. Weimer goes further and has a menu of assignments that students choose from with certain possible point values for each task, and a total number of points required for certain grades in the course.
  • Groups of students develop study guides about various topics for the rest of the class.
  • Students brainstorm topics that may appear on the exam, discuss their lists with each other, and rank the importance of each topic. The teacher may add in other topics that are missing.
  • Students can write test questions. This exercise helps them practice thinking about questions and how to answer them. It also makes them feel valued if these or questions like them appear on the tests.
  • Make sure that exams actually are an assessment of what activities happened during the class.
  • Ask students to complete a survey or e-mail you before review sessions to guide the topics to be discussed that day.
  • If you ask students to complete a survey about the classroom climate, share at least some of the results with them.
  • Ask students to evaluate the contributions of their fellow group members. You can have them rate and rank their contributions in order to provide more objectivity, or you can ask students to evaluate specific behaviors (e.g. attendance at meetings, dependability, quality of their work, exerting effort/doing their fair share, cooperation and communication with the group, managing group conflict, cognitive contributions, and help towards accomplishing group goals).
  • Ask partners to observe and offer feedback about each other’s participation.
  • Provide feedback that is not always accompanied by a grade, such as on a rough draft or before reporting their grade on the assignment.
  • When students evaluate each other, count it as at least part of the evaluated students’ grade.
  • Provide students with examples of good, mediocre, and bad answers to prompts, ask them to evaluate these examples, and discuss what makes it a good, mediocre, or bad response.
  • Encourage all students–good and bad–to meet with you to talk about how they can individually improve their learning experiences. When you meet, talk a lot about learning strategies.
  • Offer students the opportunities for test corrections.
  • When you try an activity (especially new ones or ones that you’ve changed significantly), have a debriefing conversation with students.
  • Have students track how well they are learning in a log or journal. The prompts should probably start specific and become more broad and then maybe even non-existent as the course progresses.

Regardless of how we move towards learner-centered approaches, Weimer suggests these ways to begin:

  • an activity with a high chance of success,
  • a modest start–you don’t have to change everything all at once (and will probably be more successful if you don’t),
  • balance students’ needs and readiness to become independent with your desire to pass the reins off to them,
  • and make the learner-centered strategies your own.

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