By Cara Lee, Mathematics Faculty, Part-Time
Cara teaches at Cascade, and has presented lively sessions on student empowerment in PCC's Teaching Learning Centers
With fierce determination I stood in front of my Math 65 class last term at the SE Center in week 5. I had been feeling increasingly frustrated and drained after each class as the responsibility of the planning, facilitation and assessment was on my shoulders along with the weight of the learning for 35 students.
In my mind I wanted to chew them out for not stepping up to the plate, not doing their homework and not being fully present in class. I knew, however, that a stern lecture or speech would simply yield another “Whatever.”
Instead, I said, “Do you know what I love about teaching college?” Students started to look up from their papers. “You are adults and you are in charge of your own learning. You don’t have to be here, but you are here - by choice.” They gave me their full attention as they sat up straighter, smiled and immediately became more engaged.
In the discussion about learning assessment, I have been trying to figure out where the learners come in. What is their role and what are their responsibilities? Isn’t it their job to learn and to know whether they’ve learned the material or not?
The familiar adage comes to mind, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” I think this is the mindset of teacher-centered teaching, where the focus is on what the teacher is doing. If the students don’t get it then it’s their fault. They haven’t taken responsibility.
But rather than place all of the responsibility on the students or the teacher, I think the answer lies in the middle. We can form a partnership with our learners on the first day. Agreements are made on the first day whether we do it consciously or not. Most learners are adept at sensing what is actually required of them and whether they will have any control in the process.
In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Maryellen Weimer shares the way her colleague took the horse metaphor one step further. “He said it was the teacher’s job to put salt in the oats so that once the horse got to water, it was damn thirsty” (p.103).
Many students do not have experience being responsible for their own learning and don’t have the skills to know what they don’t know. It felt like many of my learners in the math 65 class wanted me to pour the water into their mouths and tell them when to swallow, while they complained about the process. But I was the one who had assumed too much responsibility for their learning and that is what I needed to correct.
In class that day I handed out a mid-term self-assessment form for each student to complete. They each wrote their goals for the class in order to determine how they were doing. They calculated their current grade and listed the number of hours they were studying per week compared to the 10 recommended (hint, hint). They listed other resources they were using. They decided whether or not they were meeting their goals and wrote out a plan for the rest of the term.
I didn’t know what was going to happen but I was very impressed by the shift in the class. The learners did accept the responsibility that I gave back to them. The complainers stopped complaining and started working and asking more questions. The biggest complainer became the hardest worker. With the awareness that they had a choice, they made a different choice.
So in learner-centered teaching, what are we as teachers responsible for? According to Weimer,
”We do have an obligation to show (not tell) students the value and necessity of learning. We have an obligation to make our content relevant, demonstrate its power to answer questions, and otherwise show its inherent intrigue. Once a student interest is piqued, we have the responsibility to lead them to all the learning resources they need. As the student learns, we have the responsibility to monitor the process and offer constructive feedback and assessment” (p. 103).
And what are students responsible for?
“Fundamentally, the responsibility to learn is theirs and theirs alone. We can try to force them into accepting that responsibility along with the obligation to grow and develop as learners, but we do them a much greater service if we create conditions and develop policies and practices that enable them to understand their responsibility and that empower them to accept it” (Weimer, p.104).
I work hard to show interesting and relevant motivations for my content, and I also think that if I am the hardest worker in the class then there is a problem. Some of these shifts are subtle, yet very powerful and only the beginning, I think, of the transformation from teacher-centered to learner-centered teaching. My initial response to the learning assessment movement was, “Oh great, more work for the teachers,” but now I think it’s a different type of work for the teachers and more work for the learners – or more ownership at the least.
I highly recommend Weimer’s book, which gives five key changes to practice. The five changes are the balance of power, the function of content, the role of the teacher, the responsibility for learning, and the purpose and processes of evaluation. She gives many concrete examples of how she centers on her learners in her classes.
Inspired by the Anderson Conference I have made three self-assessment tools for my students which you are welcome to use and modify to fit your style. Self reflection is one of PCC’s core outcomes and I am excited about using these tools to show students how to take charge of their own learning. You can find these tools as well as the latest handouts for my TLC talk, Create the Students of your dreams: 3 ways to empower and motivate students at http://www.pcc.edu/staff/index.cfm/1394,12879,30,html.
Now, would someone please pass the salt...
Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner Centered Teaching: Five Keys Changes to Practice.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.