Innovation in Higher Education: Student Centered Teaching

By CTU Faculty

CTU Student Centered Learning - Hungry Baby BirdPrior to my career in higher education, I consulted with organizations on how to effectively use emerging media to achieve strategic goals. One client was an intermediate school district. I recall conversations with the district’s curriculum consultants about how experts knew (and preached) the value of innovation in teaching and learning, but failed to actually put it into practice. For example, rather than model the idea of whole-brain teaching in the classroom, they fell into traditional lectures. The gap between what educators say is best and what they actually do is something that’s stuck with me.

More than two hundred years ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Lecture is the process by which the faculties’ notes become the students’ notes without passing through the heads of either.” In most traditional classrooms, this is the norm. The professor is like a mother bird feeding her hungry young. Students want knowledge, but wait to be spoon-fed the information. But if we hope to achieve greater innovation in higher education, we must challenge this passive method of teaching and learning.

Over a decade ago, Maryellen Weimer offered a student-centered instruction model that shifted the focus of teaching away from the teachers and onto the student. In this model, students take on more responsibility for learning activities that traditionally teachers have done including, organizing content, answering questions, solving problems and summarizing class discussion. In turn, teachers move away from telling students everything and instead hold students accountable for their knowledge. If student is missing a piece of critical knowledge, it’s up to the student to ask questions to fill the gap.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that teachers sit on their laurels. In place of traditional teaching activities, teachers focus their time on planning learning activities and assignments for students. They adopt an expert position, providing students with a model of how to approach a learning task. Teachers offer formative feedback to students that enable students to improve performance on learning activities.

This student-centered approach activates transformative deep learning; rather than rote, surface learning that occurs in most traditional classrooms. Surface learning focuses on the identification, memorization and recollection of facts. Conversely, deep learning emphasizes the development of the cognitive constructs that link learning with existing knowledge. It focuses on the understanding of complex processes of why and how and develops knowledge that is applicable to other contexts and situations. Surface learning is frequently short term. It’s knowledge gained for a test or a class. Deep learning yields long-lasting mental constructs, which strengthens the overall quality of a student’s knowledge and ability.

It may seem odd to quote kung-fu legend Bruce Lee, but he said it best when he described learning in this way: “Learning is definitely not mere imitation, nor is it the ability to accumulate and regurgitate fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery - A process without end.” Lee is describing the deep learning that learner-centered education provides, and ultimately it’s that depth of learning that enables students to thrive in our corporations, our governments, our schools, our homes and in every other tangible area of our lives.

Image credit: Flickr/shudrbug