Optimizing students’ learning

Great teachers maximize the opportunities for students to learn, but even the greatest teachers cannot guarantee learning. The final outcome of what is learned in any course will always be the students’ responsibility” – Terry Doyle, Helping Students Learn in a Student-Centered Environment.

Maximizing the opportunities – that’s the keyword – and the key to good teaching. “I choose the word opportunities because that is all any teacher can provide for his or her students”, writes Doyle in his book (page 4). This reminds me of this idiom, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink”. I truly agree with his view on providing the environment to create learning opportunities that optimize students’ learning. Teachers are not only responsible to teach content but also responsible to create opportunities for students to “learn how to learn”. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon put it this way: ‘‘The meaning of knowing has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it. The goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge necessary to think productively’’ (cited from Doyle).

How do we go about creating learning opportunities? This entails us (teachers) to ponder and rethink our strategies and approaches in teaching and reexamine every aspect of course planning to determine whether it will optimize our students’ learning opportunities.

Much has been written about moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered models of teaching and learning. Barr and Tagg’s in their book ‘‘From Teaching to Learning” asserted that teachers would be much more effective if, instead of focusing on their teaching, they focused on how and what their students are learning. In other words, we need to adopt a student-centered learning approach to teaching.

Creating a student-centered (or learner-centered) learning (SCL) environment has been suggested as one approach that educators can use to optimize students’ learning. In a SCL environment, the traditional roles of students (and also teachers) change dramatically. It requires students to take on new learning roles and responsibilities that go far beyond taking notes and passing tests. Students will learn that they are responsible for their learning and identify their strengths and weaknesses as learner.

Most educationists have moved beyond the notion that as a teacher—“I’m here to teach you this course”. Instead, teachers are encouraged to take on the role of learning facilitator to help students to learn through activities, exercises, and discussions. Here the philosophy might be, “We’re here to learn together and you (the students) are as much a source of our learning as I (the teacher)". In a traditional teacher-centered classroom, the teacher’s traditional role is passing on knowledge—primarily in the form of lectures—using chalk and board, overhead projector, PowerPoint presentations, readings, etc. In SCL, teacher still has these functions but also provides students with opportunities to learn independently (and from one another in a group) and coaches them with appropriate skills needed in performing the task.

In general, SCL include the followings tenets (Lee et al., 2003):
the reliance on active rather than passive learning;
an emphasis on deep learning and understanding;
increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student;
an increased sense of autonomy in the learner;
an interdependence between teacher and learner;
mutual respect within the learner teacher relationship;
and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner

Implementing SCL in the classroom can include techniques such as:
Substituting lectures with active learning experiences;
Assigning open-ended problems that require critical or creative thinking;
Involving students in simulations and role-play;
Assigning a variety of unconventional exercises
Collaborative group project.

Inevitably, teachers will face many challenges in implementing SCL. For example, an important feature of any student-centered classrooms is collaboration. The challenge is, how do we get them to work in groups? There are other issues as well: How do we convince them to take a deep approach so that their learning will last a lifetime, rather than a surface approach that produces learning that will fade at the end of the term? How do we get the students to take responsibility of their own learning?

Coffman in her article “Ten Strategies for Getting Students to Take Responsibilities for Their Learning” proposed the following strategies:
Ask your students why they are taking the course;
Get your students to come to class prepared;
Help your students attain the proper mindset for class;
Make participation and interaction integral parts of the course;
Make your students responsible for each other;
Teach your students to behave responsibly in groups;
Model high cognitive skills;
Have your students analyze their learning experiences;
End class in a meaningful way;
Don’t try to save your students.

I will elaborate later…

Lea, S.J., D. Stephenson, & J. Troy (2003). Higher education students' attitudes to student-centred learning: Beyond 'educational bulimia'. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), 321-334.