10/07/2014

On What is your Classroom Centered? Students? Knowledge? Assessment? Community?

There is accumulating evidence that all four foci are important: students, knowledge, assessment and community. Below is a description of what it means to center your classroom around each. Student-centered is discussed last, in part because it encompasses ideas within the other three aspects and so serves as an excellent summary.

A Knowledge-centered Classroom

There is no argument that content must be one of the central features of a course. Deep learning absolutely requires a substantial foundation in the field. But a knowledge-centered classroom goes beyond presentation of knowledge by faculty to students. A knowledge-centered experience engages students in the construction of their knowledge. What does that mean?

An obvious answer is that students are actively thinking during class time and not just passively receiving information from lecture or discussion. In addition, research has shown that students benefit from assistance in organizing that knowledge. They are explicitly taught the fundamental principles in the field and how to sort information accordingly. They are also taught the relationships among the principles. Research has shown that students learn more effectively when the structure and relationships are made obvious to them than when they are left to discover these for themselves. What is obvious to us as experts is so embedded in our experience that we don’t even recognize that we are organizing information. But novice students need guidance in discovering the disciplinary knowledge structures.

Today’s definition of a knowledge-centered classroom goes beyond the above descriptions. It also means that the existing knowledge of the student is identified and then built upon. Determining what students know about a topic is intrinsic in the course and decisions about how to move forward are based on the findings (not on the assumptions of the faculty member).

One way to understand the importance of working from the existing understanding of students is to think of learning as an accretion process: in order for new knowledge to stick, it must be linked up with the old. The physical model for this in the brain is that new facts and ideas become connected to existing one through new nerve pathways. If the nerve pathways don’t form, then the knowledge is likely to be lost.

The bottom line is that in addition to teaching new material, a knowledge-centered classroom explicitly explores what students already know and then connects the new material to the old.

An Assessment-centered Classroom

Here is another area in which faculty often do not have a full understanding of the meaning of assessment. Yes, it means the big exams and papers and projects on which student’s grades are based. But these turn out to be only moderately effective in helping students learn. Far more effective is frequent small-scale assessment. The ideal would be daily, specific, immediate feedback on how students are performing followed by the opportunity for students to incorporate that feedback. To understand the importance of feedback in learning, think about your own experiences. How important was it to have the instructor right there to advise you on your stance and grip on a golf club? Or how important was it to have a video of a new crochet stitch to review over and over again? How much easier was it to learn an instrument, or a new language, or a new topic area when you could consult someone about your progress.  “Daily, specific, and immediate” is not nearly as daunting as it might sound. Ideas for providing such feedback is discussed in another document.

A particularly exciting finding in the recent literature is that while structured and frequent feedback enhances learning for everyone, the students that have the greatest gains are those most likely to be struggling.

A Community-centered Classroom

Many faculty understand the importance of creating a positive atmosphere in which learning can occur. An environment in which students can take risks, one in which multiple perspectives can be voiced and explored, one in which there is a sense of work towards a common goal; a classroom in which hard work is rewarded and mistakes are recognized as a necessary part of the learning process. We are often attentive to these issues in small classes but a sense of community enhances learning even for large ones.

The take home message here is that the more you as a teacher do to make build community among the students, between students and yourself, between student and the world external to class, the greater the benefits to student learning.

A Student-centered Classroom

What is your definition of a student-centered classroom? What are the features of your classes that make them student-centered? Here are a few of the features now known to be important in learning. Can you classroom become more student-centered in these ways?

*Learning begins with and builds on the existing knowledge of students.

*Frequent feedback is provided.

*Metacognitive skills – skills that help students assess their own learning – are taught along with content.

*Differences in cultural and social norms among different populations of students are acknowledged and addressed.

*The content of the course is linked in explicit ways with the everyday lives of students.

*The idea that intelligence is malleable is made explicit. Hard work, practice, persistence, asking for assistance are all ways that ability in an area can be improved (versus the idea that a student’s ability is unchangeable).

*The environment is such that mistake-making is encouraged.

*Students have some say in what is being learned.

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