Reflections on Student-Centered Learning and Experiences

By Ryan Donovan|March 18, 2015|Reflection|3 comments

As we’ve been focusing on student-centered learning the past few weeks, it has been inspiring to see how creative all of my fellow co-learners/teachers are. Each week I leave our “Mapping the Futures…” class challenged and invigorated to bring our discussions into my classroom and really get to experience them with my students. This really and truly is the most student-centered class I’ve ever been privileged to participate in. This post is a description of how I incorporated student-centered learning into my class this week.

In the class I am assistant teaching, this week was scheduled to be the midterm review for my class. Since I only see them once a week for 50 minutes, our time together is tight and I usually plan the lesson in 5 to 10 minute segments. The midterm review is a chance to break up the monotony of the routine I’ve felt myself slipping into this semester during our discussion section. (I’m putting in some bolded text to break up the visual monotony of this post, too!)

This week, the students and I rearranged the tables so that they were facing each other rather than the front of the room. Each student was then automatically sitting in a different position than normal and in a different relationship to other students. The class this week was structured as a student-centered midterm review quiz done collaboratively in groups of 4 or 5. Each student had their own copy of the quiz so that they still had the agency to go with their own answers if they did not agree with the group. (And within each group this was the case, as there wasn’t one group where everyone received the exact same score.)

The quiz was 40 questions that were structured similar to how the midterm will be (a mix of true/false, multiple choice, short answer, etc.). This gives the students a chance to practice for a high-stakes assessment with a low-stakes assessment. It also facilitates crowdsourcing of ideas, sharing knowledge, and compels discussion of the material in a more dynamic way than me standing in front of the room asking questions.

The big takeaway for me was that the classroom came alive in a way that it hadn’t the rest of the semester. Students were really engaging with the material in an active way and having discussions with each other that helped to clarify what they needed to spend more time studying and also what they still had questions about to ask me. My role became facilitator and I loved walking around the room and overhearing debates and stumbling blocks arise. To introduce an element of play into the activity, I gave each group the chance to collectively choose one question that stumped them for which I gave them a free answer. This also clarified for me where they needed more clarification from the past lessons.

After 40 minutes of the quiz, we spent the remaining ten minutes grading each other’s quizzes and going over the answers. Students even stayed late so that they could finish the grading and take the quizzes home to use as review sheets (which was part of my original intention). All of the students I informally polled said that this activity was very helpful.


I’ve been thinking back over my own experiences as a student in higher ed. and asking myself which were student-centered. I’m thinking back over about almost a decade in higher ed. between undergraduate and PhD work and realizing how few instructors incorporated this approach. In my undergraduate classrooms, I struggle to remember any meaningful student-centered approaches apart from my years as a dance performance major. This was a major part of my education, but of course learning to dance is inherently student-centered: it is experiential, you learn by watching your peers, it is communal, interest driven, and involves near-constant feedback either from the instructor or watching yourself in the mirror. Yet a lot of this work is unspoken or intuitive. I’m learning in our course how to make my humanities classroom resemble something closer to the environment of the dance studio, if not in terms of physicality or the body per se, at least in terms of how I will approach my pedagogy and my students.

 

3 Comments

  1. Ryan,
    When you talked about this in class I thought you found an interesting way to blend lecture and student centered learning/teaching. I too have learned a lot and have enjoyed many lectures. But, I really loved this idea of one “free-bee” question. I think, if I were your student, it would have made me feel like I was safe to fall, because I knew someone was holding the rope.

  2. This idea of using a low-stakes, fun exercise to prepare for the high-stakes midterm was a fabulous idea Ryan, and I’m going to steel it.

    Having studied both hard science (microbiology) and music, I too have experienced, almost exclusively, lecture-based pedagogies. The only time there was something different was in performance classes and rehearsals for operas and shows. That is where the collaboration and fun began….and ended. I think it’s fair to say that most scientists, doctors, and engineers have probably gone through their entire academic careers having never experienced a student-centered approach to learning. How sadly narrow and shallow those experiences must have been.

    Thanks to this class, I too am experiencing learning modes that I hadn’t heretofore considered. I’m going to be a happier, more engaged, and more effective instructor, and my students are going to have a kind of learning experience that very few students get a chance to be a part of.

  3. Pingback: Mapping the Semester | Mapping the Futures of Higher Education

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