Focusing on Learning Instead of Teaching

A photo of UNT students working together in an organic chemistry class. Image copyright (2014) of UNT.

“Learning cannot be accomplished by teachers or instructors; it must be accomplished by learners.” – Seven Principles of Learning, UNT Teaching Commons

Viewing learning as something accomplished by learners, rather than caused by teachers is often referred to as learner-centered teaching. Maryellen Weimer, who has written several books and articles about this topic, defines learner-centered teaching as teaching that makes learners responsible for learning (2013). Learner-centered education makes sense from our new understandings based on neuroscience of how learners learn (NEA, 2008). As this approach is a paradigm shift from traditional teacher-centered instruction, this article overviews some of the mental shifts necessary for thinking from a learner-centered perspective.

Becoming learner-centered leads us to focus our teaching directly on learning. It does not mean placing the students in charge! We need to avoid the mistaken viewpoint that teachers are here to serve our customers, the students, and to deliver education to them. Weimer (2013) states that learner-centered teaching involves students in:

  • Practicing, working with difficult problems, and developing learning skills. Weimer calls this work the “messy work of learning.”
  • Learning how to learn. Teachers teach students how to learn while they are teaching content.
  • Reflecting and assessing their own learning and taking responsibility for modifying approaches to strengthen their skills.
  • Having control over some of their learning processes such as making choices about assignments and helping to develop course policies.
  • Learning collaboratively from one another and from their teachers.

Dimensions of Learner-Centered Teaching

Blumberg (2009) and Weimer (2013) describe dimensions of learner-centered teaching and contrast them with dimensions of instructor-centered teaching. We have outlined these dimensions in the following sections.

Content

Per Blumberg (2009): “Instructor-centered approaches focus on building a large knowledge base, perhaps at the expense of the learners’ ability to use it or to engage in a meaningful way with the content” (p. 73). In other words, instructors “cover” the content and construct tests to measure students’ retention (Weimer, 2013).

In a learner-centered environment, learners are aware of the reasons for learning the content, develop ways to learn about the content that are appropriate for the discipline, and practice solving real world problems based upon the content.

Instructor Responsibility

In an instructor-centered approach, instructors often focus on delivering content through lectures and demonstration. In a learner-centered approach, the instructor assists the students with accessing and working with content. There is a shift from instructors allocating time for lecture preparation to time planning ways to help learners achieve learning goals and outcomes for the course. The instructor is planning what the learners are going to do in the class rather than preparing slides to deliver content (Blumberg, 2009). 

Student Responsibility

In an instructor-centered classroom, “instructors take responsibility for their students’ learning, they define what will be learned, direct how it will be learned, and determine how well it is learned” (Blumberg, 2009, p. 127). On the other hand, in a learner-centered approach, the instructor assists the learners to develop and practice learning skills that they can carry into their future as lifelong learners. Learners develop the skills to assess their own learning and apply the learning to their lives and interests. 

Assessment

In an instructor-centered course, one might see course requirements such as readings, four tests, and a final. Assessment is generally summative, providing end of course grades. In a learner-centered course, along with summative assessments, one might also see multiple projects with self-assessment and reflection, self-tests, clickers for feedback about student understanding of concepts, etc. Assessment continuously provides feedback to learners. 

Power

Learner-centered teaching does not remove the power or authority of the teacher. Rather, learners share some of the power in the classroom. Unlike an instructor-driven course, learners have the option to explore content outside the boundaries of what instructors have provided. They have opportunities to express alternative opinions and choose different ways to apply content. Learners even have some power to assist in making policies for the course.

Learner-centered teaching can reframe how we think about teaching, but it does not erase the significance of the teacher to impact learning, nor does it entirely eradicate traditional methods of teaching. For example, sometimes lecturing is the best method of transferring content to learner. As novice learners, students often need help to access content and determine what is important. 

Incorporating Learner-Centered Teaching into Your Teaching

From a review of the literature and our experiences, there are multiple strategies that instructors can employ to cultivate a more learner-centered environment. You can:

  • Prompt learners to reflect and describe what they learned from or after a given activity.
  • Give learners the opportunity to practice different learning skills.
  • Help novice learners understand concepts by engaging in concept linking activities such as concept mapping.
  • Develop learning outcomes tied to assessments and make learning outcomes clear to learners.
  • Offer learners options such as selecting project topics.

References

Blumberg, P. (2009). Developing Learner-Centered Teaching: A Practical Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (n.d.). Seven Principles of Learning. UNT Teaching Commons. Retrieved from https://vfd-dev.unt.edu/teaching-essentials/student-learning/seven-principles-learning

National Education Association. (2008). A Clear Rationale for Learner-Centered Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/34221.htm

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.