How to Facilitate Learning

A photo of four people surrounding a table with several laptops, a desktop, papers, water bottles, cords, and cell phones.

In a learner-centered approach to teaching, the purpose of teaching is to not to direct learning, but to facilitate it. Education expert, Maryellen Weimer (2013), identifies seven principles for facilitating learning to help make this distinction clearer.

Principle 1: Instructors give students more learning tasks to perform.

“Learning tasks” include selecting and organizing content, providing examples, generating questions, problem-solving, summarizing, making graphics, etc. Teachers typically do most of these tasks and consider themselves prepared for class. But what if students performed more of these tasks?

For example, instead of relying on the instructor to provide examples explicating course content, students work in groups to find or develop examples from their own lives that further explain core content. Or instead of the instructor writing the entire exam, students submit questions for upcoming tests. Instead of summarizing a lesson, the instructor has students select three important principles of the lesson and explain why these are the most important to them.

Principle 2: Instructors do less telling so that students can do more discovering.

Weimer proposes that telling students often creates an unending cycle of more and more telling. Instructors tell students what to learn, when to learn it, how to learn it, and how they will know if students have learned it. Instructors tell students what is on the syllabus, what is in the readings, what is most important, and how it relates to students’ lives or future careers. What if we cut back on telling and promoted more opportunities for discovery?

Students are consistently discovering new music, new ideas, new art, new pop culture, etc. Why not apply this to their academic studies? Here are some alternative ideas to telling:

  • Instead of instructors telling students what is in the syllabus page by page, students engage in a scavenger hunt through the syllabus.
  • Instead of Instructors telling students the answer to one of their question, student groups generating possible answers in response to the question.
  • Instead of instructors telling students what to study and providing a study guide, students develop their own test questions and create their own study guides.

Principle 3: Instructors focus more on instructional design.

If teaching is not lecturing but rather facilitation, then what are the implications for the instructor role? For learner-centered teachers, the course preparation lies in facilitating access to content and developing assignments and learning activities that help the students take responsibility for their learning.

Weimer lists four characteristics of learning experiences that are designed for effective learning:

  1. They motivate students towards involvement.
  2. They involve students in working with issues within the discipline.
  3. They take students to a higher level of learning than they had achieved before th"e activity.
  4. They develop content knowledge and learning skills.

Principle 4: Instructors model how experts learn.

What if you confronted a difficult problem related to your discipline as it occurs in the news? What would be the difference in your students’ learning be if:

  • You gave them a reading about the problem or lectured about it and then told them potential solutions, or
  • you explained how you located information about the problem from your discipline’s perspective, organized the information, compared the information, and mapped it onto current information you already had?

From the first approach of “telling,” students might walk away with a potential solution to the problem, but from modeling, students walk away with strategies for solving future problems.

Principle 5: Instructors encourage students to learn from and with each other.

As facilitators, instructors assist students in learning via collaboration. This requires preparation, facilitation, and guidance. For groups to be effective, instructors need to think through structures, activities, and guidelines. See the Engaged Learning Teaching Essential for more on collaborative and group learning.

Principle 6: Instructors and students work together to create climates for learning.

In learner-centered teaching, it is essential to create a climate that facilitates learning. Effective learning climates feel safe for learners and provide a space where they can take risks and venture into new learning. Instructors in their facilitative role, take leadership in determining what is essential in the learning climate and assist in maintaining the climate.

Students can determine guidelines for their classroom participation and group work. Contributing to effective functioning of groups is a skill that will last a lifetime for students. Weimer describes one faculty who has each group of students in the class choose a liaison. Liaisons meet with the faculty regularly to discuss the progress and difficulties of their groups and develop solutions. 

Principle 7: Instructors use evaluation to promote learning via feedback.

In a learner-centered approach, faculty use evaluation mechanisms (i.e. formative and summative assessments) to provide information back to students about their learning. For example, if students cannot apply prior learning to new learning, an instructor could assist by having students create concept maps that visualize prior learning in relation to new learning. 

Further, evaluation becomes data that supports instructional design. For example, if most students are unable to solve a set of problems based on a theory, it is the responsibility of the instructor to revisit the design of the instruction and make some adjustments to their design, and consequently how they teach the material.

References

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

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.