Nine Characteristics of Student-Centered Learning

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Written and Contributed by PULSE Community Member, Amy Mulnix, Professor of Biology, Earlham College; edited by Sharon Gusky, PULSE Leadership Fellow, Professor of Biology, Northwestern Connecticut Community College

An emphasis of V&C is creating student-centered classrooms. Such classrooms go beyond using active learning strategies and incorporate what is known about how people learn into course design and execution. The following is a list of some features of a learner-engaged classroom that are support by literature.

1. Learning goals are explicitly articulated, students receive feedback on their progress towards meeting those goals, assessments are aligned with those goals, and results of assessment are used iteratively to improve the course.

See:

*Wiggins, G., and J. McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design, 2nd edition    

* The Understanding by Design Unit of  this workshop                                                                                                         

2. Faculty are aware of common misconceptions in their fields and design opportunities to explicitly engage those during class time. Research has shown that misconceptions can be difficult to cognitively rewire unless students directly encounter the misinformation and build a new understanding.

See:  

*A Private Universe and Lessons from Thin Air. Both of these videos are made available by the Annenberg Foundation. Each explores why common misconceptions (that seasons are not due to the distance of the earth from the sun and trees do not gain mass from the soil) persist in adults when these concepts have been taught, (often repeatedly) in schools.

*Bransford, J National Research Council Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning 2000 How People Learn. National Academies Press. Available as a free download at : http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9853&page=R1

3. Faculty ascertain what students already know and explicitly integrate new information into that knowledge. Connections between what is being learned and what is known must be made at a neurological level in order for material to be understood and remembered. This theory is called constructivism in the learning literature.

See:

*Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences National Research Council (2002) How People Learn. National Academies Press. Available as a free download at: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9853&page=R1

*Zull, J. 2004. The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Students regularly engage in communication and collaboration with peers.

*Wood,W., Innovations in Teaching Undergraduate Biology and Why We Need Them,  Annu. Rev. Cell Dev. Biol. 2009. 25:93–112

4. Students receive frequent (daily), directed, and timely feedback.  The feedback should allow students to correct their understandings and improve their performances in real time. This practice with feedback is distinct from performance on an exam. ‘Feedback’ does not necessarily mean a graded assignment. Other modes of feedback include: conversation with peers; labeling a blank diagram followed by viewing of a completed diagram; briefly responding to a question followed by projection of an answer and then self-assessment, and the use of ‘clicker’ strategies.

See:  Deslauriers et al.,Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, 2011. Science. 332:862.

5. Student learning is assessed at multiple levels (knowledge, application, analysis, evaluation, generating hypotheses) using multiple formats (multiple choice, essays, solving open-ended problems, project completion, laboratory, oral examination). Assessments are consistent with learning goals. For instance, if interpretation of experimental data is a goal, students need to be assessed on this.

See the Outcomes and Assessment Unit 

6. Material is presented in several formats (verbal, pictorial, simulation, animation, quantitative) and/or students are asked to do multiple things with the information (listen, write, label, discuss, interpret, graph, hypothesize). Care must be taken not to overdo this approach. Evidence also exists that students can experience cognitive overload (too much information to process it all) and/or be distracted by features that are tangential.

See

*Gray et al. 2012. Assessing Multimedia Influences on Student Responses Using a Personal Response System,abstract only Journal of Science Education and Technology. 21(3):392.

*Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences National Research Council (2002) How People Learn. National Academies Press. Available as a free download at: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9853&page=R1

7. Students are encouraged to explain material to themselves and others. Opportunities to elaborate on answers are also provided. For instance, faculty might ask students to explain the logic behind an answer or elaborate on their reasoning.

See:

Pellegrino, J. and Hilton, M. (eds.) National Research Council (2012) Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Century. National Academies Press. Available as a free download at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13398. Chapter 6 is especially useful.

8. Faculty create an environment in which student understand that performance is linked to effort rather than inherent ability. Intelligence is malleable and academic success can be achieved with hard work and persistence, even when students have gaps in their preparation.

See:

Pellegrino, J. and Hilton, M. (eds.) National Research Council (2012) Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills for the 21st Century. National Academies Press.

Also available as a free download at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13398. Chapter 6 is especially useful.

9. Students regularly engage in communication and collaboration with peers. Not only has such communication been shown to improve learning, it also contributes to the building of a community of learners in the classroom, which is a hallmark of learning-friendly environment.

See:  Wood,W., Innovations in Teaching Undergraduate Biology and Why We Need Them,  Annu. Rev. Cell Dev. Biol. 2009. 25:93–112

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