Issues on Learner-centred Teaching
Enhancing study skills
For students to engage productively in their own learning, they need to be competent learners with the requisite skills (e.g. skills in thinking, reading, writing, presentation, note-taking, writing examinations and time management). At NUS, all freshmen are provided with The Effective Student: A Guide to Learning for the NUS Student and The Write Right Guide: An NUS Writing Guide. The Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning runs workshops and offers other publications (e.g. Ideas on Teaching) and some faculties provide for their students more discipline-specific guidance. Some students, however, need more help than others. So you may wish to take time and ensure that your students have the skills necessary for effective learning.
Improving instructional design
Design instruction to facilitate learning.
- Capture and sustain attention.
Make use of such stimulus tools such as intensity, contrast, change and repetition.
- Enhance reception.
Recognise factors affecting reception of information such as students’ interest level, physical comfort, fatigue and anxiety.
- Introduce diversity.
Develop a wider repertoire of teaching approaches and styles, both to create interest through variety as well as cater to different learning tasks. For instance, project work and case studies demand higher input from students.
- Organise information.
A structured presentation provides a conceptual framework that enhances reception and enables students to fit in their knowledge and ideas. These principles suggested by Gestalt psychologists may be worth keeping in mind:
- continuity (stimuli that have continuity will stand out from the background and be organised together);
- proximity (stimuli that are close together will tend to be grouped together);
- similarity (similar things tend to be grouped together);
- contrast (stimuli that are different from their surroundings are organised together and are seen as the figure);
- ‘chunking’ (grouping information makes them more manageable);
- ‘closure’ (perception is conditioned by prior experience).
Stimulating critical and independent thinking
At the tertiary level, it is crucial that students learn to think for themselves.
- Guard against spoon-feeding.
Students must be encouraged and trained to fend for themselves. Instead of providing them with copious notes, teach library skills and guide them with a reference list to obtain information for themselves. Handouts have their uses, but ensure that they are used judiciously and not to perpetuate spoon-feeding. Consequently, summaries/outlines, diagrams, problems, questions and reading lists, are pedagogically more defensible than a copy of the full text of the lecture.
- Do not condone low-level responses.
Make clear to students that they cannot get by with regurgitating factual information (e.g. by setting challenging tasks; by announcing that an assignment that merely catalogues facts will get a low grade).
- Demand demonstration of deep understanding.
Use teaching activities that require students to engage in deep-level processing of what is learnt.
- Raise pertinent questions and present problems rather than provide all the answers.
- Set assignments that demand investigation, correlation and application rather than a ‘repackaging’ of lecture notes and recommended readings.
- Prioritise understanding.
- Spend time helping students to grasp fundamental principles and concepts.
- Keep the factual load that has to be memorised to a minimum. This will, of course, vary among disciplines.
- Get students habituated to seeking/giving explanations for answers that are given by others or made by themselves; this will discourage ‘stock’/rote-learnt answers.
- De-emphasise didactic teaching.
Allocate more time to interactive group work and self-directed learning.
- Review assessment procedures.
Ensure that procedures are consistent with encouraging deep processing and understanding:
- While multiple-choice questions are effective in checking knowledge of facts, they are less effective than essay-type questions in testing for critical thinking and understanding.
- Excessive weightage given to summative assessment may discourage risk-taking and independent thinking.
Promoting active learning
Much significant learning is acquired through doing.22
Research suggests that where students are passive observers or receivers, they may lose as much as 50% of substantive content within a few months. Conversely, long-term mastery is more likely when learning is active and meaningful. Active learning implies the involvement of the student in the learning process, as opposed to the monologic mode.
- Encourage more active and interactive learning.
Students need to participate, not merely receive; they need to understand, organise and encode information into their long-term memory. They must learn to relate it to their own experience and knowledge and be able to use it logically and creatively. Small-group work and project work are particularly conducive to such activities.
- Practise effective questioning skills.
Properly applied, this can provoke thinking and expression, encourage discussion and debate, prompt further and more probing investigation of the subject as well as provide opportunities for students to ask questions to clarify their understanding.
- Stop for questions or comments when the need arises. Many teachers tend to wait till the last ten minutes but this is unlikely to be productive; there is perhaps no greater technique for stifling an intellectual exchange than to wait until the end of a fifty-minute period before asking: “Are there any questions?” Also, by then students are anxious to dash off to their next class.
- Once in a while, pose questions: e.g. “What do you perceive as the most significant thing/major points made in the last twenty minutes?”, “What is the question/thought uppermost in your mind now?”, “What is your view (about some controversial issue)?”, and ask students to write down their responses. Have some of them read out their responses in class and collect the rest at the end of the session. This trains students to listen and process information and organise their thoughts instead of blindly transcribing the lecture.
Encouraging reflective learning
What characterises ‘high grade’ learners is the capacity for thoughtful and critical reflexivity. Reflective learning goes beyond active and experiential learning to explore what has been experienced in order to extend understanding and effect self-transformation. Reflective learning is not only cognitive, but also metacognitive—addressing not only what and how to, but why and what if —and it is essential for real mastery and independent, lifelong learning. Some ways to help students become reflective learners are suggested below:
- Train them to think critically.
Clarify the criteria for performance and help students to cultivate a habit of mind which:
- tries to make sense of the learning experience (e.g. validity/usefulness of claims, questions asked/unasked, completeness of data/records);
- questions the assumptions upon which knowledge is
challenges established definitions;
- makes informed and discriminate choices, thus continuously re-assessing and adapting their learning; and
- relates validated new learning to his/her existent conceptual framework and behaviour, with the consequent projections of how the integrated learning may be applied to future actions.
- Develop their confidence in self-evaluation.
- Value their ideas/views.
- Give practice in making independent judgements.
- Help them describe as objectively as possible their perceptions and views, avoiding interpretations and judgemental pronouncements.
- Allocate time for reflection.
Ensure that time/opportunity for reflection is factored into any planning of learning activities (e.g. set aside time for briefing/debriefing, provide opportunities for clarification, ask students to keep a journal recording the processes and outcomes of their learning 23) to habituate students into associating learning with reflection on learning.
- Train students in the requisite skills.
If students are to become sophisticated learners, they must have the essential basic skills (e.g. thinking, study, research, writing, presentation, and time and stress management skills).
- Energise the learning process.
Stimulate thinking and engagement with what is being learnt (e.g. ask questions, brainstorm, suggest buzz-group and syndicate-group activities).
- Listen attentively.
Initially it may be difficult to persuade students that it is more productive for them to talk through and formulate their ideas rather than be fed with ready-made ones. But persistence in this is essential if autonomous learning is the goal.
- Help students recognize barriers to learning.
Lack of self-confidence, for instance, may require efforts at validating the worth of the individual and/or group. It is important to give positive reinforcements24 and be sensitive to non-verbal signs betraying negative emotions.
- Offer strategies for productive reflection.
Use supportive questioning; introduce learning techniques25 (e.g. learning conversations, concept maps, free association methods or repertory grids to clarify learner’s constructs).
Some possible problems of learner-centred teaching
- It involves much more time and thought.
- It may not be able to cover as much ground (but the printed page and computers can effectively deliver a good deal of information, with the advantage of individual pacing).
- Not being the controlling figure may be potentially threatening for the teacher.
- There may be resistance from students and possibly other sources.