Review and Summary of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

by Bill Peirce, Coordinator of Reasoning across the Curriculum

The recent (2002) publication by higher education publisher Jossey-Bass of Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice will be welcomed by teachers who are

Weimer knows what she’s talking about. She teaches speech and communication at Penn State; for five years was an associate director of the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment; is the editor of The Teaching Professor, a monthly newsletter about college teaching; and has published extensively on college teaching and learning.

My review is chiefly a summary of each chapter to encourage you to buy or borrow the book. If you’re discouraged by the task of teaching poorly prepared passive learners who seem to resist deep learning and prefer surface approaches, you will gain much from this book. If reading the 250-page book is more than you willing to take on right now, this article is a 6-page summary to whet your appetite for a longer look at the book when you have more time.

Chapter one introduces the research literature that supports five key changes in practice that shift students from surface learning to deep learning: 
Each of these topics is the subject of a separate chapter. 

Chapter two examines the effects of too much teacher control and its adverse effects on student motivation, confidence, and enthusiasm for learning. Students are more likely to become self-regulated learners when some of the conditions of their learning are more in their control. Weimer does not advocate abandoning our professional responsibility and letting students determine course content or whether they will do assignments; instead she recommends that teachers establish parameters within which their students will select options. Increasing the decisions students can make about assignments and activities more fully engages them in the course and its content. Among Weimer’s suggestions are providing a variety of assignments to demonstrate learning the course outcomes (students choose a combination), negotiating policies about class participation, and letting students choose which material the teacher will review in class the period before a major test. 

Chapter three opens with a challenging thesis: “Strong allegiance to content blocks the road to more learner-centered teaching” (p. 46). A professor’s belief that covering the material should be paramount and that more content is better is counterproductive to deep learning. “It reinforces learning strategies that focus on memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting” says Weimer, citing extensive research (p. 48). Strong allegiance to content prevents teachers from using active learning strategies that promote deep learning and that promote lifelong learning. There is no career in which students can stop learning after they leave college. Teaching only this year’s content crammed into 15 weeks comes at the expense of also teaching lifelong learning skills during those 15 weeks. 

Learner-centered teaching does NOT mean abandoning content. The function of content in a learner-centered course changes from covering content to using content. Course content can be connected to the learning skills, time-management skills, and other strategies and approaches used by practitioners in the discipline. Content can be used to develop students’ self-awareness of their learninga crucial metacognitive ability that students need to self-assess their learning and to transfer their learning from one course to subsequent courses. Using content means, of course, that students experience it during the course by applying it. There is a large repertoire of active learning strategies that teachers can draw on: writing-to-learn activities, cooperative learning, case studies and other real-world applications, and short projects and activities. A brief list of resources is included at the end of this review. 

Chapter four
describes the changed role of the teacher in a learner-centered classroom from sage on stage to guide on the side. Research in 1996 confirmed earlier findings: 6% of college class time is spent on student participation. When the teacher dominates the learning, students take shallow approaches to learning. Teachers using active, cooperative, and inquiry learning strategies that promote deep learning have to step asidealthough it is hard for us to do. 

Weimer suggests seven principles to guide the instructor trying to develop a learner-centered classroom:

1.  Teachers do learning tasks less.
Assign to students some of the tasks of organizing the content, giving examples, summarizing discussions, solving problems, and drawing diagrams, charts, and graphs.
           2.  Teachers do less telling; students do more discovering.
Give a quiz on your syllabus and policies without going over it first. Let students discover information in assigned readings without presenting it first or summarizing it later.
 3.  Teachers do more design work.
Design activities and assignments that move students to new skill levels, motivate engagement in the course content by doing the work of practitioners in the discipline, and that develop self-awareness of their learning of the content.
4.   Faculty do more modeling.
Demonstrate how a skilled learner (the teacher) continues to learn. Show them drafts of your articles, notes on your own reading in professional journals; talk aloud as you solve a problem, thereby revealing  and modeling your thinking process.
5.  Faculty do more to get students learning from and with each other.
Create work for small groups to do in class.
6.  Faculty work to create climates for learning.
Create a climate that promotes interaction, autonomy, and responsibility (more in chapter five).
7.  Faculty do more with feedback.
In addition to assigning grades, use other means of providing frequent feedback (more in chapter six).

Chapter five
focuses on student responsibility for learning and how to promote it. Weimer shifts the attention from what the teacher can do to what the student should do. She addresses what I still after 36 years find to be my most challenging and exasperating task: transforming passive students into autonomous learners. Weimer describes our challenges well: In response to these challenges and to promote student responsibility, teachers have made more rules about attendance, deadlines, number of required sources, word lengths, and even margin sizes. We rely on extrinsic motivators and give regular quizzes on assigned readings and extra points for participation in class. The short-term result is an improvement in students attending to business. The long-term result is that rule-based policies and extrinsic motivators perpetuate dependent and passive learners. Our policies do not create, in Weimer’s words, “intellectually mature, responsible, motivated learners” (p. 97). We seem locked in a cycle: 

The more structured we make the environment, the more structure students need. The more we decide for students, the more they expect us to decide. The more motivation we provide, the less they find within themselves. The more responsibility for learning we try to assume, the less they accept on their own. The more control we exert, the more restive their response. We end up with students who have little commitment to and almost no respect for learning and who cannot function without structure and imposed control. (p. 98)

Weimer’s suggested remedy is not to abandon rules and structure (which do indeed produce good results) but to understand their liabilities, use them carefully, and try additional approaches that create a climate that promotes autonomous learning. 

Weimer explains several strategies for creating a climate that produces self-regulated intrinsically motivated learners: 
  1. The instructor should “make the content relevant, demonstrate its power to answer questions, and otherwise show its apparent intrigue.”
  2. Make the student responsible for learning decisions by relying on logical consequences of action and inaction, rather than punishment. For example, to deal with lateness, present important material or assignments early in the period that you do not repeat, rather than deduct attendance points for lateness. Do not summarize chapters if students have not read them. If they arrive unprepared, put the unread material on a test; give frequent tests.
  3. Be consistent in administering policies. If your syllabus says late homework is not accepted, never accept late homework despite the heart-wrenching excuse offered by the student.
  4. Involve students in a discussion of creating a climate that promotes learning. Have this discussion early in the semester. Weimer’s suggestion for starting the discussion is to have students complete sentence stems such as
“In the best class I ever had, teachers . . .”
“In the best class I ever had, students . . .”
“I learn best when . . .”
“I feel most confident as a learner when . . .” (p. 108)
  1. Obtain feedback on the classroom climate occasionally and revisit the discussion of policies and procedures.
  2. Employ practices that “encourage students to encounter themselves as learners” (p. 111). Explain the purposes and benefits of assignments and projects; tell students what problems they might run into in doing the assignments and suggest remedies. Help them with time management. With group projects, provide guidance in managing the project, handling group dynamics, and assigning individual responsibilities.
Chapter six takes up the purpose and process of evaluation; it recommends practices that focus on learning, rather than grading. Grading and testing practices can present potential obstacles:  Weimer recommends four practices to communicate the message that learning the content matters more than the grade on the content. 
  1. Focus on learning processes associated with evaluation. Conduct student-directed review sessions before major exams; allow a single crib card during the exam because its preparation requires a lot of studying; conduct debriefings after the exam.
  2. Reduce the stress and anxiety of evaluation experiences. Lower the stakes of individual tests by giving more of them. Consider allowing students to retake tests and revise assignments if doing so will promote learning.
  3. Do not use evaluation to accomplish hidden agendas. Don’t make exams excessively difficult to weed out students from the course or the career. Don’t use exams to spring traps on unsuspecting students.
  4. Incorporate more formative feedback mechanisms. Write constructive comments about how to learn better, show how to improve performance, and encourage an office visit. Comment on the performance, not the person; use descriptive, rather than evaluative language; provide feedback immediately.
Chapter seven helps us deal with the fact that almost all students will resist their teacher’s learning-centered approaches. Most of the learner-centered strategies recommended in this book change what students have become accustomed to. Understanding the reasons will help teachers deal with the inevitable student resistance when they present learner-centered practices and policies that withdraw the support students have become dependent upon during their first twelve years of schooling. The good news is that most students see the benefits of learner-centered approaches and benefit from them.

If learner-centered teaching is such a good thing, why do students resist it? Based on her research, Weimer lists four reasons:

  1. Learner-centered approaches are more work. When the teacher does not summarize the important points in the chapter, the students will have to read it for themselves. When the teacher asks small groups to produce five applications of a concept, rather than supply it in a handout, the students have to do more work.
  2. Learner-centered approaches are more threatening. Students who lack confidence in themselves as learners become filled with anxiety at the prospect of becoming responsible for decisions that might be wrong. Students who are not used to questions with no single, authority-approved right answer are fearful of being wrong.
  3. Learner-centered approaches involve losses. The strategies recommended in this book are designed to move students to higher stages of self-directedness and higher stages of intellectual development. Moving from one stage to another requires a loss of certainty and the comfort that certainty brings.
  4. Learner-centered approaches may be beyond students. Some students’ lack of self-confidence or intellectual immaturity may prevent their accepting responsibility for their own learning.
What strategies can overcome student resistance to learner-centered approaches? Communication with students about your learner-centered strategies is the key. Weimer’s advice is that  Chapter eight recommends taking a developmental approach to transforming passive dependent learners into self-confident autonomous learners. Learners become self-directed in stages, not in one single moment of transformation. Likewise, students develop intellectual and interpersonal maturity in stages. Sequence activities and assignments that gradually develop all three stages: learning, intellectual development, and interpersonal skills. The challenge for the teacher is to adjust to different students at different levels in the class. While some students are still resisting learner-centered approaches, others are endorsing them enthusiastically and moving on. 

Chapter nine
offers guiding principles to faculty implementing learner-centered approaches: 

Several appendixes present valuable tools to faculty: Weimer’s model syllabus and learning log from her speech communication course, six handouts with excellent advice to give students, and an annotated reading list.

To buy Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice at the Jossey-Bass web site, click here

Click here for my own list of recommended reading. 

Many other learner-centered resources are available at the RAC/MCCCTR web site.

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