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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

  • waiting to be convinced that learner-centered teaching is a good approach.
  • asking for the theory and research that supports this approach.
  • seeking practical classroom strategies and handouts for extending their current learner-centered approaches.

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.

I 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 are willing to take on right now, there is a six-page expansion of this article, with longer chapter summaries, at the RAC Web site at <>.

Chapter one introduces the research literature that supports five key changes in practices that shift students from surface learning to deep learning:

  • Changes in the balance of power.
  • Changes in the function of course content.
  • Changes in the role of the teacher.
  • Changes in who is responsible for learning.
  • Changes in the purpose and process of evaluation.

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.

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 is counterproductive.  "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 lifelong learning.  There is no career in which students can stop learning after they leave college.  Teaching today’s content crammed into 15 weeks comes at the expense of also teaching lifelong learning skills during those 15 weeks.

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.

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 percent 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.

Chapter five focuses on student responsibility for learning and how to promote it.  She addresses what I still after 36 years find to be my most challenging and exasperating task: transforming passive, dependent students into autonomous learners.  Weimer describes our challenges well:

  • Students lack the basic skills for college.
  • Students are busy with other concerns (jobs, children, cars).
  • Students lack confidence in themselves as learners and make unwise learning decisions.
  • Students procrastinate, seek easy options, and prefer extra credit points over deep learning.

In response to these challenges and to promote student responsibility, teachers have relied 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. 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 promote autonomous learning.

Chapter six takes up the purpose and process of evaluation; it recommends practices that focus on learning, rather than grading.  Grading and testing present obstacles:

  • They produce surface learning, not deep learning.
  • They emphasize extrinsic motivation over intrinsic motivation.
  • They discourage students from acquiring the self-assessment and peer assessment skills needed in other courses and in the workplace.

Weimer recommends four practices that communicate the message that learning the content matters more than the grade on the content.

Chapter seven helps us deal with the hard fact that almost all students will resist their teacher’s learning-centered approaches.  Students resist learner-centered practices and policies that withdraw the support they have become dependent upon during their first twelve years of schooling.  The good news is that most students eventually see the benefits of learner-centered approaches.

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.  Teachers can sequence activities and assignments that gradually move students to higher levels of maturity in all three stages: learning, intellectual development, and interpersonal skills.  The challenge for the teacher is adjusting to students at different levels in the same class.  While some students are still resisting learner-centered approaches, others in the same class 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 syllabus and learning log from her speech communication course, six handouts with excellent advice to give students, and an annotated reading list.

To order the book, visit the Jossey-Bass Web site at <>.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 2

Spring 2003