and Summary of Learner-Centered Teaching by
Coordinator of Reasoning across the Curriculum
The recent (2002) publication by higher education
Jossey-Bass of Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching: Five
Changes to Practice will be welcomed by teachers who are
- waiting to be convinced that learner-centered teaching is a
- asking for the theory and research that supports this
- seeking practical classroom strategies and handouts for
extending their current learner-centered approaches.
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,
newsletter about college teaching; and has published extensively on
teaching and learning.
Chapter one introduces the research literature that
supports five key changes in practice that shift students from surface
to deep 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
poorly prepared passive learners who seem to resist deep learning and
surface approaches, you will gain much from this book. If reading the
book is more than you willing to take on right now, this article is a
summary to whet your appetite for a longer look at the book when you
Each of these topics is the subject of a separate chapter.
- 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
when some of the conditions of their learning are more in their
does not advocate abandoning our professional responsibility and
students determine course content or whether they will do assignments;
she recommends that teachers establish parameters within which their
will select options. Increasing the decisions students can make about
assignments and activities more fully engages them in the course and
content. Among Weimer’s suggestions are providing a variety of
demonstrate learning the course outcomes (students choose a
negotiating policies about class participation, and letting students
which material the teacher will review in class the period before a
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
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
Strong allegiance to content prevents teachers from using active
strategies that promote deep learning and that promote lifelong
is no career in which students can stop learning after they leave
Teaching only this year’s content crammed into 15 weeks comes at the
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
learning skills, time-management skills, and other strategies and
used by practitioners in the discipline. Content can be used to develop
students’ self-awareness of their learning—a
crucial metacognitive ability that students need to self-assess their
and to transfer their learning from one course to subsequent courses. Using
content means, of course, that students experience it during the course
applying it. There is a large repertoire of active learning strategies
teachers can draw on: writing-to-learn activities, cooperative
studies and other real-world applications, and short projects and
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
side. Research in 1996 confirmed earlier findings: 6% of college class
spent on student participation. When the teacher dominates the
students take shallow approaches to learning. Teachers using active,
cooperative, and inquiry learning strategies that promote deep learning
step aside—although it is hard
for us to
Weimer suggests seven principles to guide the instructor
trying to develop a learner-centered classroom:
2. Teachers do
less telling; students do more discovering.
1. Teachers do learning tasks
Assign to students some of the tasks
of organizing the
content, giving examples, summarizing discussions, solving problems,
drawing diagrams, charts, and graphs.
Give a quiz on your syllabus and
policies without going over
it first. Let students discover information in assigned readings
presenting it first or summarizing it later.
3. Teachers do more design
Design activities and assignments that
move students to new
skill levels, motivate engagement in the course content by doing the
practitioners in the discipline, and that develop self-awareness of
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
5. Faculty do more to get
students learning from and with each other.
Create work for small groups to do in
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
teacher can do to what the student should do. She addresses what I
36 years find to be my most challenging and exasperating task:
passive students into autonomous learners. Weimer describes our
In response to these challenges and to promote student
responsibility, teachers have made more rules about attendance,
number of required sources, word lengths, and even margin sizes. We
extrinsic motivators and give regular quizzes on assigned readings and
points for participation in class. The short-term result is an
students attending to business. The long-term result is that rule-based
policies and extrinsic motivators perpetuate dependent and passive
Our policies do not create, in Weimer’s words, “intellectually mature,
responsible, motivated learners” (p. 97). We seem locked in a cycle:
- 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.
The more structured we
make the environment, the more
structure students need. The more we decide for students, the more they
us to decide. The more motivation we provide, the less they find within
themselves. The more responsibility for learning we try to assume, the
they accept on their own. The more control we exert, the more restive
response. We end up with students who have little commitment to and
respect for learning and who cannot function without structure and
control. (p. 98)
Weimer’s suggested remedy is not to abandon rules and
structure (which do indeed produce good results) but to understand
liabilities, use them carefully, and try additional approaches that
climate that promotes autonomous learning.
Weimer explains several strategies for creating a climate
that produces self-regulated intrinsically motivated learners:
- The instructor should “make the content relevant,
demonstrate its power to answer questions, and otherwise show its
- Make the student responsible for learning decisions by
relying on logical consequences of action and inaction, rather than
For example, to deal with lateness, present important material or
early in the period that you do not repeat, rather than deduct
points for lateness. Do not summarize chapters if students have not
If they arrive unprepared, put the unread material on a test; give
- Be consistent in administering policies. If your syllabus
says late homework is not accepted, never accept late homework despite
heart-wrenching excuse offered by the student.
- Involve students in a discussion of creating a climate that
promotes learning. Have this discussion early in the
suggestion for starting the discussion is to have students complete
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)
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:
- Obtain feedback on the classroom climate occasionally and
revisit the discussion of policies and procedures.
- 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
doing the assignments and suggest remedies. Help them with time
With group projects, provide guidance in managing the project, handling
dynamics, and assigning individual responsibilities.
Weimer recommends four practices to communicate the
that learning the content matters
more than the grade on the content.
- they produce surface learning, not deep learning
- they emphasize extrinsic motivation over intrinsic
- they discourage students from acquiring the self-assessment
and peer assessment skills needed in other courses and in the
Chapter seven helps us deal with the fact that almost
all students will resist their teacher’s learning-centered approaches.
the learner-centered strategies recommended in this book change what
have become accustomed to. Understanding the reasons will help teachers
with the inevitable student resistance when they present
practices and policies that withdraw the support students have become
upon during their first twelve years of schooling. The good news is
students see the benefits of learner-centered approaches and benefit
- Focus on learning processes associated with evaluation.
Conduct student-directed review sessions before major exams; allow a
crib card during the exam because its preparation requires a lot of
conduct debriefings after the exam.
- Reduce the stress and anxiety of evaluation experiences.
Lower the stakes of individual tests by giving more of them. Consider
students to retake tests and revise assignments if doing so will
- Do not use evaluation to accomplish hidden agendas. Don’t
make exams excessively difficult to weed out students from the course
career. Don’t use exams to spring traps on unsuspecting students.
- 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,
person; use descriptive, rather than evaluative language; provide
If learner-centered teaching is such a good thing,
students resist it? Based on her research, Weimer lists four reasons:
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
- Learner-centered approaches are more work. When the teacher
does not summarize the important points in the chapter, the students
to read it for themselves. When the teacher asks small groups to
applications of a concept, rather than supply it in a handout, the
have to do more work.
- 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.
who are not used to questions with no single, authority-approved right
are fearful of being wrong.
- Learner-centered approaches involve losses. The strategies
recommended in this book are designed to move students to higher stages
self-directedness and higher stages of intellectual development. Moving
one stage to another requires a loss of certainty and the comfort that
- Learner-centered approaches may be beyond students. Some
students’ lack of self-confidence or intellectual immaturity may
accepting responsibility for their own learning.
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
moment of transformation. Likewise, students develop intellectual and
interpersonal maturity in stages. Sequence activities and assignments
gradually develop all three stages: learning, intellectual development,
interpersonal skills. The challenge for the teacher is to adjust to
students at different levels in the class. While some students are
resisting learner-centered approaches, others are endorsing them
enthusiastically and moving on.
- The communication is frequent and explicit
- The communication encourages and positively reinforces
- The communication solicits feedback from students
- The communication resists their resistance.
Chapter nine offers guiding principles to faculty
implementing learner-centered approaches:
- Get beyond techniques: think approach
- Approach change systematically
- Approach change incrementally
- Plan to tinker
- Set realistic expectations for success
- Study the new approach
- Develop deeper and more accurate self-knowledge
- Alter attitudes towards assessment.
Several appendixes present valuable tools
Weimer’s model syllabus and learning log from her speech communication
six handouts with excellent advice to give students, and an annotated
To buy Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to
Practice at the Jossey-Bass web site, click
Click here for my own list of
Many other learner-centered resources are available at the
RAC/MCCCTR web site.
WWW Links to Resources
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