Most learner-centered educators, whatever their content, are constantly on the lookout for new ways to engage their students in active-learning.  While creating and maintaining a learner-centered classroom sounds great, finding the time to research ways of modifying existing practices can be a bit overwhelming.  Below you will find my reviews of a quartet of web sites that offer such strategies, as well as providing some of the theories and research that support learner-centered approaches to education. The title of each resource is a link to the site.

1.  The University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning

This website is a useful introduction to and reminder why learner-centered approaches to education are becoming so wide-spread. This site introduces what active-learning is and why it works in the classroom.  Skeptics may be especially interested in the six video links on the left hand side of the home page.  These short videos address common concerns such as “My students don’t want active learning,” “Active Learning takes too much time,” and “My students won’t work together in groups.” Videos present scenes from a classroom where instructors of different disciplines try learner-centered strategies, fail in their attempt, regroup, and try again with success.  Although the scenes are staged and the student actors are the same from scenario to scenario, the messages about learner-centered education are clearly defined in each video. 

Notable on this site is the link to “Basic Active Learning Strategies.”  This link offers 23 quick ideas that “can be adapted to almost any discussion or lecture setting.”  For example, one strategy is called “Note Check.”  Students pair up with a partner or small group and compare the notes they have taken in class.  They clarify content that was covered in class as well as asking and answering questions with each other.  An instructor may choose to focus the discussion by asking students to solve a problem or requesting a short summary of the notes.  This activity involves students in their learning and the other 22 quick ideas are equally as practical and simple.

Further examination of this site finds Twelve Active Learning Strategies for use with a PowerPoint Lecture.  My son once referred to PowerPoint lectures at his college as “Death by PowerPoint.”  Apparently he had been viewing too many of them without much stimulation or active-learning.  Suggestions for spicing up a PowerPoint lecture include building in pauses in the presentation to give students a moment to review notes at key points in the lecture to ensure understanding of the material. 

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Teaching and Learning website is a valuable resource for those just beginning to use learner centered techniques in their classrooms and for those who are searching for new ideas.   

2. Resources in Science and Engineering Education 

Dr. Richard M. Felder has spent much of his career researching learner-centered teaching.  His website houses articles, links, studies, and stories about him and his students.  Almost all of the information is related to learner-centered education.  Collectively, it’s quite an amazing site.  Each link you click on comes right back to the importance of putting students in the center of their education no matter what the subject matter.  Dr. Felder, who keynoted the On Course National Conference in 2009, is Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University. He says that over the years he received much resistance from his technical-minded students in regards to learner-centered education.  Chemical Engineering students are often good at retaining information from traditional lecture courses and not as skilled at working together in groups, a typical learner-centered activity.  Thus, he offers his ideas for disputing the objections of skeptical students.  Read his article titled “Sermons for Grumpy Campers” to learn simple ways to dispute students who are skeptical about engaged learning. 

I think what makes this site unique is the fact that Dr. Felder taught Chemical Engineering, not the subject matter that first comes to mind when you think about learner-centered education.  The site includes educational articles he has written on topics such as personality types, active and cooperative learning, and even an extensive longitudinal study related to retention of students who studied Chemical Engineering in an active, cooperative classroom vs. a traditional classroom.  He includes learning styles in his research and mentions the importance of being aware of each student’s personal learning style.  Notable are articles about students who fall into different categories such as thinkers and feelers and introverts and extraverts.  These students are in the same classes and are stimulated differently.  Each article gives ideas for delivering course content and providing feedback that will be received well by those who fall into different learning styles.    

Richard Felder is obviously an educator who has dedicated much time to the research behind learner-centered teaching.  His website is a testimony to this passion.

3. Active Learning for the College Classroom

Next is a website from California State University, L.A., created by Donald R. Paulson (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry) and Jennifer L. Faust (Department of Philosophy).  I like this site for its simplicity.  There is not a lot of theory, no written articles for review or PowerPoint presentations to look at.  I figure by now you have a good grasp of the subject matter and might be looking for additional activities, strategies, and ideas for immediate application.  This site lists 29 of those.  Highlighted here are exercises for use with individual students, non-traditional question-and-answer methods, ideas for giving immediate feedback after a particular activity, critical thinking motivators, Pair/Share ideas, and a large list of cooperative learning exercises for use in the learner-centered classroom.  For example, in an activity called Active Review Sessions, the instructor asks students questions, they work on them in groups and then show their solutions to the whole group and discuss any differences discovered in their answers, which, in turn, leads to deeper insight into the material.  Another example is called Panel Discussions where students prepare presentations on a subject and audience members are assigned roles that dispute and question the material within the presentation.  The research and preparation for each role offers the opportunity to learn subject material from different points of view.  A user could easily print this page off and make notes on how to make use of each of the ideas within their existing practices.  If you’re looking for a brief overview of more than two dozen learner-centered strategies, this site will fill the bill.

4. Resources for Strategies on Learner-Centered Instruction

My final site–from Portland Community College –offers links to a number of other sites where you will find even more learner-centered strategies.  Your interest will immediately be drawn to the video entitled “A Vision of Students Today,” which is actually a good set-up for the learner-centered focus of this site.  The brief video shows how students are constantly stimulated in today’s world.  On average, they spend 3 ½ hours on-line each day exploring websites and reading Facebook pages and 2 ½ hours listening to music, not to mention scheduling in time for school, work, eating, talking on their cell phones, and recharging for the next day. This video raises the important question, “How do educators meet the learning needs of these highly active, multi-tasking students?”

The site presents short, informative paragraphs that give brief overviews of various learner-centered web resources, all of which are easy to navigate.  Included are links to Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center (with a large archive of instructional strategies), Faculty Focus (a free e-newsletter concerning “best practices on the academic issues at the forefront of higher education”), The Teaching Professor Blog (a participatory blog  provided by Maryellen Weimer,  Penn State Professor Emeritus of Teaching), MERLOT Pedagogy Portal (offering a huge selection of teacher resources), and Google Scholar (a search engine for educators, where if you type in “learner-centered” you get 29,100 hits).  Webmaster Greg Kaminski has brought together a collection of resources for educators with various needs: those just beginning to explore what a learner centered classroom looks like, those more experienced who are searching for additional strategies, and those who are interested in contributing to the conversation. 

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Learner-centered teaching shifts the role of the instructor from knowledge provider to facilitator of student learning.  Students who practice working collaboratively and have learned to question what is given to them are prepared to enter the real world. I hope that, like me, you find in the sites reviewed here many ideas that will help you become an even more effective learner-centered educator.

–Annette Johnson, Career Program Coordinator, Bay College, MI

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