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All About Teaching
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For several years, Almanac has been presenting to the Penn community a series of timely essays on teaching entitled Talk About Teaching.  To reflect the important changes that are now occurring at Penn and all across the country, the title of the column will now become Talk About Teaching and Learning, recognizing that these two processes are interdependent, and indeed that teaching is only one of the important means by which we achieve our essential goal--that of promoting student learning.

Centering on Learning at Penn

by Myrna L. Cohen, Matthew Grady, and Samantha Springer

One of the important changes occurring in higher education is a shift toward a more learner-focused academic environment, where the importance of the learning process is recognized along with the course content.  With the revival of this series on teaching and learning, we will explore in this initial essay the role of learners within Penn's curricula and courses.

A New Focus on Learner-Centered Learning

Learning is, after all, the common experience for all Penn students. It is ongoing throughout the undergraduate or graduate experience, taking place inside and outside the classroom.  Students learn alone, in pairs, and in groups. Learning transpires on line and face-to-face, in classrooms, libraries, computer labs, study lounges, and coffee shops.  Propelled by the momentum of multiple years of study, students will continue to learn for the rest of their lives.

Recently, learner-centered approaches to teaching have received a variety of new names, including problem-based learning, case-based teaching, active learning, and anchored instruction. The common thread connecting these approaches is the reflective, involved role of the students who share the responsibility for constructing knowledge with their instructors.  Effective course design, therefore, considers the active processes the students use to learn for today and for the future, on the how as well as the what of the curriculum. This subtle, yet significant, shift in focus is clearly a reaction to the demands of an exponential increase of available information from print and on-line sources and a need for our future citizens to be engaged, critical thinkers and decision makers. It also recognizes that our students learn best by manipulating new concepts and vocabulary, whether verbally, visually, or manually.

What does our new and appropriate focus on active learning and learner-centered curricula mean for Penn students and instructors? For students, active learning provides  more opportunities to connect new learning to prior experiences and to incorporate their own interests. These actions can lead to increases in motivation, responsibility for learning, and opportunities to learn how to learn within specific disciplines.  Ultimately, students become more aware of their own learning and the cognitive processes that are most effective. These skills have the potential to transcend individual courses as life-long behaviors. 

With the demands and distractions of student life, Penn students rarely have the luxury of time to think about the ways they learn.  Ingrained habits of reading and studying continue whether they are productive or ineffective, appropriate or unsuitable. At Penn's Learning Resources Center, undergraduate and graduate students are given the opportunity to reflect on their learning strengths and challenges. Beginning with informal, reflective assessment, students are encouraged to recognize their learning styles and current approaches to learning and to develop active learning strategies. For example, active approaches to reading encourage conscious application to prior knowledge or current problem-solving.  Notetaking strategies lead to the synthesis of information from texts, lectures, and web-based resources. And active time management skills create timelines for studying that decrease academic anxiety by putting the students clearly in charge of their academic lives.

For instructors, the responsibility for teaching a course expands, rather than diminishes. In addition to their traditional role as experts within specific disciplines, university instructors are increasingly recognized as designers of the learning environment, guides through the inquiry process, and the models of exemplary learning methods.

Applying Learner-Centered Models to Recitations

During the past year, the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) has undertaken a review of recitations at Penn by examining their structure and the pedagogical methods they employ. Specifically, SCUE researched the training of teaching assistants and discussed with several professors their strategies in planning recitations. Due to their size and purpose, SCUE has concluded that recitations have the potential to impact student learning more than any other part of the Penn undergraduate experience. By applying learner-centered teaching techniques, recitations will encourage students' intellectual growth by tying together what they have learned both inside and outside of the classroom. In this way, recitations will transform each student from a passive listener into an interactive learner.        

Rather than simply having a TA-driven discussion or review session, students in learner-centered recitations would be raising their own questions, solving their own problems, and responding to each other's inquiries. The TA, in this model, would serve as more of a guide, helping to encourage discussion in a particular direction, or stepping in when confusion arises over a particular concept. In this way, learner-centered recitations would represent a shift in the classroom's balance of power from TA to student. Having students more involved in class dynamics would place a larger responsibility on them to be prepared and to keep class moving; this would indirectly promote mastery of a given subject by seeking to develop each student's ability to think about it critically and independently. TAs, in turn, will assume the critical responsibility of orchestrating the class and course to effectively promote student learning.

This type of classroom experience is not difficult to achieve. Indeed, several practical steps can be taken in any recitation to improve student involvement and active learning. In the humanities, for example, students can come to class having already prepared responses to open-ended questions about the week's material, present their responses to the class, and then enter into a discussion on the merits of the responses proposed. Technology, such as Blackboard courseware, can facilitate these and similar activities and can get class discussions started before students physically assemble for recitation each week. In the hard sciences or mathematics, learner-centered recitations would involve students by having them present their solutions to homework problems to the class, allowing the responsibility for explaining the material to fall to the student rather than the TA (who has already learned it). These examples employ beneficial active learning techniques and include students directly in classroom dynamics.

Recitations have the potential to be a vibrant and incredibly productive part of each student's academic career. We can vastly improve learning outcomes in our classrooms by forcing students to grapple with issues themselves and think independently about their course material. Moreover, learner-centered recitations will engage Penn students in their own learning process, which will make them more enthusiastic and interested in their intellectual endeavors both here and beyond. SCUE believes that adding a strong active-learning component to the Penn curriculum will lead to a more academically passionate and intellectually motivated student body.

If you would like to continue to talk about student learning at Penn, you are encouraged to contact the following:  Myrna Cohen at the Learning Resources Center (215-573-9235) or the College (215-898-6341); Larry Robbins and John Noakes at the Center for Teaching and Learning (215-898-6341); or the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education.

Dr. Myrna L. Cohen is Director of the Learning Resources Center and Director of Learning Resources for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Matthew Grady is a senior in the College and Chair of the SCUE Committee on Learner-Centered Learning.

Samantha Springer is a sophomore in the College and Secretary of SCUE.

This essay resumes the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. See for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 9, October 21, 2003