Teaching Innovations

Student-Centered Teaching

Jonathan W. Zophy, February 1991

Editor's Note: Portions of this article were published in "On Learner-Centered Teaching," History Teacher, vol. 15, no. 2, February 1982, and appear in Perspectives courtesy of the Society for History Education.

A colleague of mine informed me during a recent conversation about teaching that he hated discussion classes because he "didn't want to hear any of their [students'] ideas. I just wanted them to hear mine."

While this may be one of the more candid pronouncements from the "Shut up, sit back passively, and listen school," it is far more typical of an attitude among professors in higher education than many of us would care to admit. Indeed, this is the most common type of learning situation still found at most universities and colleges today, and given the increasing economic pressures in higher education, it is likely to continue as the prevalent instructional mode of the future. Large lecture classes are much more cost efficient than any other type. With the advent of cheap videotaping, we can go even further in reducing teacher-student interaction while easing the burden on tax and tuition payers.

Lecture classes also play into human egoism. One of the reasons some of us went into teaching, though not necessarily the most important, was so that we would have the chance to hear our own voices and to have the same captive audiences that we helped provide as undergraduates; it is our turn in the center of the arena. The problem is that what may be good for our egos as professors may not be so good for our students as learners. Moreover, we should be concerned about not only teaching history, but teaching others how to learn history. This essay suggests some ways to foster learning by adopting a more learner- or student-centered approach to teaching.

To understand what is meant by student-centered teaching, it is probably necessary to begin by examining the traditional teaching format, which is what I call teacher-centered. Most classrooms are arranged so that all the desks are in neat rows facing the instructor, who is usually standing at the front of the room behind the lectern. The professor is supposed to be the focal point for all significant communication in the classroom.

As for the students, they are supposedly sitting attentively waiting for pearls of wisdom to drop from the lips of the great scholar before them. They should be attentively taking notes of everything that is said. Sometimes they are allowed to ask questions at the end of a lecture class, if time permits. Students almost never take notes on what is said by other students. The very set up of the classroom emphasizes that the only things worth knowing are those coming from the instructor.

In contrast, in the ideal student-centered classroom it would not be quite so easy to tell who is the teacher and who is the student. If the class is small enough, our confusion about who is teaching may be enhanced by the fact that the chairs are arranged in a circle and many different voices can be heard speaking. One voice does not dominate the discussion. Students can see more than the backs of their fellow students' heads. Both questions and answers may originate from any member of the class. Sometimes there are no answers, only questions. At times there may be periods of silence, while at other moments there is apparent chaos with several voices speaking simultaneously. Students may be cross-examining and challenging the ideas of their fellow learners, including the teacher. A few may even be jotting down hurried notes on what the other students are saying!

While some of what has just been described may seem a little unusual, in truth there is really nothing new about the general idea of a learner-centered approach to teaching. Chaucer's Oxford clerk, in the The Canterbury Tales, described the student-centered approach succinctly when he said, "gladly would I teach and gladly would I learn." The Oxford clerk, like Socrates before him, recognized that process is as important in teaching and learning as product. The student-centered approach can take many guises, from the inquiry learning approach of the Socratic method to such recent innovations as individualized self-learning, role playing, and simulation. All these methods are in some ways student-centered since they shift the focus of the learning process from teacher to student.

Since the student-centered approach to teaching is as much a matter of shifting student and teacher attitudes as it is a methodology, it can be used even in conjunction with the traditional lecture format, even though it obviously works best with small classes or individuals in tutorial. A more learner-centered approach can be accomplished by having lecturers pay almost as much attention to students as they pay to their notes. Keeping close contact with the audience will allow the lecturer to stop the narrative for questions or comments whenever it becomes obvious that the students are losing interest or failing to grasp what is being said. By allowing "interruptions" in the course of the lecture, much in the way of narrative smoothness may be lost, yet a great deal in the way of less passive learning and listening may be gained.

Why not let our textbooks tell more of the story and use the lecture class to pose questions about the reading material or to interpret those parts of the assigned reading that require additional explanation and commentary? Entire lecture courses can be taught almost exclusively through the question and answer method. In the age of printing, it may no longer be quite as essential as it was in the age of the incunabula to "tell books" to our students.

Another method of making the traditional lecture more student-centered is to team-lecture. Perhaps several members of the class, as well as the guest presenters can take some turns at lecturing and even staging debates with each other. Obviously student "mini-lectures" must be carefully planned, rehearsed, and evaluated, but they can be orchestrated to work effectively.

Discussion classes provide even better opportunities for student-centered teaching than do large-lecture classes. There are limitations as to what can be achieved in large-lecture halls no matter how sensitive to students we are. Many of us assume lecturing and teaching are the same thing. Yet we forget that the ancient Greek pedagogue, that word we often use as a synonym for teacher, was not a lecturer or even a scholar, but the servant who walked with the pupil to the place of learning. Obviously it is easier to "walk" with a smaller number of co-learners. One partial solution to the enrollment crunch and declining budgets for instruction is to break up periodically the large lecture classes into smaller groups.

Regardless of the size of the class, it has been my experience that a variety of methods work best. Even a steady diet of brilliantly presented lectures can become as cloying as an uninterrupted smorgasbord of student-centered discussions. In my discussion classes I make an effort to make students a partner in the teaching-learning process, even if too often I am a senior partner. I try to make students aware that they are as responsible for preparing for class as I am. They must expect to work before every class, not just before the examinations. Naturally all class discussions must be evaluated and be a significant part of the final grade.

To promote a more student-centered approach to discussion, all the class seats should be placed in a circle, with the teacher sitting among the students as a peer and not as an obvious group leader. This avoids to some extent the traditional problem of funnelling all discussion through the instructor. A circular seating arrangement also cuts down on the tendency for classroom discussions to become a series of dialogues between the teacher and individual students. It is crucial as well that the instructor not comment on everything each student says, but to allow responses to come from members of the class. At its best, the discussion should often be free flowing with students challenging the ideas of others without first seeking teacher (authority-figure) approval.

I have also found that it is usually best to assign a limited, manageable amount of material for each class session, preferably primary source material, although some novels, plays, films, and an occasional monograph or article also can work. Short, written assignments and prepared questions will further facilitate discussion. I often serve as the discussion moderator, but at other times students can fill this role. The moderator's job is not to dominate or control the discussion, but to begin it with an opening question, to keep the discussion focused on the reading material. "Show me where it says that in the text?" is a helpful question for achieving the latter task.

Students should be encouraged to avoid using informational questions which can easily be looked up in the textbook. Rather, discussion class time is devoted to exploring the meanings of historical documents and their larger significance. Discussions should first focus on what a document says before going on to debate what it means.

To make the discussions as learner-centered as possible, it is important that the teacher do as little of the questioning, answering, and discussing as possible. This is usually accomplished only on a gradual basis, as the instructor often has to set a good example with his or her own questions and discussion in the early sessions of a course; gradually, responsibility can be shifted more and more to the students. Our habit as teachers is to dominate all classes, so many of us may have to take almost a vow of silence at some point in the course. Once I even had to put a pen into my mouth, which would fall out if I found myself jumping into the lulls in the discussion. I had to learn the hard way that periods of silence may indeed be periods of reflection and quite as productive as constant sound.

Too often class discussion evolves into a game of "guess what the teacher wants and then say it loud and clear." While such guessing and regurgitating may have a constructive side, they hardly substitute for independent thought or an authentic expression of a student's real struggles with the material. At times it may be almost necessary to trick students into actually expressing their own thinking. A time-honored favorite is, of course, to play devil's advocate. Taking an outrageous position can often compel students to counter with something resembling their own thought.

As teachers we must also avoid feeling responsible for providing on-the-spot answers to all questions directed to us by students. We are not walking encyclopedias or vending machines of knowledge. Students need to learn how to ask questions that advance a discussion and how to find answers for themselves.

A fortunate by-product of the student-centered approach to teaching is that it forces us to re-examine and re-think our roles as teachers and to look again at the importance of questions in the learning process. All of us have an obligation to prepare for class and to share our research and thinking with others.

To be fair, it should also be pointed out that there are some risks involved in moving from our teacher-centered approaches to more student-centered ones. We may not be able to "cover as much ground" or keep as much control over our classes. We may be forced to approach familiar subject matter in completely unfamiliar ways. We may get to know more of our students' minds than we may be comfortable with. Some of them will resist a change from the traditional classroom system, which requires less of them than a situation in which they are under pressure to prepare daily for class sessions. Some will not want to come to class prepared to discuss or with completed written assignments. However, this form of resistance usually diminishes by a combination of peer pressure and by being rewarded for participation and penalized for the lack of the same in their discussion and assignment grades. To make the student-centered approach work, all forms of performance must be seen to be a determining factor in the student's final grade for the course. At times we may encounter colleagues who are suspicious of new approaches to learning or others who are worried about their cost efficiency.

Despite these concerns, it has been my experience in over two decades of attempting some form or other of student-centered teaching, that it has been well worth it. I have found that students learn more when they have to work more outside and inside the classroom. Sometimes even more remarkable things happen to students, as the following comment from one of my course evaluations reveals:

"This course was the most valuable experience I have ever had in school. Prior to this, I had been turned off to learning. This course practices the learner-centered approach and this is great. It challenges the student."

An added bonus of the student-centered approach is that it does challenge all concerned, and for me that continues to make teaching ever new and always rewarding.

—Jonathan W. Zophy is an associate professor of history at the University of Houston at Clear Lake.