Most students expect class to consist of lectures plus demonstrations. A great class is one where the lectures are engaging and the demonstrations are many. A boring class is one where the instructor makes little attempt to be animated and the demonstrations are nonexistent. Either way, the students remain seated equipped with pen and paper to record the events as accurately as possible so that they may be studied in more detail later in some quiet privacy.
This traditional class format can be effective at helping students learn. Educational research suggests, however, that better results are obtained when the instructor is able to make the students active participants. Check-Your-Neighbor type questions are a good starting point. This is where the instructor asks a multiple-choice question of the class. Students then discuss possible answers amongst themselves before responding as a whole. In taking this interactive approach a step further, students can use class time to collaborate on projects, worksheets, or hands-on activities—all the better if this curriculum is designed to assist students in articulating what they think they have learned. Students themselves can be given access to the science demonstrations and be required to explain the underlying concepts. Any lecture presentation they receive is short and sweet, and provided “on the fly” in response to their specific needs. In such a scenario, students find themselves in the spotlight. They find that class is akin to a grand study session where the instructor is their study leader, who migrates from team to team providing expert assistance on demand. These are the hallmarks of what we call a “student-centered” class. Lectures are minimized for the sake of increased class participation.
Students Must Come Prepared
The prerequisite to an effective student-centered class is that the student arrives to class prepared. Assignments need to have been read beforehand and exercises attempted beforehand such that a hazy understanding has already begun to take form. But as any instructor knows, student resistance to coming to class prepared can be intense. How then do we motivate students to come to class prepared? There are numerous tools. First of all, it is vital that the textbook be as user-friendly as possible—students should enjoy reading it! This, of course, has been one of the main goals in developing the Conceptual Chemistry textbook. The student should be able to learn about chemistry concepts on his or her own with minimal assistance from the instructor. This, in turn, supports the instructor who is wishing to move toward a student-centered class.
Another important tool for encouraging students to study is a short quiz given at the beginning of class, or even before class with the quiz posted on the course website. This quiz should assess students for their familiarity, not their expertise, of the material about to be covered. Following the quiz and a brief introduction, students work on various activities within teams. If a student comes ill-prepared, he or she then faces perhaps one of the greatest motivators: peer pressure. Of course, not everyone can always come prepared. Students know this and are generally forgiving and welcoming of all input either weak or strong. But they quickly come to realize that with the spotlight on them it is difficult to hide, even in large lecture halls.
If you are ready to make your classes more student-centered, you need to let your students know right away how this approach will help their learning, provide for an enjoyable experience, and, ultimately, improve their test scores. Notably, the interpersonal skills gained through collaborative learning is an added plus. Also, students are much more willing to participate if the in-class activities are unequivocally related to the quizzes and exams they take.
Lastly, a student-centered approach consumes a large portion of class and so the instructor has less opportunity to deliver content, though a greater opportunity to facilitate the learning of content. Consequently, in order to keep pace with a traditional syllabus, the instructor needs to decide whether there will be material on exams not covered directly in class. If so, the instructor should be mindful to reserve class time for the more challenging concepts.
Students Are the Players and You Their Coach
There is great potential in transforming a class from one geared towards passive learning to one geared towards active learning. What is needed is a willingness to get creative and to push the responsibilities of learning more squarely on the student. The role of the instructor is to provide students with good questions rather than good answers. We can think of students as team players out on the field doing all the hard work, which means finding answers for themselves. We are their coaches here to direct their learning efforts. Sometimes the best way to do this is by knowing when to cheer and when to remain silent.
So, is it better to retool one’s teaching methods in a single semester or to explore new activities one at a time over many years? Revolution or evolution? If you’re like most of us, the thought of revamping everything within a single semester is most undesirable. Indeed, implementation of any student-centered activity requires a fair amount of trial and error. Imagine implementing many new activities all within a few weeks only to have them fail miserably. This would be a disservice to your students, to yourself, as well as to the student-centered learning approach. The best practice is to introduce only the activities you think will work best for your students in a time frame that allows for successful development. Too much too soon can be self-defeating.
The various activities available to you by registering onto this website are ones that I know work well. Some work for large classes while others are better suited for smaller classes. Chances are that you have already implemented techniques of your own or that new ideas will soon be coming to you as you forge ahead. Also, you need look no further than journals, such as those of the National Science Teachers Association, the Journal of Chemical Education, or through the web to find a constant flow of student-centered learning innovations. The point to be made is that student-centered learning is fertile ground, even for those of us who have already nailed down our lecture presentations and are wondering what to do next.