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Pedagogies for Student-Centered Learning: Online and On-Ground
Date Reviewed: May 15, 2015
“Teachers are like new parents,” Cari Crumly asserts. “[T]hey don’t want to be told how to raise their children or, in this case, how to teach their students. Yet, sometimes, even the least-experienced teacher can introduce new methods that engage, encourage, and promote motivation and participation among students” (4). Crumly lays down the gauntlet repeatedly in this book: “student-centered learning will revolutionize your classroom and reinvigorate your career” (5).
As Crumly notes, “student-centered learning is a learning model placing the learner in the center of the learning process. Students are active participants in their learning, learning at their own pace and using their own strategies; they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated; and learning is more individualized than standardized” (4). Certainly there are situations in which (and learners for whom) more external structure is appropriate, but Crumly makes a very persuasive case for those being the exception rather than the rule.
The good news is that if you are a teacher-centered professor, Pedagogies for Student-Centered Learning gives you everything you need to make changes in your teaching. There is an historical timeline to remind readers that student-centered learning is not a new fad; it’s been with us for centuries. There is a section on teacher-centered classrooms, so we can check whether we are (or are not) as student-centered as we’d like to think we are. There is information on understanding your learning population. There are examples from real classrooms about how student-centered learning can play out, and how it benefits students. Each chapter contains questions for investigation. There is also a list of instructional tactics, with commonly used exercises and the advantages of using each one. Appendices and URLs point readers to even more resources, and Pamela Dietz adds a section on how to bring faculty, administrators, and tech support on board. If you are a visual learner, there are a number of graphical elements that will assist in your assimilation of the material presented.
Fortress Press’s new Seminarium: The Elements of Great Teaching series is ideal for twenty-first-century readers. QR codes dot the pages – but don’t worry, if you don’t do QR codes, the URLs are available in footnotes. This book is full of great, useful information – and points readers to more useful information online. Certainly, there are some distractions (for example, misrepresentations of quotations from other thinkers at times). Definitions of student-centered learning can become repetitive over the course of the book. And Sarah d’Angelo’s chapter on student-centered learning in a theater classroom contains a bit more information than is likely to be useful for religious-studies and seminary faculty. But none of these detracts from the benefits of the book as a whole.
I have been reviewing books on teaching for ten years or more – this is easily one of the most helpful books I have ever reviewed, and one to which I will return often. I have attempted student-centered learning in a number of courses and contexts; it can be very hard to pull off successfully, and does require a rethinking of our role as faculty. While Crumly suggests that “The student-centered classroom, whether on ground or online, is characterized by individualization, interaction, and integration,” I did wonder how this might work in an online environment (10). I look forward to further exploring these possibilities.
A Concise Guide to Improving Student Learning: Six Evidence-Based Principles and How to Apply Them
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
The authors of this brief resource provide educators with six of the most important principles to emerge from recent research on human learning. Taken together, these principles provide the elements of a framework for effective constructivist pedagogy, particularly in higher education:
- Desirable difficulties increase long-term retention (5-7)
- Meaningful and spaced repetition increases retention (12-13)
- Emotion and relevance deepen learning (15-16)
- Multisensory instruction deepens learning (25-26)
- Small groups engage students (32-33)
- Formative assessment or low-stakes evaluation strengthens retention (43-46)
The authors offer a series of concrete “instructional applications” as well as an annotated summary of a few of the most salient research studies relevant to each principle. Interleaved with their treatment of the principles, concrete applications, and annotated bibliographies, the authors provide outlines of workshop sessions that address specific instructional techniques funded by the various principles under discussion. The main body of this highly practical book ends at page 60. Three appendices (on course design, lectures, and class discussions) bring the book to page 78. The final quarter of the book is taken up with extensive bibliographic references.
The book has several strengths. It harvests a burgeoning body of literature on human learning in a highly accessible manner. It backs up its claims with relevant research. Specific instructional techniques and ideas that have solid grounding in empirical research on learning are also offered. Ample bibliographical references appear at every turn. Useful guidelines for improving student learning positively emerge from the book.
The weaknesses of the book arise from its strengths. The authors’ treatment of the six principles, while insightful, come across as thin. Explicating and unpacking each principle in five or six pages as opposed to the one or two pages given to the task in the book would have aided the process of internalizing the concepts involved. The practical applications in each section have a great deal of merit, but the added interspersed workshop materials make the book somewhat difficult to follow. I would have preferred a less cluttered organizational structure. While I appreciate the authors’ intentions to offer a clear, pithy, and brief resource for faculty who want to make the shift toward more learning-centered pedagogy, the book as a whole comes across as a series of edited outlines for in-service presentations at faculty meetings. A lot less bibliographical material and a lot more explanation of key concepts would likely help the newcomer to discover the way of thinking about learning and teaching advocated in the book.
This book might serve as a useful resource for faculty members who want to move away from the traditional orientation of the “sage on the stage” who suffers from “content tyranny” and toward a more engaged pedagogy, but only for those motivated by the books’ remarkable brevity. It would work well as a brief introduction for doctoral students who have to take a required course on teaching in higher education. It also could work well for faculty who already know this material and who want to have a quick summary at their fingertips when designing syllabi or who have the opportunity to teach other teachers how to teach effectively. In order to go beyond preaching to the already initiated, it would probably need further development and revision.
For the Love of Learning: Innovations from Outstanding University Teachers
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
For the Love of Learning: Innovations from Outstanding University Teachers is a compendium of thirty-six essays which describe various aspects of innovative pedagogy. The essays were submitted by educators who have received recognition by the United Kingdom’s prestigious National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS), that is designed to recognize excellence in learning and teaching in higher education. Many of the essays describe the results of projects funded by NTFS grants. As Bilham makes clear in the introduction, the collection is an attempt at inspiring fresh and creative approaches to the challenge of shaping students through education.
In many ways, this is a collection of case studies as much as a collection of essays. The contributions focus on the description of pedagogical tools which the author has used successfully. None of the specific examples elicited apply directly to the disciplines of theological and religious studies, but the educational theory and the spirit of innovation which lay behind these specific practices are readily transferable.
There is a consistent call to engage students, which rests on the supposition that an engaged student learns better, and is retained. Several strategies for this type of engagement are presented. Essays 1 and 9 advocate for the involvement of students in the production and presentation of new content. Essays 11 and 27 suggest the employment of problem-based learning models, in which students seek out their own answers to real-world problems often with limited interference from the instructor. Essay 15 argues that humor in teaching can boost engagement when treating particular difficult or confusing topics.
Several of the essays advocate refining the nature of assessments. For example, essay 13 argues that if constructed well, assessments can be an important educational tool serving to teach not just to assess learning. Essay 17 identifies several problems with current models of assessment: they often do not measure the types of thinking that the course requires, or reflect the ability the students develop as thinkers through the course, or consider the fact that all students are different. Essay 18 discusses the benefit of formative assessment, which seeks to encourage deeper thinking and correct misunderstanding early in the educational process, rather than penalizing students at the end of the course, as summative assessment often does. Essay 33 argues that assessment can be viewed as a means for enhancing the employability of students. While none of these essays provide answers to the problem they do provide important conceptual steps forward to aid faculty in thinking through the design of learning experiences and strategies for assessing what has been learned.
Finally, the impetus to spend time developing the employability of students is a point well taken (see Essays 4, 24, 27, and 31-26). In many American universities there is an increasing emphasis on the acquisition of job skills – making sure college and university courses contribute to student employability. This trend directly impacts the teaching of theology and religion.
In conclusion, this volume is a tremendous resource for someone looking to enliven their teaching. It is not a roadmap to an innovative religious studies course, but it highlights proven pedagogical approaches which are shaping the lives of students in the United Kindgom, and are worth considering for anyone who takes the task of education seriously.
Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
Whether you are a teacher, administrator, or coach seeking to improve your own or other’s instructional skills, Jim Knight’s book provides a useful step-by-step guide for doing so through the use of video. With easy-to-follow checklists and examples, the author explains the rationale for each decision in the process and offers options for working within various physical, spatial, and logistical constraints.
While more extensive background to other professional development practices for teachers are cited throughout, this manual stands on its own in terms of the physical and social steps necessary for teachers, administrators, and coaches to work together in using video effectively to improve instruction. After laying out the reasons video-recording of instruction can be so effective, Knight methodically and precisely sets forth systematic plans necessary for a coach or teacher to get started. From an individual improvement focus, he then moves to show how teams of teachers can work together and how administrators can facilitate similar processes.
Knight constantly focuses on the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment for the use of video. He defines autonomy and accountability and explains how these concepts can work together instead of representing opposite ends of the instructional responsibility spectrum. While always in the forefront of an instructor’s mind when working with students, the same principles of agreement about values, measurable and attainable goals, timely feedback, and constructive communication remain vital in the context of professional development and effective learning environments.
Chapter 6 begins with a principal expressing his angst over “teacher evaluations,” a task he views as necessary but onerous. The author suggests that the use of video can parallel assessment strategies utilized by a college dean. Again, the author’s systematic presentation of the details involved in using video for high impact instructional learning makes the process feasible.
The main criticism of the book may be that its methodical approach becomes slightly tedious and repetitive. By chapter 5 the reader feels they have already reviewed the general content four times with slightly different applications depending upon the theme of each chapter. While some new and beneficial information pertinent to the context of the chapter is shared, some educators will find the conceptual redundancy wearisome.
Insofar as the book is easy-to-read and a valuable step-by-step guide to using current technology to facilitate better individual instruction and collegial discussion of teaching, it could be valuable for teachers of theology and religion at the post-secondary level, even though the book seems geared for the K-12 audience. The (reproducible) resources provided in the book are valuable for teaching and could be used by instructors at any educational level.
Linked Courses for General Education and Integrative Learning: A Guide for Faculty and Administrators
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
Linked Courses for General Education and Integrative Learning explores the use of linked courses to create learning communities for students. While the editors acknowledge a wide range of meanings for these terms and allow contributors to use their own definitions, they focus on “two courses linked across the curriculum” as the most common form of learning communities (ix). They suggest that such linked courses are important in engaging students with the “complexity and interdependence” of fields of knowledge. The book examines the use of linked courses at different institutions, strategies in implementing and assessing these courses, and the results and learning outcomes from these examples.
Instructors in religious studies and theology will likely find two of the chapters particularly useful although the examples of linked courses in other fields also offer suggestions for structures and strategies for linked courses. Chapter 2, “Linked Content Courses: A World Civilizations – World Religions Case Study,” by Jeffrey LaMonica, describes a pair of “bundled” courses at Delaware County Community College. The instructors linked the course competencies for the two courses and included several team-taught sessions throughout the term along with assignments that required an interdisciplinary focus. The instructors concluded that the linked structure increased student interest and enthusiasm which can be an important factor in retention. LaMonica also highlights how both courses contributed to common college competencies by reinforcing student learning and highlighting connections between fields.
Chapter 6, “Implementing a Linked Course Requirement in the Core Curriculum” by Margo Soven, describes the “Doubles” program at La Salle University which linked courses for first year students. These linked courses were offered across the curriculum and created a significant administrative challenge, especially when all first-year students were required to participate. Soven discusses many aspects of implementing these courses including staffing, scheduling, training, assessment, and administrative involvement. While there were positive outcomes for both students and faculty, the program was ultimately suspended due to its cost. The college has however attempted to apply the concept to first-year orientation and other programs. While this chapter does not focus specifically on religious studies and theology, its connection to the core curriculum may offer useful ideas for religious studies and theology instructors given the role these departments play in the core at many institutions.
The remaining chapters examine additional aspects of implementing linked courses. Some describe examples of pairing content courses with courses that focus on specific skills such as writing. Others focus on connections to first year experiences or residential learning communities. The final section addresses assessment strategies for linked courses and summarizes the outcomes at several institutions.
In one sense this book is most relevant for faculty at institutions which offer linked courses or are contemplating such programs. However, other readers may find these examples useful as illustrations of ways to make individual courses more interdisciplinary as well or develop team-taught courses or collaborations with other departments. Several of the chapters offer extensive references to further studies and general research in the field which will also be useful to many readers.