Should Professors Take a Backseat?


In Professors’ Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the role of the professor in the classroom is brought into question. History suggests that it has long been established that the professor takes center stage and guides the learning experience for the students. However, more recently, we are seeing a shift in the paradigm towards a more student driven experience.

Kevin Eagan, both an assistant professor at the University of California and interim director of the Higher Education Research Institute, has seen evidence of this change documented in a recent survey produced by the institute. According to the results, faculty members have reported an increase in student-centered teaching methods. Class discussions, group projects, student selected topics, and cooperative learning have all become more prominent facets of the modern day classroom. Among explanations for this shift, Eagan states that older, more experienced professors were more likely to engage in traditional lecturing in their teaching, while the opposite was true for younger professors, who reported employing more student-centered approaches. These findings suggest that “a true paradigm shift might not hit until 2020”

On the other hand, Maryellen Weimer, a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Pennsylvania State University, is not convinced that one can take the professors’ self-reports as gospel. She believes that, in such surveys, professors are prone to “report what they should be doing rather than what they’re actually doing”. Weimer, who prefers the term “learner-centered”, sees a change in the classroom power dynamic as being key to a real evolution. In such a dynamic, the students would have an increased say in what they learn, and most significantly, they would be working equally as hard as the teachers. Weimer has noticed that, despite the best of intentions, professors are often working harder than the students, and thus remaining the focal point of the classroom

Catharine H. Beyer, a research scientist for the assessment of student learning at the University of Washington, has observed that professors are most likely to initiate change based off of their students’ feedback. Beyer insists that faculty must view students as “partners in the process of learning”, in order to possess the requisite awareness and need for adjustment that is vital to achieving positive learning outcomes. Instead of seeing their students as being “passive recipients of knowledge”, Beyer remarked that professors began to describe their students as “traveling along a learning path”.

Is such a development inevitable or exaggerated?

November Provisions Session – Teaching the Visual

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

27 faculty members were in attendance for our 3rd and final Provisions session of 2014. The three presenters, who shared their experiences of ‘Teaching the Visual’, were Liz Richards, Visiting Instructor of Communications, Susan Meyer, Assistant Professor of Art Foundation, and Dr. Joanne Powers, an Associate Professor of Mathematics.

Proceedings began a little differently to usual, with Liz Richards and Susan Meyer collaborating to co-present their story about another collaboration that took place back in the spring semester. Richards, who teaches Multimedia Storytelling, a communications class, and Meyer, who teaches 3-D concepts, an art class, decided to merge their group of students together in the hope of creating a unique project centered on a type of installation art dubbed “inflatables”. Due to the common divide of city and country students, an urban vs. rural theme was established. For the art class, the task was to physically construct the inflatable installations using plastic sheeting material and a fan, while the communications students provided both visual and audio media that was projected onto them. In addition, the communications class combined their talents to document the collaboration, report on it, and form marketing and public relations departments.

Another notable difference between the two classes was that the 3-D concepts students were in their 1st year, while the Multimedia Storytelling were comprised of juniors and seniors. Richards and Meyer explained that, in spite of the gap, the two sets of students learned a lot from each other. Although they were only able to align their schedules to meet three times in person, the use of technology acted as a vital resource in maintaining and facilitating that contact.

Richards and Meyer added that, for the students who were used to last-minute cramming and starting and finishing work the night before due date, a project of this nature required a time of acclimation. By the end of the experience, Richards and Meyer learned that their collaboration acted as a great platform for their students to learn from each other, gain confidence, and that the project provided a visual example of their accomplishments.To see the collaborating duo’s PowerPoint, click on the link – Inflatables-4.

Dr. Joanne Powers was next up to present; she demonstrated how mathematical visualizations impact her teaching and, thus, the learning of her students. In Dr. Powers’ class, games can be used to help understand complex concepts. The chaos game allows students to see how a seemingly random process can result in familiar patterns; the Sierpinski triangle being one of them.  The students’ learning is further enhanced through the medium of an interactive geometry software program called “The Geometer’s Sketchpad”where students are able to visually explore a multitude of different mathematical areas. Dr. Powers showed the audience, with the Geometer’s Sketchpad, examples of how shapes can be constructed and, in turn, manipulated to provide visual representations of the changes that can take place in the figures. The students are able to see for themselves the answer to “what would happen if….?”  Dr. Powers stated that her students’ understanding of mathematical equations was made easier thanks to the visual model. Due to the visual nature of the world these days, a visual approach could surely enhance learning in any academic discipline.

As always, at the end of the presentations, the floor was opened up for discussions. These were a few of the points that arose:

  • There is a need for integration between courses in liberal education.
  • Having interdisciplinary students in the same classroom helps to provide welcomed diversity and different insights to a subject.
  • Creativity is not merely confined to traditionally creative classes such as music and art.
  • Students should be encouraged to take risks; the process of potentially making a mistake can lead to a greater eventual understanding.
  • It could be beneficial to spread out liberal arts courses so that students can take them when they are older and have developed their sense of critical thinking.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

Further Reflections on the Novice-Expert Continuum

This week, Jenn and I dug a little deeper into our examination of the processes that underlie the transition from novice to expert through our reading and discussion of the following articles:

Laird, T. F. N., Seifert, T. A., Pascarella, E. T., Mayhew, M. J., & Blaich, C. F. (2014). Deeply Affecting First-Year Students’ Thinking: Deep Approaches to Learning and Three Dimensions of Cognitive Development. Journal of Higher Education, 85(3), 402–432. [Read here]
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound? Educational Researcher, (1), 16. [Read here]
Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1987). Transfer of cognitive skills from programming: When and how? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 3(2), 149–169. doi:10.2190/6F4Q-7861-QWA5-8PL1
Implicit in our recent readings on composition theory, and explicit here in the Laird article, is a special concern for the needs of first-year (and even moreso, first-semester) students as they begin to travel along the continuum toward expertise.  Indeed I still am working to make the translation from theories concerning disciplinary expertise and studies about human cognition to the more personal task of improving my own efforts to assist first-year students.  While I still have a long way to go before I feel competent to draw conclusions, here are some of my intial takeaways:
  • A depth of general knowledge is useful in creating local or disciplinary knowledge.  But not in all cases!
  • We must plan lessons carefully if we hope to optimize the chances that students will tranfer knowledge into other domains (and be explicit about the idea of transfer).
  • Repetition of tasks prepares a student for “low road transfer” of knowledge into similar situations (e.g., driving a car allows transfer of knowledge about driving when you sit behind the wheel of a truck), and this will happen without a great deal of deliberate thought about this transfer.
  • The affect or emotional response a student brings to the learning process can be a critical factor in helping her move along the continuum from novice to expert successfully.


Perhaps this quote from Perkins and Salomon (1989) best sums up the role and importance of both general and discipline-specific knowledge within the context of transfer and expertise:

To the extent that transfer does take place, it is highly specific and must be cued, primed, and guided; it seldom occurs spontaneously.  The case for generalized, context-independent skills and strategies that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence…Local knowledge, more than general problem-solving heuristics, appeared to be the bottleneck.


YouTube Education

In What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show, Jessica Lahey interviews Michael Stevens, one of many internet educators who are effortlessly engaging children across the nation. His YouTube education channel, named Vsauce, has managed to attract 8 million subscribers and amass around 700 million views. The channel is home to a mixture of scientific and philosophical explorations in which he imparts a wealth of entertaining knowledge to his audience.

It is not inconceivable to imagine that many procrastinating students around the world have been victims of YouTube’s addictive and distracting nature. Channels such as Vsauce are able to take advantage of our love of technology, and children’s predilection for video-based entertainment.

In the article, Stevens articulates a number of factors that he believes help to engage his young followers.

First, Stevens highlights the importance of knowing your subject inside out. It is one thing to know and to understand the concept, but being able to clearly and concisely explain it in a way that leaves no confusion or ambiguity is paramount.

Stevens, too, stresses the importance of tailoring vocabulary to the learners needs. He recommends that teachers assume their students are intelligent, but unfamiliar to the subject specific jargon.

Lastly, Stevens urges other educators to point students in the direction of further resources so that they can continue their learning outside of the classroom and begin to self-educate.

Lahey concludes that Stevens’ approach is “to teach so people don’t even realize they are learning”, and that YouTube, which has proven to capture students’ imagination, is an ideal forum for this method of teaching.

For a link to Vsauce’s channel, click here