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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?

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One thought on “Should Professors Take a Backseat?

  1. I think this is an ideal, however, there are some other issues that need addressing here.

    One is that students don’t always understand the value of “learner-centered” learning. I have had students actually complain that “they were doing all the work” themselves because I wasn’t “teaching”! I put a lot of time and energy into developing productive group projects, and perhaps they aren’t perfect, but I see my role as providing a structure and accountability within as much student-centered learning as is possible in the institutional structure. Some students, on the other hand, then critique these practices in their evaluations because they think the teacher is being lazy.

    In classes such as writing, where it is not so much about mastering content as becoming more aware of and developing writing and thinking skills, there is both a lot of room for learner-centered learning as well as restrictions. If a student feels like s/he is being “forced” to take a class (such as freshman composition), how much can you really expect this kind of learning to happen? If we truly want to move to a more learner-centered model of teaching, that has to include giving students the power to decide what courses they are going to take and when. In other words, we need to address the larger institutional context as much as specific classroom practices.

    The other issue is the very real trends going on in higher ed. The increasing reliance on contingent faculty, online platforms/tools, and larger class sizes make it even more difficult to employ “learner-centered” practices. Because learner-centered practices inevitably require more space for both instructors and students to explore more options for learning and teaching, and more creativity and resourcefulness for both, the effort required to create courses that are, ironically, more dependent on student-instructor interactions and feedback on a more personalized basis, is more challenging amid these trends. The increasing standardization of education (now seen with disastrous results at the K-12 level) certainly works counter to learner-centered trends. So while these pedagogies are definitely out there, there seems to be more resistance than ever to them.

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