Thursday, January 24, 2013

Redefining our approach to teaching and learning

STUDENT-CENTERED: We must focus on student needs,
outcomes, support, and engagement
It's no secret that many college and university faculty members continue to teach the way they were taught. They often rely on pre-planned lectures where students take notes, then study the notes, read the text, and take the test or write the paper.

PowerPoint has largely replaced chalkboards and overhead projectors, but teaching methods have mostly remained the same for centuries, despite research that shows lecture and other passive learning models are among the least effective teaching and learning formats.

To develop the minds and skills of students in 2013 and beyond, we need to redefine our approach to student learning. And although classrooms -- whether face-to-face or virtual -- vary in content and specific learning goals, a core set of best practices for teaching and learning should apply across the board.

As we continue our three-year strategic plan to transform the Academic Affairs department at Post University, we have identified some strategies for advancing modern-day student learning. I offer these as a starting point for discussion about more interactive and applied approaches to teaching and learning.

1. Focus on student needs before faculty needs. The traditional education model is highly teacher-centered (although we often don't want to admit this). The teacher transmits a selection of fixed information in a format of his or her choice, and the student is expected to submissively receive, memorize, and then regurgitate the information. Although many instructors are moving toward more active learning approaches, we must further focus on student-centered learning, with courses designed to engage students, encourage meaningful interaction among students and their instructors, and allow students to be active participants in their educational journey. We talked about this more in our 2013 higher education trends post on our blog. This approach also can promote deeper learning by emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving, communications, and collaboration as the cornerstones of each learning experience.

2. Define desired outcomes, measure performance, identify areas for improvement, and repeat. The goal of every instructor is to help students learn, but in order to do this, a teacher must know how to measure a student's success. Faculty of the future must be committed to measurement within a framework of continuous improvement. They must clearly define the outcomes they want the student to attain, communicate those expectations, develop authentic assessment tools, gather feedback along the way, and most important, 'close the loop' by using the lessons learned to improve the curriculum and enhance learning.

3. Develop systemic ways to respond to individual student needs. At any university, there are several departments that play a role in students' educational experience from the time they enroll until the time they graduate. From advising to faculty, tutoring to athletics, the various support services available to students cannot function in a vacuum. In order to efficiently understand and respond to individual student needs, each department must establish a healthy communication flow, work together to maintain a 360-degree view of each student, and have processes in place to react to and address students' needs in real-time.

4. Set standards for online discussion board engagement and measure your progress. In an online learning environment, the most powerful and profound learning comes when faculty and students engage in deep conversation about the subject matter. At Post University, our students also constantly reaffirm that the conversation they engage in with peers is just as valuable. However, truly productive discussions are not accidental. Discussion boards must be carefully developed and managed to ensure a balance between educational quality and workload for students and instructors alike. Best practices for discussion boards must be developed and communicated, faculty must be trained on how to effectively use the discussion board as a teaching and learning tool, and instructors must monitor and assess students' progress.

With changes in the higher education landscape come changes in the consensus of what constitutes excellence in teaching and learning. As educators, it is our obligation to respond to these changes and to continue working together to better meets students' learning needs and career goals. Have you or your colleagues applied any of these approaches to learning? Do you have other non-lecture-based approaches to teaching and learning to recommend?