by Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
A good teacher is always reflecting, and if you could catch a glimpse of the inner turmoil that goes on inside a teacher’s brain, you would see a veritable war zone—a swirling melee of measurable outcomes, student engagement, authentic assessment, and hosts of other educational combatants at odds with each other.
In the battlefield that is a teacher’s self-reflective mind, two foes, in particular, clash regularly at the front lines. On one side is teacher-centered learning, in which the instructor is the leader, the expert, and the center of attention while students sit and passively receive content. On the other side is student-centered learning, in which the students are active participants in authentic challenges while the instructor acts as more of a guide, a native who knows the territory well enough to steer travelers through safely without telling them where to go.
If you’ve ever had these two forces at war in your mind, you know that the toughest fight is finding a way to deliver the necessary content to students without just lecturing it at them. Student-centered learning is often touted as the solution to this problem, but as we feel more and more of an inner desire to replace our PowerPoint lectures with activities that give students more control in the classroom, we are left wondering “How can we possibly do this without sacrificing content?”.
To answer this question, at least partially, I want to look at two pieces of research about problem-based learning (or PBL), which is perhaps the paragon of student-centered learning models.
PBL and content
The first is a study called “Development of knowledge in basic sciences: A comparison of two medical curricula” that was published in Medical Education in 2012. This study followed two cohorts of medical students over ten semesters: one cohort was instructed using a traditional curriculum, the other using a curriculum focused around problem-based learning. Students were tested at the end of each semester to measure their basic medical science knowledge. The study concludes “…there is no systematic difference between a traditional and a problem-based curriculum in terms of the assimilation of overall medical knowledge”.
So, on the plus side, this study at least shows that one method of student-centered learning, when properly implemented, does not sacrifice content. On the other hand, this study also made me pause. Problem-based learning is significantly more difficult to implement than traditional lecture, so why bother with all the time and effort if students are learning the same content either way.
Enter another study to provide an answer. “Measuring the effect of problem-based learning instructional program on reflective thinking development”, published in 2012 in the Journal of Instructional Psychology, followed two cohorts of 10th graders: one taught using traditional methods, the other taught using problem-based learning. Each cohort took a pre- and post-test to measure reflective thinking skills. The results were pretty astounding: the traditional students only increased by an average of 0.66 points from pre- to post-test, while the PBL group increased by an average of 3.9 points. That means PBL grew reflective thinking skills almost six times as much as traditional instruction!
Looking at these two studies reminded me of something that Mark Serva, of the University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education, communicated at a workshop he recently ran at Delaware Tech. When addressing the question of how to use PBL without sacrificing content, Mark basically said that what problem-based learning loses in breadth of coverage, it makes up for in depth of thinking on the students’ part. So even though you aren’t lecturing every last piece of knowledge at the students, you are teaching them the critical thinking and study skills they need in order to learn the material on their own.
Obviously, I haven’t performed a complete review of the literature here, and, really, these studies only look at one particular method of student-centered learning. That being said, the general consensus in my experience and research is that when implemented properly, student-centered learning is an effective way to deliver content while also engaging your students in deeper levels of thinking and more authentic learning experiences. So, in the midst of transforming old lectures into new learning experiences, if you find yourself screaming “Is this worth all the effort?”, remember that the time you are putting into planning student-centered learning pays off for the student: they learn the content, and—more importantly—they learn how to think in the process.
What are your experiences with student-centered learning? Leave a comment and let us know.
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Nouns, Z., Schauber, S., Witt, C., Kingreen, H., & Schuttpels-Brauns, K. (2012, December). Development of knowledge in basic sciences: A comparison of two medical curricula. Medical Education, 46(12), 1206 – 1214. doi: 10.1111/medu.12047
Weshah, H. A. (2012, September-December). Measuring the effect of problem-based learning instructional program on reflective thinking development. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 39 (3/4), 262 – 271.