What Does it Mean to be Student-Centered?

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There was a discussion at MUIH a few weeks about what it means for faculty to be student-centered. I couldn’t make it due to some technological problems, so I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on the topic.

To me, being student-centered begins with your own beliefs and conceptualizations about students and teaching. As a faculty member, being student-centered means starting from a place of oneness – an understanding that we are one with our students, that their success, growth, and cares are tied to our own and vice versa. This involves letting go of an us versus them mentality, which is incredibly hard to do when you have been taught in a system that embraces it. It means thinking of yourself as a guide or facilitator who is no more or less valuable or important than every person in your course. 

A philosophy of oneness is a pillar of a student-centric class. You can make changes to a course that are student-centered without changing your overall philosophy. Both are positive, ​but I think the true magic happens with the philosophical shift. Changing your assumptions and beliefs is time consuming and hard. It has taken me years and years to get here, and I continue to find beliefs and practices to examine.

Here are some specific questions and practices that I think help move us toward being more student-centered.

Do the students find the course personally and/or professionally meaningful?

Ultimately, a student-centered course should be one that provokes growth and change. If the course meets every other standard but the student doesn’t experience meaningful growth from being in the course, then it isn’t student-centric.

Suggestions:

  • Find out if students find the course meaningful. Ask them.
  • Evaluate your materials/lessons/activities and ask yourself what specific benefits you intend for students to get from doing each, other than receiving a grade or points. If there are none, get rid of it and do something else.
  • If your materials aren’t directly connected to things that matter to students, revamp them. This can be quite simple: tell them how you have found this information helpful or reframe the work so that it is meaningful. I love the case studies from the NCCSTS for this purpose. Consider having students create work that will help them later. Ideas include crafting compelling blog posts, evidence-based protocols, handouts for clients, or a presentation for the public.
  • Acknowledge and facilitate personal growth as an important part of your course. Some courses emphasize this naturally, and for others it won’t be a good fit. However, we know that we learn best when the content affects us viscerally. Think about using storytelling to emphasize the importance of the content to you or someone else, provide space for reflection on how the course affects students personally, or comment on growth and changes that you have observed in students.  One of my goals for my next physiology course revamp is to craft the course as a chance to learn about and be more mindful of your own body. Although this is implicit in the material, I think explicitly designing for this will make a big difference in how students perceive the material.

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Does the student’s presence matter in the course?

Does the course change substantially every trimester, depending on who is present? If not, think carefully about that. A student-centered course will be different every trimester depending on which students are there. How much control do the students have over what they are studying and the types of work they are doing? Have you made room in the course for their interests?

Suggestions

  • Consider opening your syllabus. Can you leave a few class sessions empty and hold a vote on which topics to cover? Some faculty write a very basic syllabus for administrative purposes and then design the real thing collaboratively with the students during the first week of class. In one of my online courses this trimester, we’re using Tricider to determine which topics to cover in several optional live sessions.
  • Is there a time/place in class for students to express opinions, discuss what they have learned in a non-coercive way (i.e. talking about what they want to talk about instead of what you want them to talk about), and generally contribute substantially to the course?
  • Provide choice in which readings/videos to use as learning materials and in which activities to complete. Give several pathways to choose from and let the students decide what works best for them. For example, in one class I have two activities to choose from every week. One might be a case study, while another would be an art-based activity like creating a model of a physiological process using found objects. Both cover similar learning goals but allow students to work in different mediums.
  • Have students lead/teach some classes or portions of the class. I heard about one faculty (whose name I have forgotten!... maybe on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast?) who had students help create the syllabus by picking poems they were interested in covering from a long list in a literature course; students who selected a specific poem would present briefly on why they selected the piece, how it fit into the rest of the course, etc.

Does the instructor’s presence matter in the course?

Are you showing up in your course? This is particularly relevant for online courses. Students are there to learn with/from you. The rule of thumb I mentioned above is important here, too: If your work in the course isn’t changing substantially each trimester based on who is present, think about what that means. Are you bringing yourself to the course? What is important to you about teaching?

Suggestions

  • Answer students’ emails and messages! Like, right away.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a personality. If formal isn’t your thing, then don’t be formal.
  • Have a visible presence in your online courses. Show them that you are there. This involves more than dropping in to assign a number to student work once a week. Here is a little piece I wrote on this a while back. 
  • Acknowledge students as individuals when giving feedback. In smaller courses, it makes a huge difference to comment on changes that you have noticed from one assignment to the other. Remember significant events in their lives and ask about them. Reach out when possible. The “Notes” section in the Canvas gradebook is handy for reminding yourself what is going on with which student.
  • Share your own passions with the students. Create a short video weekly to respond to current events, class topics. Mention students by name, get excited, explain how this material has influenced you, etc.
  • In your teaching, emphasize the parts of the material that matter to you. When you are excited, the students are as well. You can’t cover everything, so you might as well include some things that bring you joy. Similarly, mix it up. If you’ve been teaching the same thing for years, throw in a new topic at least once a semester. It’ll keep you on your toes :).

Image by Pezibear on Pixabay; used under a CC-0 license

Is your course designed in a way that respects students’ time and learning preferences?

Overall Design

Flexibility and clarity are two of the most student-centric qualities. Is your class flexible enough to accommodate different types of students with different needs, schedules, values and proclivities? A student-centered course recognizes that we all have “off” times, where our work is not as strong as it could be. Does your course require students to come groveling at your door when things go wrong? Can you build in some grace? I am working to design all my courses so that few if any students would need to ask for accommodations: they are naturally built in for all students to use as needed.

To build in more flexibility, here are some ideas:

  • Plan for students to drop some assignments or activities. Examples of this include dropping the lowest 2 quiz scores or giving students 3 “skips” or “passes” for weekly assignments. If there are multiple exams, some faculty offer the option to replace low exam scores with the comprehensive final exam score.
  • Carefully consider your late work policy. I’m hoping to do another post on this later because it’s complex. However, having some flexibility in deadlines will make everyone’s lives easier. In one of my courses, I accept case studies up to 1 week after the deadline. Students who submit by the due date have a chance to revise/resubmit after receiving feedback, while those who turn it in late just get one shot. This policy encourages submissions on time, but also provides some grace when life happens and an extra day or two can make all the difference.
  • Periodically build in a catch-up or break week, or at least a lighter week. This will give both you and the students a chance to catch your breath and review key material. I build in one week with no new content for each of my online courses, and I’ve noticed that it makes a big difference in terms of student burnout.

Here are some ideas for increasing clarity:

  • Simplify your class as much as possible. Get rid of assignments or activities that are not serving a specific purpose. It is okay to leave time and space for exploration, processing, and thinking within a course.
  • Use clear, concise language in your assignment descriptions, syllabus and other written materials. I have found that using numbered steps is the best way to ensure that students attend to assignments or activities where there are multiple parts. If I write them in paragraph form, it is more likely that people will miss a step or forget to answer part of a question.
  • Include all information needed to complete an activity or assignment in one place. As a student, it’s incredibly frustrating to have part of the assignment in one place and then to be expected to look at the syllabus or another place to find the rest of the information you need. As the faculty member, do the legwork and put the information they will need in a place where they can find it. I think of this as “just in time” design. If you are doing an assignment that requires APA formatting, put a link to the OWL website or your course APA guidelines in the assignment. If you are assigning a paper to read, link to the paper in the LMS rather than making them open the syllabus to find the reading. If you have a project where many students misunderstand the directions or skip a step, rewrite the instructions or provide a hint in the description.
  • If you are asking students to do something, make sure that they know why. One of my biggest pet peeves as a student is being asked to “respond to two peers” on a discussion forum when there is no obvious benefit to doing so. It may be obvious to you why an assignment is helpful; your students may not have a similar understanding of the intention behind the assignment.

Ideas for respecting time and money:

  • Ask students how long assignments are taking them. Think about whether this is how you want them to spend their time in the course. If not, redesign. I recently cut way back on the amount of reading I was assigning, because I wanted students to spend their time engaging with the material more directly. Many students still spend time reading as they complete assignments, but they are choosing what to read based on what they need to know to complete an activity of their choice.
  • Give time estimates so that students will know what to expect.  I put an “anticipated time to complete the activity” on each assignment so that students will have a ballpark sense of how much time to allot, and so that they will know if they are way under or over expectations.
  • Remember that reading/learning/thinking take more time than you’d think. Be sure to account for the time needed for these activities. This ​course workload estimator from Rice University (my alma mater!) provides a helpful starting point.
  • Triple check that you’ve designed the course so that students are spending their time of the things they/you think are important for learning the material.
  • Find out how much it costs to take your course at your institution. Don’t forget about fees!
  • Add up how much your required materials cost, ​including list price from the publisher, at Amazon and used in the bookstore. Are there earlier editions that would be acceptable to use? Are there no- or low-cost alternatives? I can guarantee you that some students have had to choose between buying the book(s) for your course and paying bills on time/getting enough to eat, particularly at the beginning of the trimester when financial aid checks may not have come in yet.
  • Consider using or creating open educational resources (OER) instead. I use a version of the OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology textbook in my Physiology I course, and it’s been wonderful to have the flexibility to change the text to suit my course. It costs $35 rather than $200+ and students seem to enjoy it as well.

​Well, then. 

​I thought I had a few quick words to say on this subject, lol. If nothing else, I've clarified some of my own thoughts on this matter :). I'll just end by saying that the very best way to have a student-centered class is to be a student.​ Take a course, for credit, at your institution. ​​Doing so dramatically changed my own teaching practices; I imagine it would do the same for you.

Camille

Hi there. I'm Camille. I'm an associate professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology and pathophysiology. I'm also a licensed nutritionist, specializing in fertility and reproductive health. (I'm not taking any new clients!) Lastly but not leastly, I'm a mom, a gardener and a really horrible housekeeper.

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