Maryellen Weimer. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002. 288 pp. Cloth: $33.00. ISBN: 0-7879-5646-5.
Interest in the paradigm shift from teaching to learning has been on the rise in higher education for over a decade since the Wingspread Group on Higher Education (1993) proposed placing learning at the heart of the educational enterprise. This effort was catalyzed and popularized by the appearance of Robert B. Barr and John Tagg's 1995 article in Change titled, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education." Since then, instructors with a commitment to student learning have been searching for resources to help them operationalize this shift by providing policies and practices they can use in their own classrooms. Learner-Centered Teaching (2002) by Maryellen Weimer is a great place to begin this quest.
Weimer is known to many instructors in higher education through her long-standing contributions to college teaching. Since 1987, she has edited The Teaching Professor, a newsletter on college teaching. She also coauthored Teaching on Solid Ground: Using Scholarship to Improve Practice (1996), with Robert J. Menges and Associates. Learner-Centered Teaching builds on this tradition by clarifying what we know about learning to improve both college teaching and student learning. Weimer explains her book's purpose as "to cultivate our understanding of learning . . . connecting that knowledge to instructional practice. . . . It seeks to answer the question: What should teachers do to maximize learning outcomes for their students?" (p. xii)
Weimer intends her book for novices to learner-centered teaching. But although it is useful to new and aspiring college teachers, it has even greater potential to engage experienced instructors who are open to rethinking their teaching in light of what we now know about learners and learning and the changing climate in higher education that is focusing increasingly on student-learning outcomes. Indeed, the book may be more accessible to experienced teachers because they will recognize and identify with the author's stories and, more probably, allow themselves to be drawn into the process of transformation she experienced. New instructors will recognize her examples from their experiences as students, but the poignancy of her tales of instructional frustration and failure will have far more resonance for experienced faculty.
In the Preface and chapter 1, Weimar explains the book's origin and rationale and introduces the literature on learning on which it is based. She draws heavily upon constructivism, critical and radical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and cognitive and educational psychology for theoretical foundations and empirical research. She also uses her own experience as a seasoned college teacher of communications and the experiences of faculty engaged in learner-centered teaching across the disciplines. In addition to relying on empirical knowledge, Weimer notes, "We also need books on teaching and learning that treat the wisdom of practice with more intellectual robustness" (p. xiv). The book enables her to chronicle and scrutinize her own journey to learner-centered teaching in which the goal is to teach "in ways that promote more and better learning" (p. xxii).
Part 1 explores five interrelated changes in instruction when teaching is learner centered: the balance of power, the function of content, the teacher's role, responsibility for learning, and the purposes and processes of evaluation. Part 2 focuses on implementation, including options for responding to resistance; a developmental approach to the needs of students, the instructor, and faculty colleagues; and ways to make learner-centered teaching work despite the challenges. The book concludes with appendices, including a syllabus and learning log, handouts to support student learning, and an annotated bibliography.
The book's greatest contribution to the literature on the paradigm shift from teaching to learning lies in the chapters that explore the five instructional changes that Weimar advocates. These changes raise profound issues about the goals of instruction and the means used to achieve those goals. Taken together, these five changes support an integrated approach to theory and practice. The insights, rooted in theory and empirical research, are enhanced by the author's wisdom of practice and by her courage and candor in sharing the unanswered questions and challenges [End Page 271] of learner-centered instruction. Weimar is justified in underscoring that this book is not just another how-to book of instructional techniques, although it includes many useful examples; rather, this book is about a new approach to teaching and learning, one that centers on learning and the implications of that focus for teaching.
Each of the five "change" chapters has a similar structure. Each makes the case against current practice, defines and describes the nature of the change and its benefits, provides illustrations to operationalize policies and practices, and concludes with questions that have emerged from Weimer's own experiences with learner-centered teaching. Chapter 2, which explores the balance of power in the classroom, provides an illustrative example. The discussion clarifies the extent to which faculty control learning processes and how that control in teacher-centered classrooms undermines student motivation and perpetuates dependence. While affirming the legitimacy of faculty power based on expertise, the author suggests what would change in learner-centered classrooms, including policies and practices that share power with students in developmental and incremental ways over time, promoting student independence and growth.
In Weimer's narrative, we hear her voice telling the story of her own personal journey to pursue learner-centered teaching, rich with the insights of a brilliant and seasoned teacher, whose wisdom of practice and authority of experience deserve our attention. But her stories are also grounded in evidence-based practice and cutting-edge research, which she clarifies in accessible language and examples that many instructors will recognize. She does not simply cite sources. She also discusses individual studies, clarifying their implications or suggesting other resources found in the annotated bibliography. When she deviates from research-grounded perspectives, she identifies them as conjecture, be they "proposed principles" (p. 99) or questions that need to be answered. The questions themselves offer a gold mine of research inquiries for scholars of teaching and learning.
Raising challenges and identifying key questions took courage on Weimer's
part. They reflect the difficulties in using learner-centered teaching at
this point in its evolution. Disturbing as they may be, she doesn't sugar
coat or simplify what it means to engage in learner-centered teaching. She
addresses each difficulty as if warning us of a series of potholes we
may encounter. By acknowledging the challenges, she goes a long way to
normalizing them and rendering them comprehensible so that instructors
can anticipate, interpret, and respond to them effectively. The overall
effect of these caveats might dissuade some instructors from pursuing
learner-centered teaching, but many more will persist because of Weimer's
reasoned and cautious emphasis on small, incremental changes over time
and because she has made a compelling case for learner-centered teaching.
Director of Faculty and Organizational Development and Senior Advisor to the Provost, Michigan State University, East Lansing; Contributing Editor, Change Magazine
Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995, November/December). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6), 13-25.
Menges, R. J., Weimer, M., & Associates. (1996). Teaching on solid ground: Using scholarship to improve practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
The Teaching Professor (newsletter). (1987-2003). Maryellen Weimer (Ed.). Madison, WI: Magna Publications.
Wingspread Group on Higher Education. (1993). An American imperative: Higher expectations for higher education. Racine, WI: Johnson Foundation.