Observing the Learner-Centered Class

Article excerpt

Colleges and universities across the country are struggling with the issue of accountability, especially with regard to student learning. One attempt to revitalize undergraduate education and to respond to the calls for change is defined by a shift in the dominant pedagogy to a learner-centered focus. If academic administrators are to promote and facilitate learner-centered education, they must understand the current research on how students learn and the resulting changes that that knowledge brings to the classroom. One of the many issues related to this paradigm shift for academic administrators is the question of faculty evaluation. How will the evaluation of teaching faculty evolve in this new paradigm? Of the many facets of faculty evaluation that are part of the administrator's responsibility, classroom observation provides numerous challenges in the new paradigm. In this article, the authors consider how academic administrators might approach classroom observation in the new paradigm.

Keywords: Learner-Centered; Faculty Evaluation; Classroom Observation

The Shift to Learner-Centered

Colleges and universities across the country are struggling with the issue of accountability, especially as it regards student learning. In The Future of Higher Education (Newman, Couturier, and Scurry, 2004), a report on the Futures Project conducted by Brown University, the authors reported on a four-year examination of the major forces impacting the future of higher education. The Futures Project investigated the impact of competition and market values on higher education, targeting three specific areas: autonomy and accountability; responsibility for student learning; and access and attainment. The authors called for institutional responsibility with regard to student learning. They claimed that, at most institutions, "there is an unspoken, comfortable conspiracy between faculty and students not to bother each other too much; mediocrity reigns." (p. 136)

A similar claim was made in the collection of essays and accompanying documentary that comprised the PBS production, Declining By Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (Hersh and Merrow, 2005), which exposed a lack of accountability for student learning and an unhealthy focus on research and athletics as well as other prestige factors that had little to do with educating students. Even more candid was Lewis' (2006) indictment of undergraduate education, in which he claimed that universities have forgotten their purpose; namely, creating educated adults who will take responsibility for their society. In the same vein, Bok's (2005) critique of higher education's shortcomings focused both on the failure of universities to prepare citizens and the need to improve teacher quality because not enough attention is paid to pedagogy. These numerous critiques of the state of higher education have clarified the issues at hand; what is now needed are concrete mechanisms for effecting change.

One attempt to revitalize undergraduate education and to respond to the calls for change is by shifting the dominant pedagogy to a learner-centered focus and supporting an emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Efforts to refocus undergraduate education to be more learner-centered have been driven by a new understanding about how humans learn; this understanding is drawn from neuroscience, biology, and cognitive psychology. We know more than ever before about how people learn, what inhibits learning, and different kinds of learning.

One of the oddities of the tradition of higher education is that professors are rarely provided any instruction or professional development in the role that represents a major element of their responsibility: teaching. Likewise, tenure, promotion, and merit have historically been tied to activities other than teaching as some hold the belief that teaching is not valued as much as research and that good teaching can't be measured or, conversely, that everyone's teaching is equally acceptable. …