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Teacher-centered vs. Student-centered course design

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Student-centered mindsets view the learner as primary and unique agents of learning, engagement, and connection, as opposed to teacher-centered mindsets which tend to view learners as passive and uniform vessels. 

You can get started with student-centered course design by answering a series of questions about your course.

  1. Figure out your main learning goal with the question: “What will students be able to do at the end of the course?” For example, perhaps by the end of a course on Ethical Food Systems, students will be able to:
    • Analyze contemporary debates using a conceptual framework
    • Apply a model to messy, real-world data
    • Present a critical analysis of different ethical options
  2. Focus in on specific, actionable learning objectives with the question, “What will students be able to do at the end of the lesson?” Perhaps by the end of a class session on the topic, students will be able to:
    • Explain the contrasting models of agroecology and agribusiness
    • Understand the methodology used to create a food desert dataset
    • Use library databases to research debates around ethical food systems
  3. Shape assessments by asking, “How will we know if students are progressing?” Students could:
    • Summarize a newspaper article based on what views are shaped by an agroecology vs. an agribusiness model
    • Research and create a simple food desert map of their home towns
    • Write a research paper using six scholarly sources
  4. Brainstorm activities with the question, “What do students need to practice in order to progress?” In class, you might have students:
    • Do a mock debate, taking on positions based on an agroecology vs. an agribusiness model
    • Practice adding datapoints to a simple online map
    • Peer review an annotated bibliography of their sources
  5. Finally, think about your content and determine what is most important for you to be teaching with the question, “What do students need from the instructor in order to progress?” This might lead you to make cuts and additions to your content.
    • Keep: Article on agricultural models, library research visit, article on food deserts that models scholarly sources
    • Cut: Unit on genetic engineering
    • Add: Review and discussion of the Food Access Research Atlas Documentation page

More on why this works

Traditional course design methods focus on the teacher as the primary agent of learning. Planning a course in this mindset typically starts with questions such as "What do I know about this topic?", "How do I present the content?", and "How will I test students' learning?". It is only at the end of the process that the goal of the instruction is defined.

This process risks resulting in a learning experience that is ill-defined, where students don't know what they are supposed to be learning. Ultimately the course may fail to impart the real skills that students want or are expected to gain. While this kind of approach does have its merit, it runs the risk of treating learners as passive and uniform which can be demotivating.

Diagram of five phases of teacher-centered course design

Teacher-entered course design. 1.) Content - What do I know that is important in this field? 2.) Learning Activity - How can I organize all of this content? 3.) Assessment - How can I test what I taught? 4.) Learning Objective - What did I teach them in this unit? 5.) Learning Goal - What did I teach them in this class?

Student learning goals should come first

We advocate for a more student-centered process, where the learning goals come first and design questions are framed from the student's perspective. This method tends to result in learning experiences that are more cohesive, transparent, and intentional. Often called "Backward Design" this method inverts the sequence of the traditional model.

The process begins defining the course goals by asking the question "What will students be able to do at the end of the course?" The answer to that question, the learning goal, is separated into smaller student learning objectives (SLO). As a whole, the objectives should sum up to the broader course goals and be specific, demonstrable, and measurable. This is a critical step, as clear SLOs will help to inform every aspect of the design.

Next, determine the most appropriate assessment by asking "How will students know if they are meeting the learning objective?" The next two steps are informed by the assessments. Design and select learning activities that answer the question, "What do the students need to practice in order to improve?" Finally, answering the question, "What do students need from the instructor to be able to practice effectively?", will help you determine what content is critical and what may be extraneous.

Diagram of student-centered course design

Student-centered course design. 1.) Learning Goal - What will students be able to do by the end of the course? 2.) Learning Objective - What will students be able to do by the end of the lesson? 3.) Assessment - How will we know if students are progressing? 4.) Learning Activity - What do students need to practice to progress? 5.) Content - What do students need from the instructor to progress?

Any course design process is iterative. Expect to adjust your goals and objectives throughout the design process. You'll likely find that they need more definition, or perhaps new objectives will emerge. Course design is also an interdependent and holistic process. Every major course element is interconnected with the others. A significant adjustment to one unit, tool, or objective, may lead to other adjustments in the other parts of the course.

Don't hesitate to reach out to instructional design experts in the Center for Teaching and Learning for individualized support.