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Untitled 3This week, in our course on online teaching job applications (OnRamp), I am reviewing and providing feedback on Statements of Teaching Philosophy. One of the things I implore to those who are writing these statement is to emphasize a student-centered learning environment. We talk and share a great deal about how to create a student-centered classroom in OT101 as well. Indeed, any conversation about online education will likely have the phrase “student centered” in it. But, what does a student-centered online classroom look like?

Leibtab (2017) lists 8 Things to Look for in a Student-Centered Learning Environment. I’d like to share this list with you and riff on it a bit – highlighting specifically what this looks like in the higher ed distance classroom.

1. The students are engaged, happy, relaxed, and unstressed. Mindful online instructors seek to assuage, and not stoke, evaluation anxiety by creating an atmosphere where it is safe to make mistakes and learn from them.

2. You can pull any student aside and they will be able to tell you what they are learning and why. And the answer will not be “because it will be on the test.”

3. The class is rooted in collaboration. In the online higher ed environment, this may not always be traditional “group work” as we’ve come to know it – although it could be. This could simply refer to weekly discussion forums where students come together to solidify their learning, share examples, and offer insights from their experience.

4. Students can personalize their learning. I find that both choice and opportunities to reflect suit this bill in the online classroom. For example, if psychology students are going to apply a personality theory as part of an assignment, they should be able to choose who in their lives or in pop culture they are applying it to. Reflective questions and assignments provide students opportunity to personally resonate with what they are learning and discuss how it is transforming their thinking.

5. Opportunity to explore personal interests. Leibtag says, “Exploring student interests (and interests that they may not even realize they have) is core to a great student-centered environment” (para 10). A student-centered instructor will establish a set of learning objectives, but then allow students some leeway in how they meet those.

6. Students are talking more than the instructor. I had a clinical supervisor in graduate school tell me that if I (the therapist) am talking more than a client/patient in a session, then I’m doing it wrong. I think the same advice applies in the classroom environment. Certainly, the instructor has much to offer and has a responsibility to teach. But the classroom should not be the instructor’s “stage.” The classroom belongs to the students and they should be provided opportunities to learn by contributing (vs. simply listening).

7. Students are evaluated in multiple ways. An exam-only approach to evaluation does not allow all learners to shine and it doesn’t provide opportunity for detailed feedback. A rich combination of discussions, exams/quizzes, essays, reflective journals, presentations, etc. allows students to show you what they have learned in a wide variety of ways – ways that offer opportunities for conversation in addition to grades.

8. The diversity within an online classroom is embraced and used to the advantage of the classroom. I am reminded of the 1845 Irish Potato Famine metaphor here. The famine occurred because farmers did not diversify the species of potatoes they grew. The particular species that most farmers planted was especially susceptible to the fungal blight that hit, wiping out the majority of the country’s food source. Had a more diverse crop been planted, the blight may have wiped out some, but certainly not all, of the food. This presents a cautionary tale against the one perspective or mono-cultural approach to a learning environment as well. Diversity strengthens and builds resilience to myopic-thinking.

How do you create a student-centered classroom? Please feel free to share in a comment below!

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