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From teaching to learning

Westminster Matters

From Teaching to Learning

Moving from the “Sage on the Stage” to
the “Guide on the Side”

Normally, we use editions of Westminster Matters to share important ideas or provocative approaches to a subject from guest lecturers who visit campus. And we certainly have a lot of such lecturers: leading intellectuals, authors, and nationally and internationally recognized figures come to our campus on a regular basis to speak to our students. But I thought that for this edition, I would depart from the norm and write about why I believe the work we are doing at Westminster is important and provocative. In the following essay, I try to explain what Westminster is doing to create a powerful educational experience for students. I hope it will give you a sense of some of the critical issues facing American higher education and provide you with a framework for thinking about what you might expect from our colleges and universities in the twenty-first century. I welcome your comments.

There is a transformation taking place in American higher education. It’s a transformation that is subtle, still in its early stages, and largely unnoticed by most people, including many in the academy. But it has the potential to change the educational practices of thousands of colleges and universities and alter, in fundamental ways, the skill sets of millions of college graduates.

Westminster is part of the leading wave of institutions that are deliberately moving from one way of organizing the educational process to another. This essay is an effort to explain this alternative paradigm and to share Westminster’s progress in making the change from one to the other.

The Teaching Paradigm
The paradigm that frames the educational process in most colleges and universities has been in use since the Middle Ages. While the Greeks and Romans sought knowledge from individual teachers, no one received a degree from Socrates or a diploma from Aristotle. Those symbols of knowledge were developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the “machinery of instruction represented by faculties and colleges and courses of study, examinations and commencements and academic degrees” were developed at universities in Paris and Bologna. In these institutions, Scholasticism ruled as both a method of instruction and a religious philosophy designed to prevent heresy. As an instructional method, it generally involved a teacher reading a text, expounding on certain words and ideas, without students being allowed to even ask questions: instructors explained, and students listened in silence. When students were allowed to ask questions, in a formalized process called disputatio, they simply served as a springboard for the teacher to advance a response and cite authoritative texts to provide additional proof for his position. (See The Rise of Universities, Charles Homer Haskins; Henry Holt and Co, New York; 1923.)

With some modifications, we have used that educational model ever since. The basic building block in the paradigm is “the class,” where a teacher lectures about a given subject to a group of students (sometimes a huge group) who take notes in preparation for some scheduled examination. Teachers are thought of as “subject matter experts.” They are responsible for selecting the material to be presented to students; presenting that material, usually in the form of a lecture; specifying what students should read; assigning papers and developing exams to test students on the material; and, finally, giving each student a grade. Students are responsible for attending class, paying attention to the material the teacher presents and assigns, retaining as much of it as possible, and then writing papers and answering questions on examinations. If a student doesn’t perform well on the paper or the exam, the presumption is that they lacked sufficient talent or motivation to succeed.

In many ways, this model assumes an almost mechanistic transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. By selecting the material, presenting it, and assessing students’ retention of that material, the teacher maintains total control of the classroom. Correspondingly, students expect the teacher to give them information and to tell them how to think about it—in other words, to teach them. Exactly what students are expected to learn in the class is rarely specified.

Learning can take place in such a system. After all, many of us went through it and survived quite well. Our teachers gave us a lot of information, and we absorbed much of it. But for most students, me included, when our schooling was finished and our diplomas hung on the wall, we encountered a hard reality. The more time passed, the more difficult it became to remember what we learned or even what courses we took. Some things stuck, but the vast majority was lost.

The Learning Paradigm
There is another way to approach what happens in school that not only avoids this pitfall, but also generates some distinct advantages. It is based on a paradigm that minimizes the emphasis on teaching and shifts attention to what and how a student learns. Here, the teacher is not the expert provider of knowledge, but rather a guide who helps students discover knowledge and build skills. The teacher becomes a supporter, a collaborator, and a coach for students as they learn to evaluate and gather information, test ideas, and explore their application to different issues and problems. They begin to learn how to develop and pose their own questions and to explore alternative ways of finding and framing answers. So instead of working only to master the subject matter of a course, students are developing the skills to learn on their own. They no longer wait to be taught—they come to realize that, if they are to succeed, they must take a good deal of responsibility for their own learning.

The learning paradigm, like so many things that appear to be new and innovative, has been with us for a very long time. While today it can be quite elaborate in its execution, the basic notion, captured in an ancient Chinese proverb we have all heard before, is actually quite simple: tell me, and I will forget; show me, and I may remember; involve me, and I will understand.

This proverb is supported by a good deal of contemporary research. There is ample evidence: when students are actively engaged in learning—when they are encouraged to wrestle with ideas and develop and test their own theories—they learn more, retain information longer, understand concepts more completely, and can more readily apply what they have learned. The net result is learning that is deeper, richer, and more useful. (See How College Affects Students, Vol. 2: A Third Decade of Research (2005)

Three Essential Practices
Using the learning paradigm requires three essential practices. First, establishing clear goals is critical. The teacher must begin each course by specifying, in some detail, exactly what students are expected to learn. The learning goals they identify will vary from one course and program to another. In some, they will include only lower-level skills requiring simple recall or identification. In others, more complex skills requiring analytical, integrative, or critical thinking will be what students are expected to develop. In most cases, however, learning goals appropriate to a given course or program include a combination of knowledge, skills, and orientations seen as important in a particular discipline or area of study. And in almost every case, the learning goals require more of students than is the case in the old teaching paradigm. Faculty can set higher expectations for student learning for they know that when students are more engaged, they welcome the challenges that accompany high standards.

Second, with goals clearly articulated, faculty then design, or in some cases simply identify, learning activities or experiences to help students learn those things relevant to the learning goal. When this model is used to its fullest, faculty will put together a variety of learning experiences tailored to the different learning styles and levels of preparation of their students. These can include projects, presentations, simulations, debates, field work, and service-learning, as well as more traditional activities such as participating in discussions, writing papers, and completing reading assignments. Faculty then coach students on how to get the most out of each activity. Lecturing is not prohibited—it simply is one of a wide variety of activities that teachers can use to help students to learn.

The third essential ingredient is assessing student learning. Certainly, faculty still evaluate each student’s level of learning, whether for assigning grades or for designating students as proficient. But assessment is important as well if faculty are to learn how to improve the effectiveness of their courses. If a number of students are struggling to meet a particular learning goal, the teacher may need to rethink how best to help students meet that goal, rather than assuming that the deficiency lies with the students.

Assessing lower level skills and knowledge acquisition is fairly straightforward. The challenge presents itself when it comes to evaluating higher-order learning in ways that are both valid and reliable. And the challenge is considerable. It takes great proficiency in methods of assessing learning to evaluate students on their ability to do such things as think analytically or critically. Yet there is general agreement that development of such higher-order skills is precisely the kind of learning goal we should set for students.

What is described in this essay is a version of the learning paradigm that conforms to the universal standard that courses begin and end on prescribed dates. There is, however, a more far-reaching version of the learning paradigm where there is no set period of time by which students are expected to achieve the learning goals prescribed for a given course of study. Students who differ with respect to talent, motivation, prior levels of knowledge and skills, and amount of time they can devote to learning can be expected to achieve the learning goals more or less quickly. In contrast to the standard system where time is held constant and learning varies; here, time varies and learning is held constant. Westminster will be offering a program that includes this feature beginning in fall, 2008, but I’ll describe that at a later date.

An Illustration
The principles of chemistry course at Westminster serves as a good illustration of the course-based learning paradigm in action. The professor who teaches this course acknowledges in her syllabus that her focus “requires a dramatic change in roles for the instructor and the students.” She goes on to explain that she believes her role is to “guide students in the process of learning” and that she serves as “a supporter, collaborator, and coach for students as they learn to gather and evaluate information.” That leads to a radically different educational experience for students. In the old teacher-centered paradigm, she might, for example, deliver a brilliant lecture explaining the essential properties of compounds and their ability to take the form of a liquid, a solid, or a gas. She might send students to a chemistry lab where they are asked to carry out a prescribed set of steps leading to a predetermined result. But using the learning-centered model, she covers the same material in a totally different way. For example, she runs a computer simulation illustrating what a chemical like chlorine looks like as a gas, a solid, and a liquid and then asks the students to examine the models and determine, for themselves, what characteristics define each of the three states and how they differ from one another. The students are suddenly thrown into a process of looking at data, critically analyzing the properties of a chemical in separate states, and drawing comparisons between those properties. They are creating and testing theories. They are developing knowledge rather than just absorbing it.

Change is Never Easy
Some students resist the change from one model to the other, at least initially. They fill out teacher evaluation forms and complain that “the professor expected me to figure it out for myself rather than just giving me the correct answer.” But most undergo a transformation during the course of a semester. For most, learning becomes an adventure. One student noted that “I was resistant to a course that made me discover things; I wanted someone to do the thinking for me. But in the end I learned a lot about chemistry and about my own strengths and weaknesses. I also found that learning chemistry could be great fun”.

Obviously this learning-centered approach takes more work than the traditional teacher-centered paradigm where some professors have been known to use the same lecture notes for years. And I have to confess that some members of the faculty resist the change to a learning paradigm as vehemently as some students do. They point out, quite rightly, that learning can take place in the old teacher-centered model. After all, they argue, good teachers have always given students a lot of information and, at the same time, have inspired them to work hard to absorb it and learn from it.

A Learning-Centered Campus
But in today’s world, that is no longer enough. The learning paradigm is a more appropriate response to the demands that the world makes on educated citizens and on higher education. Westminster feels so strongly about this that we have reached beyond the learning-centered classroom and are hard at work building a learning-centered campus. Almost every activity at Westminster is designed to promote engaged learning. We deliberately and intentionally encourage learning beyond, as well as within, the curriculum, which is active, experiential, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary. So we put our first-year students into learning communities where they work together to apply concepts from at least two different disciplines to a particular topic of interest. We encourage students to engage in undergraduate research where, sometimes in groups and sometimes by themselves, they engage in original research under the guidance of a faculty member. We have created institutes and centers that encourage students from different disciplines to work together to develop initiatives that address real-world problems or opportunities related to issues like diversity, the environment, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship. And because we acknowledge that some of the most powerful learning can take place beyond the campus, we encourage community-based learning as well as internships, travel, and study abroad.

Let me explain why Westminster chose to move in this direction. We did so for two principal reasons.

The Need for Accountability
First, many people argue that higher education needs to be more accountable for what and for how much its graduates have learned. We agree. The world that today’s graduates will occupy is far more complex and volatile than the one that most of us encountered when we received our college degrees. And the challenges they will face seem to grow more daunting with each passing year. Is American higher education preparing today’s graduates to deal with these challenges? Are we preparing them to take advantage of the opportunities that do present themselves? Many say the answer is no.

For quite some time, employers have said that the grades a student earns tell them little or nothing about whether that student has the skills necessary to be successful in the workplace. They point out that regardless of their grades or field of study, too many college graduates cannot write well, speak cogently, or think critically and creatively. Also, state legislators continue to ask if the dollars they are investing in their state’s higher education system are producing the kinds of returns they expect. In addition, as the cost of higher education continues to rise, parents want to know whether one college or another will do a better job of educating their children and preparing them for successful careers. Some even go so far as to question whether the time and cost of earning a college degree is a good investment in their children’s future. And now, as never before, accreditation bodies are being pushed hard by the federal government to ensure that colleges and universities are producing graduates who are well prepared to contribute to the new economy. In short, American higher education is being held to a new standard of accountability. Colleges and universities are being asked to assess the degree to which students are learning what the institution claims they are learning and to make this information available to anyone who asks.

Westminster has accepted the accountability challenge in ways that simply would not have been possible had we not adopted the learning paradigm and its three basic practices. First, faculty in each academic program on our campus are asked to identify the learning goals that are specific to their program—in other words, to specify exactly what the students enrolled in that program are expected to learn.

Second, they are asked to identify exactly where each of these goals are addressed in the different courses they offer. And finally, they are asked to assess the degree to which their students are achieving the learning goals they set. If a number of students are failing to achieve one or more of these program-specific goals, the program faculty are expected to figure out why, and if appropriate, to adjust the curriculum accordingly.

Skills for Success in a Rapidly Changing World
But Westminster has taken an additional step in its effort to be accountable for the quality of its graduates. We have set out to ensure that the learning goals we have identified for our students focus on those skills that are most critical to their ability to be successful, regardless of the life’s work they decide to undertake, the careers they choose, or the avocations that capture their interest.

What are those skills? More than a decade ago, the Business-Higher Education Forum, (an organization of Fortune 500 CEOs, prominent college and university presidents, and foundation leaders working to advance innovative solutions to our nation’s education challenges) identified a set of cross-functional skills and attributes graduates need if they are to be important contributors in almost any occupation. Additionally, Westminster conducted its own research: we asked business, civic, and professional leaders in our community which attributes they thought a college graduate ought to possess.

Using that information and our own judgment as educators, we adopted, in 2004, a list of college-wide learning goals—skills and attributes that Westminster believes are critical to one’s ability to be successful in our rapidly changing world. These goals are as
follows:

• Critical, analytical, and integrative thinking
• Creative and reflective capacities
• Leadership, collaboration, and teamwork
• Writing and other communication skills
• Global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness

More recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the leading organization in the US devoted to strengthening liberal education, identified “a set of educational outcomes that all students need from higher learning, outcomes that are closely calibrated with the challenges of a complex and volatile world.” (College Learning for the New Global Century, 2007) Grounded in what they describe as an emerging consensus among educators and employers, as well as in well-accepted tenants of liberal education, these outcomes show a remarkable degree of congruence with Westminster’s college-wide learning goals listed above.

Helping students develop these kinds of “higher-order” skills is not easy, but it can be done if the task is approached seriously and systematically. We have developed a “mapping” system, which identifies how our college-wide learning goals are addressed in each class; indeed, we can identify the relationship between specific assignments and specific learning goals. Now we are developing methods of assessing the degree to which students have met these learning goals. Our goal is to focus these assessments not only at the program and institutional level, but also at the individual level: we want to track and document the learning of each Westminster student. As we gain more experience with and more confidence in our measurement methods, we intend to make achievement of the college-wide learning goals a requirement for graduation.

Developing Life-Long Learners
There is a second reason why Westminster set out to make the transformation from the teaching to the learning paradigm. In a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is abundantly clear that, no matter which school they attend and no matter how talented or motivated they might be, what a student knows and can do upon graduation will not take them very far.

New developments in science and technology, as well as in global economics and politics, have become so rapid and pervasive that it is estimated that most young people will change their careers—not just their jobs, but their careers—five times during their working life and that many of the jobs they will hold have not yet been invented. As a consequence, it is imperative that students learn not just during college, but that they develop the skills and motivation to be proficient learners throughout their lives.

For some time, members of many professions have accepted the fact that they need to be lifelong learners. Physicians, for example, are expected to stay abreast of new diagnostic tools and treatment protocols. Indeed, to maintain their license to practice medicine, they are required, periodically, to document that they have kept up with new developments in their field. Similarly, when a software company releases a new version of a widely used program, as they do with great regularity, information technology specialists pore over manuals and experiment with new protocols, all in an effort to remain current with the rapid pace of change in their industry.

The need to continue to learn beyond school is important in other areas. How does a worker who gets promoted to a management position learn how to be an effective manager? How does an engineer who is asked to head up a project in another country learn enough about the culture of that country to run the project successfully? In such cases, a person certainly might seek advice from a book or even find a helpful course to take. But in almost every case, that will not be enough. They are going to be left to their own devices to seek out relevant information, to make sense of it despite its ambiguities and contradictions, and to explore how to use the information they acquire in ways that are most effective.

Students who go through school in a learning-centered environment have a huge head start over those who spent most of the time sitting in lecture halls, taking notes, and then trying to remember it all on a test. When students are actively engaged in the learning process, they are developing the skills to learn on their own by practicing them on a regular basis. For these students, learning how to learn has been an integral part of their educational experience. For example, our Environmental Center is spearheading the college’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality on our campus. They have enlisted environmental studies majors and other students with an interest in the issue to work with faculty and staff to develop practical strategies that the college can use to reach this goal. Here, they are learning not only about ways to reduce an institution’s carbon footprint but, at the same time, how to introduce ideas that may be controversial, how to develop effective community education programs, and how to overcome both apathy and resistance. Similarly, through our Center for Civic Engagement, a group of students have created a program to help parents in low-income communities learn how to work with school administrators to address their concerns. In the process of undertaking this effort, they are learning valuable lessons about how to recognize and encourage grass-roots leadership, mobilize resources, and communicate across social and cultural divides.

Through activities such as these, students come to see that, in most cases, achieving success in some real-world venture requires them to know more than they could learn from a textbook or a lecture. They see that they need to learn continually—about issues, about how to manage people, about which tactics fail and which succeed, and about how to abandon the failed approaches and invest in the ones that show the most promise. As students get practice learning on their own, under the mentorship of faculty, they develop learning skills they can rely on forever.

We recognize that there is more work we need to do before we can say that we have made the complete transition from teaching to learning. We need better ways to assess student achievement of our program-specific as well as our college-wide learning goals. We need more members of the faculty—and more students—to embrace this new paradigm. We need to explore ways in which “the guide on the side” can enrich educational quality while reducing costs, thus promoting greater access to higher education.

The list of what we need to do is long. But the list of things we have already accomplished is impressive. Certainly, we have succeeded in developing a more deliberate and intentional focus, across all of our academic and co-curricular programs, on what and how students should learn. Following this path will undoubtedly be a long and arduous journey, one with hazards along the way. But I believe it’s a trip worth taking.



Michael S. Bassis is beginning his seventh year as president of Westminster. He is an authority on educational change and an active participant in the national conversation on the future of higher education. Shortly after his appointment at Westminster, he led the college community in the creation of an ambitious 10-year strategic plan: to bring Westminster into national prominence as an institution distinguished by its distinctive educational programs, its record of preparing graduates for success in a rapidly changing world, and its commitment to continuous improvement, effectiveness, and value. Now, after almost five years, most of the goals of the plan have been met.