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Student-centered learning looks at where students are when they enter the classroom and attempts to customize teaching to allow students some freedom in choosing how to learn. This kind of teaching allows instructors to free themselves from the traditional lecture and allows them to change the learning space to one that best fits the needs of the student. Students are led to what they need to know instead of listening to someone tell them and they can become actively engaged in their learning.
What has been for some, a liberating style of teaching and learning, frees instructors by allowing them to lead the adventure instead of dispensing it. It is not unusual for instructors to struggle with the transition in the beginning and many feel as if they are giving up some control, which is not inaccurate. However, giving up some control allows students to become actively engaged. Learning can reach new heights without limit. More focus is often put on the quality of students questions instead of the quality of their answers. Higher order thinking skills are engaged since students are able to keep moving towards a goal, work together, ask questions and build on what they know. According to John Dewey in his book entitled How We Think, he notes deep thinking takes time and cannot be expected to happen when prompt answers are required (Dewey,1910). Student-centered learning allows students to make those higher order connections by giving students time to explore and be actively involved in their learning.
This change in the dynamic of the classroom can often intimidate those new to the process, but I liken it to a typical lab experience often seen as a normal part of many lecture courses. That shift instructors feel when they go from lecture-based courses to a lab class is the shift they are referring to in student-centered instruction, switching from dispenser to facilitator and learners going from passive to active learning. Most of the instructor’s work happens before the lab begins with perhaps a pre-lab, setting up the equipment, making sure students stay on task by outlining lab report requirements and having students turn in documentation showing what they have done. This is student-centered learning. The instructor set up the experience and then sits back and let them experience it. There is no lecturing during a lab, yet students learn. Learning through active engagement helps students better relate what they are doing to what they already know resulting in higher levels of retention and comprehension (Angelo & Cross, 1993).
Although not a new concept, some may struggle with the shift to the student-centered approach. Taking this familiar concept and applying it to the lecture part of a course is something many might find foreign. Many others have found it worth their time in making the transformation in everything they teach because many students are more engaged and respond much better to being an active participant in their learning. Other students though who were counting on putting in seat time for another lecture series while chatting on their phone, napping or doing other things have been found to resist the expectation they engage. Each instructor needs to decide what is best for their learners, but keep in mind there is no one right way to create a student-centered environment. Your subject material, student population, and personal comfort level should all be taken into consideration.
The IMPACT Program at Purdue University provides resources and support for instructors to redesign their course in a student-centered way. The comfort level of the faculty member is of utmost importance and nothing is imposed without the instructor initiating the desire for change.
On April 10th, IMPACT will be hosting Eric Mazur who will be talking about how he transformed his course from lecture to student-centered. Faculty, staff, and students are invited to attend.
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers.
Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. New York: D.C. Heath & CO.
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Recently, as a presenter at the 2014 AECT International Convention: Learning, Design, and Technology, I shared information about being a support staff member for the IMPACT (Instruction Matters Purdue Academic Course Transformation) program in the presentation: Designing Instruction to Create Systematic Change: A Designer’s Perspective1. IMPACT is a Purdue Provost’s initiative facilitated through the collaborative efforts of the Center of Instructional Excellence (CIE), Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), University Libraries, Discovery Learning Resource Center (DLRC), and Purdue Extended Campus (PEC). Using research findings on sound student-centered teaching and learning practices, over 100 faculty have redesigned their courses enhancing student learning, competence, and confidence. After 4 years, IMPACT has transformed over 90 courses changing the learning environment for over 25,000 students. Attendees were quite interested and impressed with the emerging results of Purdue University’s IMPACT program.2
One of the goals of IMPACT is to: form Faculty Learning Communities (FLC) as instruments for faculty exploration, collaboration, learning, development and contributions to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.3 FLCs began to emerge in higher education the late 1970’s and ‘80s as groups of faculty and professional staff explored strategies to improve instruction and student performance. In 2001 Miami University was awarded a FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) grant, Developing Faculty Learning Communities to Transform Campus Culture for Learning. Working with several other partner universities, the results of this FIPSE grant showed the structure of the FLC to be one that led to successful change.
The FIPSE project identified 30 components of an FLCP (Faculty Learning Community Programs). Evidence collected shows that FLCs encourage and support faculty investigation, implementation, assessment, and adoption of new (to them) approaches such as involving appropriate technology, active learning, inclusive classrooms, and revised curricula. In addition, FLCs provide for the developmental needs of important cohorts of faculty who have been affected by change, isolation, fragmentation, and stress. Evidence shows FLCPs enhance undergraduate learning by increasing faculty interest, practice, and expertise in teaching by providing safe, supportive, multidisciplinary communities in which faculty can investigate and take risks. Another project goal was to foster scholarly teaching and SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning). This was achieved by involving FLC participants in a sequence of developmental steps, starting with investigating the literature and culminating in a refereed presentation or publication.4
My experiences as support team member of IMPACT FLCs mirror the results of this FIPSE grant. Over the past four years the actual structure of the Support Team has taken several forms. In the current structure, the Support Team works with a small group of faculty, usually two to four. The Support Team is made up of members from the various units and consists of a “Primary” support team member, who acts as the main contact for the faculty member, and one or more “Secondary” support team members. All support team members participate with faculty in the semester long FLC sessions which serve as the foundation for the faculty development phase of the program. The support team members frequently assist in guiding the small group discussions that takes place during the weekly FLC sessions. These structured FLC sessions are designed to introduce faculty to research-based teaching and learning practices. Some of the topics covered during the FLC sessions include:
- models utilized in the redesigned courses that include: blended learning models, supplemental approaches in which face-to-face courses are supplemented with online components, flipped models, and fully online models
- pedagogies and principles, such as, strategies for incorporating group work, team based learning, problem-based learning, informed learning, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987), the principles of backward course design,
- and, exploration of possible topics for SoTL projects, including the development of a research question.
In the actual redesign process, the support team members provide a variety of roles dependent upon their area of expertise, for example: pedagogy, technology, information literacy, research and many other areas. Most groups of faculty and support team members also meet weekly or biweekly during this semester. Typically this semester is followed by a more individualized phase of the program, again usually taking place over a semester. This is frequently when faculty actually redesign their courses. The support team members remain engaged with the faculty members during the subsequent pilot phase, and often several semesters later while the course is continuing to evolve. In some cases, support team members become involved in SoTL projects with the faculty members.
This course redesign program is a true commitment for support team members and faculty alike. Many institutions have course redesign programs; however, Purdue University’s IMPACT program is a cross-disciplinary effort that touches courses in all academic colleges and schools throughout the university. This unique collaboration of support team members from a variety of units and small groups of faculty in the FLC contributes to the positive systematic changes in the learning environments that are occurring on the Purdue University campus.
1Designing Instruction to Create Systematic Change: A Designer’s Perspective http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/idcpres/26.
2IMPACT Report 2014 http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/impactreps/4/.
3IMPACT website http://www.purdue.edu/impact/
4Miami University FIPSE Grant http://fipsedatabase.ed.gov/fipse/grantshow.cfm?grantNumber=P116B010714
PassNote is a student feedback tool designed to assist instructors in composing research-based messages that motivate students to academic action. Our goal in creating the tool was to address concerns several instructors brought to our attention related to the difficult task they had in composing effective feedback messages related to course performance for students based on best practices.1
The research we found was extremely specific in helping us come up with criteria that were most likely to motivate students. Some words worked better than others and writing shorter messages increased the chances students would read them.2 Comments that did not provide specific resources were less effective.3 As we investigated the research, a pattern for success became more clear. We followed this pattern in the construction of our library.
Another concern we have looked to address was to try to provide a library that would inspire individual responses as much as possible. This would help keep the messages unique and spare students receiving the same messages. By providing “snippets” with [insert departmental resources here] opportunities for customized information, we hope messages inspired by PassNote will stay fresh and inspiring for students to read and apply to their academic performance.
When PassNote is used in conjunction with analytic tools such as Course Signals and Blackboard Retention Center, instructors can send messages in mass to the group of students who fit customized criteria. Even students in very large courses still can receive messages related to their course performance and can be directed to campus resources such as tutoring, library services, or even their instructor’s office hours with just a few total messages being sent. For example, an instructor can use Course Signals to tell them which students are in danger of not receiving a passing grade and send them a message composed with help from PassNote directing all students that fit this criteria to resources the instructor feels would benefit them most. Instructors using Blackboard’s Retention Center can target students who have missed an important due date and send all of them a message encouraging them to use strategies to help them keep better track of due dates and perhaps direct them to resources that might help. PassNote’s extensive collection of campus resources can help keep instructors informed what is available outside of their own department.
PassNote is a free and open resource available to anyone on or off Purdue’s campus. http://www.purdue.edu/passnote/
For additional information about PassNote refer to: EDUCAUSE Review Online
 Chickering, Arthur W, and Zelda E Gamson. 1991. “Appendix a Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 47: 63–69. doi:10.1002/tl.37219914708, p. 66.
 Patricia E. Gettings, Joseph Waters, Abigail Selzer King, Zeynep Tanes, and Matthew D. Pistilli, “Message Testing and Self-Efficacy in Course Signals: Formative Evaluation to Identify Effective Communication Strategies,” Paper presented at the Southern States Communication Association Annual Conference, Louisville, KY, 2013, p. 14.
 Gettings, Waters, King, Tanes, and Pistilli, “Message Testing and Self-Efficacy in Course Signals,” p. 16.
Having been at Purdue now for only a month, my experience working with faculty is still very limited. However, as an Educational Technologist that will be working with “Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation” (IMPACT), I am very excited when I consider the potential this program, and those like it, have and how critical they will be to an institution’s ability to attract and move ahead with the students coming out of high schools. I base that excitement on the type of students and active learning I have encountered in K-12 schools.
Having spent the last twelve years as a technology director and instructional designer in public education, I have worked with students as far down as the future freshmen of 2027. While course redesign was getting underway in higher ed, the move toward more student-centered learning and project-based learning was underway at forward thinking K-12 schools as well.