Carl S. Moore, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Research Academy for Integrated Learning
Division for Learning Resources
University of the District of Columbia
One of the primary conditions for learning is actively attending to the information. When teaching, I use a variety of strategies to capture students’ attention. I might break into song, show a video while also writing on the board, and mix up as many active learning activities in one class session as I can. Students are most definitely engaged in my classes, and most often they learn. However, I have noticed that no matter how effective I might be in capturing student attention, there is something special and unique to the learning experience when students learn from each other.
I started using student voice as a delivery method when teaching Youth Cultures, a human behavior general education requirement at Temple University. This class allows me to use my knowledge of popular culture to teach students about diversity, social deviance, and a host of other sociopolitical issues. I must admit it is a very enjoyable class to teach. But there are most definitely concepts that are sometimes too heavy for students to grasp simply with me delivering information. It reminds me of what the book How Learning Works (2010) talks about “operating in the unconscious competence.” As described in the book, I knew about the topics addressed in this course so very well that it was hard for me to even understand where I needed to break the content down into smaller components for students to build their understanding. I would explain social deviance to students and cultural issues such as stereotype threat and internalized oppressions as if they would really understand. The students nodded and shook their heads as if they did understand for sure, but when it came time for tests and assignments their articulation of the concepts was never on the same page as mine.
But then one semester, I decided to get students more involved in the lesson plan by dividing the book chapters and lessons for each week into mini student presentations. The rest is history. I learned that though the students may not have as many “attention grabbers” in their arsenal as I have, they were sometimes actually better at engaging and connecting with their peers. Students asking students to answer questions and/or questioning and challenging content was more frequent when students presented to each other. This all “clicked” one day when a student was in front of the room presenting. I noticed that the students listening to other students seemed to be much more tuned in than when I was in front of the room. I began to realize no matter how engaging I seemed, or how much I incorporated active learning, that I was still not a student and thus was limited in my ability to connect on some topics.
Certainly, some of my class sessions and lectures are more effective than students presenting to each other. However, student voice was notable enough to include as a staple of my pedagogical approach because of the students’ ability to explain information in a way that is less likely to be filled with jargon and expert blind spots. Student voice won over the instructor voice in many of my classes.
Student voice is beyond the group work or think-pair-share, but a delivery and communication of student understanding of the course material to each other. I have refined and became wiser, understanding that students, though they would like to hear from other students, still need guidance from the subject matter experts. This is especially true when teaching freshman and sophomore college students who are most often at the dualism stage of their cognitive development (Perry, 1999). Students in these cases may still benefit from learning from peers, but in some cases will only accept information as valid if it is from a more authoritative source. To facilitate student buy-in to the experience, I make sure the content students present is always anchored in readings and primary sources. The students are charged with the following:
- delivering information based on the assigned readings,
- promoting class involvement by embedding questions in the presentation, and
- using at least one audio-visual tool when presenting.
This helps stabilize information and makes it less debatable to students who may be at varying levels of cognitive complexity. It also encourages the intellectual growth of students who are in the former stages of cognitive development. Intellectual growth is encouraged in these students when they are able to hear/receive information from those that are not authority figures. In addition, when students are presenting in my classes I’ll allow them to present what they have learned related to the content. As the instructor, I am then able to direct the conversation by asking thought-provoking questions to the presenters and other students to make sure that the information communicated is true to the course and primary sources.
I provide you these reflections so that the next time you are thinking about your course delivery methods, you consider the students themselves as a delivery method. While student voice does not take the place of the instructor, it provides another way to actively involve students and engage them in a way that encourages them to learn – and helps us avoid our own expert blind spots.
References & Resources
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Nathan, M.J., Alibali, M.W., & Koedinger, K.R. ( 2003). Expert blind spot: When content knowledge & pedagogical content knowledge collide (Report No. 00-05). University of Colorado, Boulder, CO: Institute of Cognitive Science. Retrieved from http://www.colorado.edu/ics/sites/default/files/attached-files/00-05.pdf
Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.