Student-Centered Learning Environments

A university is. . .an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.--John Henry Newman

I hope this column will begin a series of conversations with faculty and staff about the challenges we all face as we try to make this a public university of first choice. For several years legislative actions and declining enrollment caused corrosive budget reductions. Our budget picture is optimistic, but we still need to deal collectively with the recruitment of students. The things we value about a university--a sense of community, a dedication to quality learning environments, the success of our students--can now take center stage. There is a great deal of pride and history on which to build. The University has always prized a commitment to its students, and students have repaid that dedication through their achievements and success. The hallmark of the University, then, is simply and positively a commitment to its students. It has distinguished us in the past, and will characterize us in the future.

We are, of course, asked to change, to do things differently, to use new technologies, to prepare our students for a future few of us are able to imagine. We need to ground change, however, in an understanding of what we think the intent and purpose of a university is. John Henry Newman's animating work, The Idea of a University (1852), has defined for many the purpose of a university education. It is to develop the intellect. Though written in the mid-nineteenth century, his statement of what constitutes a well-educated person sounds remarkably like what we hope for in today's graduate. A person whose intellect has been developed will be able to reason well, reflect meaningfully on the human condition, understand others, work for the common good, reject prejudice and injustice in all of their forms, and remain calm and focused at the eye of intellectual storms and fashions.

Newman was very specific, too, about how such people were to be created. First, instructors would provide stimulus and support, so that students would learn to think for themselves and develop depth of knowledge in several areas of academic study. Students were not empty vessels into which the information of the age was poured. In addition, instructors needed to focus on the diversity of talent and experience that came to them. "A university is. . .an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill." He had no illusions, then, that students could achieve mastery of subject matter or intellectual growth without the assistance of others or without institutional support. What do we want students to do and how can faculty and staff support learning?

The highest priority of the University's Strategic Plan for the Future is "to create and enhance innovative, high quality, and student-centered learning environments." This priority grows out of Chico's commitment to student success. Student-centered learning environments exist both within and outside of classroom environments. Both impact directly on student learning and each of us has a responsibility to create the kinds of environments that help students develop both an interest in learning and the skills they need for life-long learning.

When we speak of student learning, four essential variables or components occupy our attention. First, we want students to learn basic disciplinary content. Second, we want students to develop their cognitive abilities, which might be reflected in oral and written skills as well as problem-solving or critical-thinking skills. Next, we want our students to develop positive attitudes toward knowing and learning. And, fourth, we want to help students succeed; we want them to persist, to make progress toward their degrees, and to graduate on time. We also want to be able to measure and assess whether or not students actually do all of these things.

This means that in a student-centered learning environment faculty, staff, and students have responsibilities both in and out of the classroom. I have previously referred to and circulated Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987), which summarizes seven indicators of a student-centered learning environment, namely (1) faculty-student interaction; (2) cooperative learning experiences among students; (3) active learning; (4) prompt feedback; (5) time spent studying; (6) high expectations on the part of teachers; and (7) respect for diverse student talents and ways of learning. From this list, one can specify good practices that faculty can follow in the classroom, including learning the names, interests, backgrounds, and skills of the students, providing opportunities for active learning, and developing assignments that make it possible for students to work with one another.

Outside the classroom, faculty might be available for advising, or they might structure opportunities for service learning. Staff in such an environment support student learning in the classroom by providing adequate funding, materials, and the infrastructure for the basics of good teaching. Outside the classroom they maintain advising centers, teach how to use print and electronic sources of information, provide for the health and psychological well being of students, promote extracurricular and co-curricular activities, and provide cultural events which enrich student lives.

Students also have significant responsibilities in a student-centered learning environment, both in and out of the classroom. Within the classroom, the rights of others are to be respected, and there is an obligation to participate actively in classroom discussion and projects. Students should come to class prepared; they should question, probe, and take active responsibility for their own learning. Outside of class there is a need to balance work, study, and recreation. Students should make public service a high priority because application of knowledge gained in the classroom deepens students' understanding of the world. It is vitally important for students to work through groups like CAVE (Community Action Volunteers in Education), to learn how to take responsibility for the maintenance of a democratic society.

The creation of student-centered learning environments serves as the University's highest priority because it defines the University. This priority shapes all of our other priorities. For example, diversification of the revenue stream, which occurs through fund raising and grant and contract activity, is not an end in itself. The intent is to allow us to create a margin of excellence, to recruit high achieving students, and to sustain those activities in the University we value.

If you have any comments you would like to share, or reflections to offer, please contact me.

Scott G. McNall

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