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Vol. 4, No. 1

Your Source for Teaching & Learning News and Information

Fall 2010

phb Campus News

Changing a Lecture Course into a Learner-Centered Course


By Lloyd Kitazono, Science and Mathematics, California Maritime Academy

Lloyd Kitazono, Science and Mathematics, California State University Maritime Academy

What is the best way for you to learn something?  If you answer like my students, you would say, “I learn best by doing something.”  No student has ever told me, “I learn best by sitting and listening.” 

Then why do we use lecture as the dominant mode of college teaching?  Probably because it’s how we were taught, and it’s a convenient way to transmit and control the information covered in a course.

But how effective is lecturing?  In a study by Saunders (1980), students who had just completed a year-long introductory economics course were compared with students who had never taken the course.  Lecture was the teaching method used.  Over twelve hundred students in the two groups were given a test on the course content.  Sadly, students who had taken the course scored only 20% better than students who had never taken the course.  And after two years, the difference between the two groups was only 15% (reported in Fink, 2003).
For 30 years, lecturing was the teaching method I used in my introductory oceanography courses.  I lectured, wrote lots of notes on the board, and stopped occasionally to ask or answer student questions.  Eventually, I graduated to using PowerPoint.  My students dutifully took notes, performed reasonably well on the exams, and my teaching evaluations were fine.  Although students didn’t complain, I often felt like little more than a dispenser of information, and I began to wonder if any real learning was happening. 

I knew I wanted to change, but how?  How do I change a traditional lecture course into a learner-centered course

I found my answer at a workshop on Designing Courses for Significant Learning, led by Dee Fink and Stewart Ross.  I learned to redesign my courses around four key components: situational factors, learning outcomes, teaching-learning activities, and feedback and assessment.

Here’s How I Used Four Components to Redesign My Courses

1.  Situational factors are factors unique to the course, such as class size, course level, nature of the subject, and characteristics of the learners.  In my courses the small number of students, 15 to 25, allows me to select activities where students work individually or in small groups.  Also being a lower division GE elective, I have the freedom to determine course outcomes.  Moreover, oceanography is often a media topic; hence, students have a general knowledge as well as an interest in the world’s oceans.

2.  Learning outcomes are the gains in knowledge and skill I want my students to achieve by the end of the course.  The learning outcomes became the framework for my course, and I stopped using the textbook’s table of contents for my list of topics to cover in the course.  In fact, I stopped using a textbook altogether! 

What resources are used if no textbook is provided?  I use reprints, but I mainly direct students to use the Internet.  At the first class session, we discuss the pros and cons of using the Internet as a resource, and the first homework assignment is on its reliability.

John Dickinson, Cal Maritime student, points to the seasonal weakening of the ozone layer over Antarctica.
John Dickinson
, Cal Maritime student, points to the seasonal weakening of the ozone layer over Antarctica.

3.  Teaching-learning activities have replaced my lectures and include the following: 

  • Homework – At each class meeting, students are assigned individual homework questions, and at the following session, students present their answers to the class.  During these short presentations, I gently add corrections, fill in information gaps, and re-emphasize important points.  If a student is absent, s/he gives the presentation at the next session.
  • Quizzes – Low-risk quizzes are given frequently.  Some quizzes are used to assess how much students know about a topic before the topic is discussed in class.  For these quizzes, students work with a partner so they can pool their knowledge.  Other quizzes are used to assess how well students have understood the student presentations. These quizzes and the post-quiz discussions help tie together the student presentations.
  • Videos – I show short YouTube videos to introduce new topics and to reinforce information. Longer educational videos are also shown but broken up into shorter segments.  After the videos, students discuss their reactions.
  • Review Sessions – Before each exam (N=3) and the final exam, students lead review sessions where each student describes what s/he thinks was the important information covered in his/her class presentations and students answer questions about their presentations.

4.  Feedback and assessment are the final components.  In my course the homework assignments and quizzes are low-stakes assessment tools providing feedback for both me and the students. As these quizzes are frequent and are quickly returned to the students, they are both painless and effective at diagnosing early problems.  Homework assignments and quizzes make up a significant part of the grade (60%), so students take the work seriously, but no single assignment is detrimental to their overall course grade. 

The pre-exam review sessions are assessment and feedback loops for the students because they hear if their classmates have understood their presentations and accurately noted the important points. 

Since changing my method of teaching, my role in the classroom has changed significantly.  I am no longer the dispenser of information but the facilitator of class discussions.  I welcome this change.  My teaching evaluations have improved and so have students’ confidence, learning, and grades—the real win-win-win of student-centered teaching!

Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, p. 4.

Fink, L.D. (2005). Integrated Course Design, Idea Paper #42.  The Idea Center.

Saunders, P. (Winter, 1980). The lasting effects of introductory economics courses. The Journal of Economic Education, 12 (1), pp. 1-14.

ITL-FDC Faculty Learning & Practice Communities: Semester Campus Awardees for AY 2010-2011

  1. Skeptical Inquirers:  “Is There Any Assessment Worth Doing?”—Dr. Ed Nuhfer, Channel Islands
  1. Implementation of Best Practices for Teaching to Diversity and Creating an Environment of Inclusion—Dr. Lee Altier, Chico
  1. Implementation of Best Practices in Universal Design for Learning, Online and Face-to-Face—Dr. Jennifer Ivie Barth, Fresno
  1. Designing and Assessing Courses in an Evolving Instructional Environment—Dr. Kimo Ah Yun, Sacramento
  1. Improving Student Writing—Mrs. Mary Fran Breiling, San José
  1. Best Practices in Integrating Undergraduate Research into the Curriculum—Dr. Radhika Ramamurthi, San Marcos
  1. Multicultural Competence:  Building Knowledge, Awareness, and Skill—Dr. Brett Christie, Sonoma
  1. Assessment of Integrative Learning within General Education—Dr. Betsy Eudey, Stanislaus

Lorie Roth Retires from the CO --Congratulations!

Dr. Lorie Roth, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Academic Services and Professional Development, CSU Chancellor’s Office
Dr. Lorie Roth, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Academic Services and Professional Development, CSU Chancellor’s Office

Lorie joined the CSU sixteen years ago and retired on September 20, 2010.  She oversaw programs that provide special opportunities for faculty and students.  These include the CSU Summer Arts, Institute for Teaching and Learning, Pre-Doctoral Program, Center for Community Engagement, and California Academic Partnership Program.  Lorie was adored by those in her “empire.”  She trusted us to do our best, gave informed advice when asked, and would stop an oncoming train to help out.  And through it all, Lorie was ever gracious, patient, and kind.  We wish her the very best in retirement as she returns home to Ohio.

Review past issues at

Dr. Cynthia Desrochers
Director, Institute for Teaching & Learning
CSU, Office of the Chancellor, 6th Floor

Technical Contact:
Gerard Greenidge
Assistant Director, IT Development/
CSU Webmaster


phb Teaching & Learning Tips

Supporting Deep Learning through Instructional Alignment


By Nelle Moffett, Institutional Research, and Steven Fleisher, Psychology, CSU Channel Islands

Instructor listens in on a “paired share” exercise at CSU Channel Islands
Instructor listens in on a "paired share" exercise at CSU Channel Islands

This project was funded by a grant from the Institute for Teaching and Learning, titled Disciplinary Research Project: Addressing Critical Classroom Issues Related to the Quality of Student Learning, Dr. Virgil Adams, Principal Investigator, 2008-2010.

We had initial apprehension that designing a course for deep learning might consume too much time, but we discovered that the challenge was manageable with the proper tools.  In the long run, managing a course redesigned for deep learning proved to be a time-saver for us and greatly beneficial for students.

In accord with backwards design, we first articulated our capstone vision by answering a core question:  What are the important key concepts of psychology that we want students in an introductory course to remember three years from now?  For such deep learning to occur, students must actively engage with the material so that their brains are processing it, making it meaningful, making relationships to existing knowledge, and laying down tracks in long-term memory that are retrievable (Leamnson, 1999).

We turned to the published program outcomes and course-specific student learning outcomes for guidance to help inform the answer we developed.  That enabled us to prioritize the key content that would contribute to our design, which kept us from producing the proverbial “mile-wide and inch-deep” introductory course that results from simply “covering the material.” 

We next searched the textbook for material that supported the key concepts that addressed our core question.  Through such filtering, we ended up with three to seven components from each chapter that supported these concepts.  These components then served as the basis for creating a Knowledge Survey (KS) that we constructed to guide our course.  [Readers can find resources in the form of brief online tutorial modules needed for constructing and interpreting knowledge surveys at the MERLOT ELIXR site – see Nuhfer, 2010.]

Students interacted with the KS at the start, during, and end of the course to self-assess their competency to address each item and thus track their progress toward mastery of the core concepts.  Backwards design assured that we had a detailed course plan that addressed all the published outcomes through judicious selection of particular content.  The KS items that related to the topic-of-the-week were included in the homework assignment and presented as an organizer in the PowerPoint presentation.  Students were frequently reminded to use the KS items when they studied for their tests, and test items were chosen which related to the KS items.  We found that making the organization of the course visible to the students created an environment of “no ambushes” and kept all of us cognizant of our progress through the learning journey we had designed.

CSU Channel Islands students pair up to discuss what they understood from a short video.
CSU Channel Islands
students pair up to discuss what they understood from a short video.

This detailed organization at the outset provided several important advantages. 

  • It permitted us to construct course documents, like syllabi, assignments, and tests, that aligned efforts and focused on meeting the course outcomes.
  • It allowed us the lead time needed for planning how to teach a concept by matching a pedagogical approach that made sense for specific concepts.
  • It provided a fully disclosed plan to our students in a way that required students to interact with every item of learning in our design.
  • It provided detailed assessment data that we could use to see how the class, as a whole, responded to our learning designs, providing a record of learning responses from students that could be mapped to course outcomes and program goals.  From this, we were able to assess how successfully we met our responsibilities to the course, the program and our own aspirations embodied in our core question.

Disclosure of the detailed plan saved us time because it enabled us to clearly communicate the foundational knowledge that students were responsible for learning.  We decided to use the KS, homework reading, homework reflection papers, and tests as our chosen pedagogies for developing the foundational knowledge. 

By design, students came to class prepared with the basic foundational knowledge which allowed us to focus class time to develop deep learning and understanding through class activities. In-class activities included written assignments and purposeful speaking to other students to give voice to their understanding.  Seed questions for these activities emphasized communicating the relevance of that material to their own lives using the vocabulary of the foundational knowledge.  Our design focus was thus generally consistent with the instructional philosophies conveyed by Fink (2003) and Rhem (1995). We employed class discussion, group activities, purposeful papers, peer and self-evaluation of papers, and student presentations as pedagogies, with selected concepts reinforced by short lectures and videos.  Through planning and aligning in these ways, students had an experience that was clear and organized and that further helped them discover the connections between their daily efforts and the intentions for the entire course.  


Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Leamnson, R. (1999). Thinking about teaching and learning: Developing habits of learning with first year college and university students. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Nuhfer, E. B. (2010b). MERLOT ELIXR Case Story: Knowledge Surveys, with S. Fleisher, K. Wirth, D. Perkins, J. Lewis, S. Lefevre, J. Bennett, L. Zweir and T. Emens. Learning Object: Accessible digital case lessons. California State University, Center for Distributed Learning. Apr 1, 2010.

Rhem, J. (1995). Deep/surface approaches to learning: An introduction. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5(1), 1-3.

Making General Education Relevant

By Ken O’Donnell, CSU Chancellor’s Office

Faculty around the CSU are proposing ways to make general education more integrative, relevant, and engaging.  Thematic pathways through the curriculum— on subjects like sustainability, globalization, and social justice—connect learning across multiple ways of knowing and highlight the real-world, practical value of higher education.

There’s a lot at stake:  students who get these compelling GE experiences in their first terms are likelier to persist and eventually graduate.

So why don’t we connect all of our GE this way?  Because our students are so mobile.  As long as they transfer in and out, swirl through concurrent enrollments, and quit and come back, they will need coursework that defies integration.  And there’s an upside to interchangeability:  often the students least able to attend continuously and full-time are the ones we most want to reach.

Cable cars provide unique transportation for this City by the Bay.
Cable cars provide unique transportation for this City by the Bay.

So what’s the answer?  How do we provide an education that’s both integrative and modular, both convenient and relevant?  Especially in lower-division GE, where these cross-purposes are strongest?

By seeing ourselves as our students experience us:  not bound by one institution or segment but as part of a community of educators. 

Are you up for it?  Join us this January for four days of reflection and brainstorming on Making General Education Relevant, a special California supplement to the AAC&U Annual Meeting, held this year in San Francisco.  You can participate in the entire national conference, all expenses paid, by coming as part of an intersegmental team of faculty that you identify from your region.  Part of the CSU’s participation in Give Students a Compass, the event will foster regional projects to pilot a better GE.

Help us create a curriculum that’s as accessible as ever, but also purposeful and compelling, for transfers and natives alike.

ITL-FDC Publication: Student Guide to Better Learning

The Institute for Teaching and Learning and the Faculty Development Council are co-authoring a Student Guide to Better Learning.  This publication will be available next fall free of charge for student and faculty use.  Based on current research on the brain and learning, each two-page chapter is written directly for students.  Click for a preview of draft chapters on College Survival and the Science of the Learning Brain and Learning More by Learning to be Professional.

Feel free to share the Professional article with students, as its purpose is to address “classroom conduct,” an ongoing concern of many faculty, from the perspective of being professional.