Faculty Development & Learning Assessment

Creating Effective Learning Communities

--01/06/2011

According to the cognitive research covered in How People Learn, environments that best promote learning have four interdependent aspects—they focus on learners, well-organized knowledge, ongoing assessment for understanding, and community support and challenge.

  1. Learner-centered: Learner-centered environments pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting.  Teachers must realize that new knowledge is built on existing knowledge—students are not blank slates.  Therefore, teachers need to uncover the incomplete understandings, false beliefs and naïve renditions of concepts that students have when they begin a course.  If these are ignored, students may develop understandings very different from what the teacher intends them to gain. 
  2. Knowledge-centered: Knowledge-centered environments take seriously the need to help students learn the well-organized bodies of knowledge that support understanding and adaptive expertise.  Teachers are wise to point their students directly toward clear learning goals—to tell students exactly what knowledge they will be gaining, and how they can use that knowledge.  In addition, a strong foundational structure of basic concepts will give students a solid base on which to build further learning.
  3. Assessment-centered: Assessment-centered environments provide frequent formal and informal opportunities for feedback focused on understanding, not memorization, to encourage and reward meaningful learning.  Feedback is fundamental to learning, but feedback opportunities are often too scarce in classrooms.  Students may receive grades on tests and essays, but these are summative assessments that occur at the end of projects.  What are needed are formative assessments that provide students with opportunities to revise and improve the quality of their thinking and understanding.  The goal is for students to gain meta-cognitive abilities to self-assess, reflect and rethink for better understanding. 
  4. Community-centered: Community-centered environments foster norms for people learning from one another, and continually attempting to improve.  In such a community, students are encouraged to be active, constructive participants.  Further, they are encouraged to make—and then learn from—mistakes.  Intellectual camaraderie fosters support, challenge and collaboration.

The most effective learning environments contain all four of these interdependent foci.

Adapted from Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. Contributed by Tasha Souza.

Tip References

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L. and Cocking, R.R., (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. National Academies Press.