Student-centered or student-influenced pedagogy?

I recently read this article in Inside Higher Ed reporting on a study of teaching at prestigious colleges versus teaching at less prestigious colleges. I remind my ENG 210 Principles of Rhetoric  students that their experiences at NAU are not necessarily less than those of other prestigious schools like Harvard or Yale or MIT. The discussions we have and the curriculum I design is just as rigorous as schools deemed prestigious. What this article points out, is the assumptions made by professors about the background experiences of students. The assumption being students at prestigious campuses have good experiences in the classroom, and can perform as students really well.

This is a really important point. I’ve always considered my curriculum to be very student-centered, encouraging discussion, multimodal projects, new experiences with course material. But, I’ve also made very strategic changes to my curriculum based on the students at my university. At my institution we’re seeing an increased number of international students, specifically from China. These students are English majors, but for them English is an entirely different major than how we conceive it as American students. For most American students, I’ve noticed Literature and Creative Writing courses is how they conceive English as a major. Most are intimidated to complete Rhetoric courses (like mine) and Linguistics courses. For many, these approaches to writing and discussions of writing and communication are now why they chose English as their major.

For the exchange students, English as a major is more business focused, these students expect to learn to communicate in English so they can work in international business, Literature and Creative Writing are not part of their conceptions of English. Studying abroad is essential to their future success, as it demonstrates their ability to communicate and function in a foreign country, but the courses offered at most institutions don’t meet the needs of their degrees. For this reason, many international exchange students complete many rhetoric courses with me.

I should be really honest here, I speak, incredibly fast. I’ve attempted, for years, to slow down my speech, but i’m naturally a fast talker and so overcoming my nature has been a struggle. For this reason, when I ask questions in class, the international exchange students struggle to keep up with conversation and contribute ideas to the discussion for discussion points. Most of these students come to office hours, or stay after class and contribute explaining that it took them a few additional minutes to process but wanted to make me aware of what they were thinking. For this reason, I began including a class wiki project for participation points, offering all students in the course an alternative location to participate in discussion by posting Annotated Bibliography notes (allowing our textbook to be the source) for participation points. In this case, I care about student learning and student motivation, but I really was being driven more by what I knew about and assumed about my students instead. Similar to Reed’s discussion of prestigious institutions, I modified the curriculum based on my expectations of the students in the course and what they are able to complete.

Coming out of this discussion what I’m now wondering is if this approach to students is student-centered, or simply student-influenced pedagogy. For the prestigious institutions, is approaching the classroom differently based on background expectations bad, and is that ‘cognitively complex’ lecture environment any less learning focused than my more discussion based approach? Reed is right, students at prestigious institutions have ‘mastered’ school – would changing that approach be more detrimental than helpful?

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