Learner-Centered Approach

These Ohio educators know the importance of putting students first in the learning process.

After hearing that the television station where he worked for 25 years was being sold, newscaster Gary Hanson began to explore other career options. Already intrigued with the teaching profession, he returned to school for a master’s degree and then applied for a faculty position at Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The career switch appears to be a success, considering that last year Hanson was a recipient of the Kent State University Alumni Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Much of that success can be attributed to Hanson’s learner-centered approach to teaching.

Every day Hanson strives to unlock the students’ natural sense of curiosity about themselves, the subject matter and the world beyond. He and his colleague, Assistant Professor Mitch McKenney, created a class called International Storytelling. Every year they travel overseas with a group of students to capture and produce stories in a foreign country. Last year they traveled to India, the year before that to China and in 2013, they will venture to Brazil.

“This is really a life-changing experience for the students,” Hanson says. “It broadens their horizons and exposes them to things they have not seen before.”

But the class is only one component of Hanson’s philosophy of meeting students in their world and acting as a trusted colleague or mentor. “I spend time with my students,” he explains. “I really think that teaching at the college level is a collaborative process between the instructor and the students, and it’s not just a person standing in front of a group lecturing. It’s about working with them one-on-one and talking about stuff that is life-related, and not always class-related.”

Knowing that, it’s not surprising to learn that Hanson never misses a commencement, and that the walls of his office are lined with student photos and memorabilia.

Making It Relevant
At the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business, Assistant Professor Ric Sweeney is also focused on the students. He accomplishes this in a variety of ways, not the least of which is engaging them in relevant subject matter. From new product launches, to political campaigns, to celebrity scandals, Sweeney always finds a way to tie issues back to marketing and the marketing functions.

“I take additional steps to provide examples of what it means, and that adds to their learning experience,” he says. “It helps students understand how the classroom experience translates to the real world.”

To accomplish this, Sweeney encourages students to send him articles and other items that he can tie into the lesson. He also begins every semester by asking students to complete information sheets, which provide an opportunity for them to share interesting facts about themselves.

“It’s always a lot of fun when you find something interesting about the students,” he says. “Maybe it’s a particular food they don’t like. Then I can talk about different products, for instance. Or maybe they like to travel, or they have an interesting job. Knowing these things helps me to make the class more relevant. It’s personal and it helps them engage.”

Sweeney is also known for his commitment to several student organizations at UC, from the U.S. Collegiate Chapter of the American Marketing Association to a campus fraternity, student government and the cheerleading squad. “It’s all quite rewarding,” he insists. “If I just talked and went home at the end of the day, I would feel like something is missing from my own experience.”

Both inside and outside the classroom, Sweeney encourages his students to succeed by talking with them about their choices and what they want to do in life. “I want to inspire the students to reach higher and really become successful,” he says. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Then I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Helping Students Grow
Heidelberg University Spanish professor Cynthia Lepeley was attracted to the small liberal arts school for its friendly vibe and student-centered approach. She describes it as a place where the faculty all moves in the same direction for the good of the students. “We get to really follow the progress of our students and can see how they grow,” she explains.

Lepeley is a significant contributor to that mindset. For starters, she teaches Spanish based on the communicative approach, which allows the students to exchange real information. “It’s not just learning the content but also learning the strategies for communicating,” she explains. “That’s an important part of language learning, and it’s more fun.”

Lepeley uses a course called Project ARISE to immerse her students in the Spanish language. During the spring semester, students travel to a Mexican immigrant community in Texas to prepare activities for a summer children’s program. Members of the community house the students during this time, providing them an opportunity to be immersed in the language in a supportive and hospitable environment. In addition to learning the language, the experience also challenges many of the stereotypes that people have about immigrants. The students who participate grow in a number of ways, and much of that growth is beyond the confines of academia.

At Heidelberg, the students who major in Spanish must study abroad at some point during their undergraduate experience. “I always tape the students before they go overseas,” Lepeley says. “They listen to the tape when they come back. Then I tape them again so they can listen to both tapes and hear how their language skills have changed.” For Lepeley, witnessing that growth is probably the most fulfilling part of her job.

Creating Experiences
At Ohio University, Greg Kremer takes a relational and experiential approach to teaching. As an associate professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, he strives to create experiences where students can learn on their own — but with some guidance. In the process, he helps students make the transition to life beyond college.

“Engineering is a team-based profession. We have to help the students see themselves in the context of a larger reality that is not competitive, but collaborative,” he says. “It’s about what we can do in the real world.”

Since Ohio University is located in the Appalachian region of the state, an area where there are many needs but few resources, he believes there is a significant opportunity for the students to apply what they’re learning to needs in the community. In his course, “Designing to Make a Difference,” Kremer connects the students with projects that require them to apply their technical expertise to various problems. One example involves establishing systems that make it easier for people with disabilities to perform certain assembly tasks, which in turn provides them meaningful work. “It helps the students learn something about the community and the needs of others and how they can, as engineers, provide a service,” he says.

In 2010, Kremer’s students took this approach beyond Appalachia to a small village in Ghana. They were charged with finding a way to move clean water from one point to another, a complex project that involved applying their mechanical engineering skills but also learning about the culture and how their solutions would make sense economically. Both the students and the people in the village benefited from the experience.

For Kremer, the best part of teaching is seeing the joy on the students’ faces when they deliver something that makes a difference in another person’s life. “Somewhere along the process they go from working on assignments to helping someone, to being an engineer and delivering a solution,” he says. “It’s not about the class anymore. It’s about a problem.”

Seeing that sense of fulfillment and accomplishment is what makes teaching worthwhile.