Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Terry Doyle

Original Publish Date: February 19, 2017
By Patrik Hultberg

In this book Terry Doyle makes an evidence-based argument for learner-centered teaching practices. It is as convincing as the book is readable. The thesis of the book is “the one who does the work does the learning,” and it explores how to get students to do the work and what work they should be doing to optimize learning.

In the Foreword Todd Zakrajsek writes “Teaching is not something that should be left to trial and error, and it certainly should not be done without building on an understanding of what is known about this vital activity.” After reading Doyle’s book, faculty members will have a good understanding of the research on how students learn, why learner-centered teaching (LCT) best accommodates this research, and practical ways to implement LCT in their own courses.

Bjork (1994) defines learning as “the ability to use information after significant periods of disuse and it is the ability to use the information to solve problems that arise in context different (if only slightly) from the context in which the information was originally taught.” That is, learning implies that students are able to both recall knowledge and skills after the exam/course is over, and are able to transfer the knowledge to novel situations encountered in the “real world.” The only way to reach these learning outcomes, the book argues, is for students to actively engage in learning the content and skills, and then use and practice the learned content and skills for significant periods of time; this is what learner-centered teaching attempts to achieve.

In brief, these are the main topics covered:

  • Research from cognitive psychology that supports the notion that learning is a change in the learner’s brain.
  • How to motivate students to do the work (given their long experience with teacher-centered teaching). Many strategies provided for how to achieve this.
  • A case for the power of authentic learning; that is learning in contexts that involve real-world problems and projects that are relevant to the students. It is hinted at, but I would emphasize, that these projects should be matched with the students’ level of expertise (cognitive load theory) and the amount of instructional guidance should be carefully calibrated.
  • The book does not completely dismiss lecturing (almost), but it does make a strong case for faculty to move from being lecturers to being facilitators of learning. Practical, step-by-step, advice on how to achieve this is provided and it basically boils down to creating daily lessons plans (not lectures) including daily learning goals, activities, practice, and feedback. A case is made for limiting faculty “talking” in favor of (effective) class discussions.
  • The importance of getting to know our students in order to create a safe and comfortable learning environment, as well as promoting a growth mindset among the students. The importance of relationships and community.
  • A case is made for giving students control and choices in terms of course policies, content, teaching methods, and organization.
  • Several chapters are devoted to teaching in ways that support our evolutionary past, such as teaching to all the senses, highlighting content patterns, and using the evidence-based learning strategies of spacing, interleaving, retrieval practice, and elaboration (reflection).
  • The book also highlights the importance of sleep, nutrition, and exercise to learning.

Overall, the book makes a strong case for learner-centered teaching. I agree.