Keynote 3

  • Challenges in enhancing a student-centred approach to teaching

    Sari Lindblom-Ylänne, Centre for Research and Development of Higher Education, University of Helsinki, Finland


    Wednesday 12.00

    Room 8W 1.1

    Many universities aim at enhancing the quality of student learning through a student-centred approach to teaching. However, what universities mean by a student-centred approach to teaching is not always clearly defined. At the University of Helsinki, theCentre for Research and Development of Higher Education has two main duties: to do research on teaching and learning in higher education and to provide teachers with different courses on university pedagogy.

    One of the current research projects of the Centre aims at analysing university teachers’ approaches to teaching in a research-intensive multidisciplinary university. In order to analyse the characteristics of the student-centred approach to teaching emphasised in the strategy of the University of Helsinki, we carried out an extensive interview study. Like in many previous studies, two qualitatively different approaches to teaching emerged: in the first one, the purpose of teaching was to improve students’ learning and an emphasis was laid on continuously improving the teacher’s own teaching. In the second approach the focus was on transmission of knowledge and applying traditional teaching methods. The results showed that these approaches differed from each other in terms of the purpose of teaching. For example, many teachers mentioned that they applied varying teaching methods, but they explained the purpose of varying teaching methods in different ways. Teachers whose approach to teaching was student-centred aimed at selecting a teaching method for each course that would enhance adeep approach to learning and activate students to construct knowledge. On the other hand, teachers whose approach to teaching was teacher-centred selected teaching methods for different courses on the basis of what they felt was the most comfortable for themselves (Postareff & Lindblom-Ylänne, 2006).

    A study in cooperation with the University of Oxford showed that approaches to teaching were related to the teacher’s discipline. Teachers from “hard” disciplines were more likely to report a more teacher-centred approach to teaching whereas those representing typical “soft” disciplines were more student-centred (Lindblom-Ylänne, Trigwell, Nevgi & Ashwin, in press). The study further showed contextual variation in the approaches to teaching: both student- and teacher-centred approaches varied from one teaching context to another, but the student-centred approach was more sensitive to contextual effects.

    Teachers applied the student-centred approach more often in a less usual context than in their usual teaching context. This result suggests that it might be possible to enhance the student-centred approach to teaching by providing teachers with opportunities to test new ideas and to try new teaching methods. However, when aiming at a student-centred approach to teaching in all teaching contexts, rapid changes in use of different approaches to teaching cannot be expected. Postareff, Lindblom-Ylänne and Nevgi (in press) have shown that only after a longprocess of pedagogical training does a shift in teaching take place, generally from a teacher-centred to a student-centred approach.