Photo from left to right: Reneé Martinez, Adjunct Professor at Regent University, Brian Morgan, Chair and Professor at the Computer & Information Technology Department at Marshall University, Eric Kunnen, Associate Director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies at Grand Valley State University and Torria Davis, Instructional Designer for the Online and Professional Studies (OPS) division of California Baptist University

How to Teach a Student-centered Class



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Nov 29, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Using technology in an effective and creative way, delivering personalized learning to increasingly bigger classes, and managing limited resources with often heavy workloads, are just some of the many challenges instructors who teach online and hybrid courses face today.

Blackboard sat down with professors and advisors from four universities in the U.S. who stand out for their student-centered methods and approaches. Learn about their greatest insights and best practices.  

Meet the Interviewees 

Rene Martinez is adjunct professor at Regent University Graduate School of Education and the College of Arts and Science Teacher Education Program, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

Torria Davis is instructional designer for the Online and Professional Studies (OPS) division of California Baptist University, in Riverside, California. She is also adjunct professor for OPS and the School of Education. 

Brian Morgan is chair and professor at the Computer & Information Technology Department at Marshall University, in Huntington, West Virginia. 

Eric Kunnen is associate director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan. 

  • What is student success to you?

Rene Martinez, Regent University: I believe the focus is on the mastery of the learning goals. We develop objectives by thinking about questions such as: What do we want students to know in order to achieve mastery? What do they need to be able to do to prepare for their field? Also, asking students to create their own personal learning goals is important because it gives them responsibility for their learning. You have more ownership of a goal if you are invested in it.  Success is mastering the course and personal learning goals, which prepares students for the real world. 

Torria Davis, California Baptist University: Student success is helping a student move from where they are to where they want to be. It’s up to the instructor to be in tune with the varied goals that students might have when they begin a course and build a framework within the course to accommodate those varied goals.  

Brian Morgan, Marshall University: A lot of people try to tie success to grades, but I think they are missing the point. I feel that student success is that a student is able to gain enough knowledge from me that they can continue to quest for knowledge in that subject outside of class. Another way to define it is that the university as a whole has provided students with a well-rounded education and prepared them for no matter what they do in life. Success is whatever the student or the graduate feels they want to do. It’s not necessarily getting an A or making a million dollars. It’s all individual. 

Eric Kunnen, Grand Valley State University: At the foundational level, student success enables and empowers students to achieve,to be able to successfully accomplish their learning goals, to complete courses and to earn degrees. In reality, it’s about putting students and their expectations, needs and desires at the center of our institutions. We are here, as educational institutions, to help students generate a willingness to learn and to help them persevere and put hard work into achieving their outcomes. 

  • What tools or resources do you use in order to personalize learning?  

Rene Martinez: In a student-centered course, we want our students to be active participants and to construct knowledge through interacting, engaging and sharing. I work with five tools that help personalize learning, and the first one is having them create their own personal learning goals. Secondly, self-assessment is a key component — I ask students to self-assess using a rubric, so they can see where they are. The next tool would be formative assessments, and essentially, those are checkpoints along the way. Next, there’s scaffolding, where basically, I break learning into small chunks.  The last tool to personalize learning would be engagement. I try to teach my students about professional learning communities and the importance of working together by dividing them into small groups in order to create meaningful, deeper level discussions within the discussion board forums. This allows them more personalized learning experiences within the course.  

Torria Davis: The tool I cannot do without is rubrics. It is pretty simple. It doesn’t have a lot of “wow” factor, but it is the tool I use consistently, whether I’m building a fully online or face-to-face course. Rubrics are important to personalized learning because they can be used to establish guidelines and criteria that allow students to explore personal goals within the context of the course. Rubrics, with broad guidelines and criteria, become a path to personalized learning. 

Brian Morgan: Students learn in different ways. What I like to do is take advantage of technology to provide different learning methodologies for them. For example, I teach an Introduction to C++ course where I provide students with links to video tutorials on a topic, I give them notes from the chapter on a topic, I give them example code, and then I encourage them to work on those examples outside of class. I have really relied on Blackboard; I take advantage of discussions, I use Blackboard Collaborate to have chats with students, I use discussion tools, the quiz tool, assignment Drop Box, and grading rubrics. I use class time to actually give some additional examples, and I enjoy doing that, providing as many examples as I can.  

  • In your experience, what approaches work best to motivate and engage students?  

Torria Davis: My approach is threefold — allow student choice, provide detailed feedback, and accept revisions. I will accept as many revisions as a student wants to submit until they earn the grade they want or until the course end date. Beyond providing guidelines and criteria that must be included in a successfully submitted assignment, I minimize telling them exactly how to complete the assignment and what tools to use to complete the assignment. In that way, students have the choice to blend their interests with the assignment guidelines and criteria. Once the assignment is submitted, I provide detailed feedback. This is where the learning takes place; This is where I engage students personally with their interests and the course content. If the rubric requirements are not fulfilled, students are invited to apply the feedback and resubmit the assignment for full credit, allowing the student an opportunity to internalize the learning and attain the objectives set for the course.  

Brian Morgan: What I like to do is to assign projects that are going to be of interest to them. Something that is not always just out of the book. For example, in my Web Programming class this semester, they are learning HTML, CSS and Java Script. But their final project is to develop a website for themselves, or for a fictitious business, where they want to sell something. And so, I motivate themby encouraging them to come up with something extraordinary, and some of the ideas that come in are just awesome. In Database class, I make all of their projects to be centered around a real-world issue, so that they’re developing something that may lead them to a job. 

Eric Kunnen: I think the key for motivation and engagement is building social presence in courses. What we know about learning is that it’s a social endeavor, so there’s tremendous value in building courses that intentionally include active learning principles and social engagement through intentional instructor-student and student-student interaction. We know that students are more engaged in courses that use active learning, we know that students are more motivated with gamification or gameful learning opportunities, and we also know that students that have seen the application of a content to the real world see the connection of the content beyond the class as well. Courses that are designed to include regular instructor communication, group work, facilitated online discussions, live collaboration, reflective journaling, and timely assessment feedback, all help contribute to building a learning community. 

  • How can you predict student success or difficulties? And how to intervene effectively when needed?  

Rene Martinez: You can tell if a student is going to be successful based on the amount of participation they have within the course. In the discussion forums, I can see how many times they have come in, logged in and posted, and how they are following up in the dialogue with their group members. Before an assignment is due, I send out a reminder, and then if a student does not submit it, I follow up with an e-mail right away. For the few students who do not follow up on that email, I will call them, and if I still do not hear from them, I will send a note to their advisors. The key to helping students who are having difficulty is to follow up with them and find out if everything is okay and what I can do to help them.   

Torria Davis: Many years ago, I came across the presentation slides of Dr. Jill Kerper Mora, a professor of bilingual education from San Diego State University, on the topic of “dimensions of instruction.” Her presentation consisted of three dimensions, that, if managed well, would allow instructors to design courses at an appropriate level for their learners. First is the content dimension: how complex is the content. How can it be simplified? Second is the process dimension: What strategies are best suited for the learner given their current level of knowledge? And third is the product dimension, that is, the learning outcome developmentally appropriate given the learner’s level of experience. To predict student success or difficulties, and intervene effectively, instructors need to analyze what is already known about the intentions of the course with respect to these dimensions and the learners participating in the course. For example, is this an introductory or advanced course, are there pre-requisites learners need to enter the course, is the course theory-based or skill-based, etc. Then allow this understanding of the context of the course and the learners to guide all remaining course decisions for learning objectives, types of activities, instructional materials, and technology use.  

Eric Kunnen:  All institutions should be about student retention and student success, so I think we have some work to do there of leveraging more effectively some of the data that’s hidden away in our LMSs. If you think about the power of big data, of learning analytics and predictive modelling, we have a plethora of possibilities to be proactive at predicting student success. Products such as Blackboard Predict and Analytics for Learn help us down the path and can help to accelerate campus discussions around the benefits and value of data. Also, on the topic of intervention, there is a lot of potential for looking at the idea of nudges, proactive student reminders, tracking activity through tools like the Retention Center and Performance Dashboard in Blackboard, and finally, personalizing how we interact and engage with students to help them create a guided pathway for learning. 

  • What would be your advice for instructors, teachers or coaches who want to start working in a more personalized way? What practices would you recommend? 

Rene Martinez: Start by forming a trusting, caring environment, where you get to know your students and their learning style preferences. For example, in the discussion forums, you can group students by interest. I teach in the teacher education program, and in one of my courses, I group the students according to what discipline they are going to be teaching. I also teach, lead, and facilitate the learning process which encourages students to be active and engaged in their learning.  Encouraging teamwork and collaboration through a professional learning community provides students with opportunities to construct knowledge, in essence, deepening their understanding of the content.  Feedback that is focused and task specific helps students make improvements and allows them time to reflect and enhance their work in order to achieve mastery of their learning goals. These practices add personalized elements to the courses. 

Brian Morgan: How I started was by just listening to students talking about how instructors were doing in other classes. It was funny, because at first, I really wasn’t doing it on purpose, but I started to change how I did things in class based on what I heard from students. I would also ask questions to a bunch of students to see what was working and what wasn’t. Then I started to simply offer customized feedback for my students, even the ones who were acing homework assignments. I try to push them and motivate them to go further, give them feedback and encouragement to try additional examples and problems, and I allow them to text me or ask questions so it puts me more on their level. 

Eric Kunnen: Learning is a social endeavor, and I think the concept and the idea of social presence is super important. Learning students’ names, taking time to build your social presence as a faculty member both in the online and face-to-face classrooms, being willing to spend time with students and to encourage collaboration through active learning is key. Also, take advantage of faculty support resources that are available at your institution. At GVSU, for example, the eLearning team has a wide array of expertise, from instructional design to digital media development, instructional technology support, and emerging technologies that all contribute to student success and teaching excellence. One highly successful example are the Faculty Learning Communities. These communities of practice enable faculty to learn from, inspire, and encourage each other. We are seeing a lot of success in those communities to scale and build capacity to support an ever-growing number of faculty delivering online and hybrid courses, as well as using technology to transform teaching and learning. 

Photos by: AFP: John Clark, Kyle Grillot, Ryan Fischer and od Sanford