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UIC TA Handbook - Developing a "Student Centered" Teaching Philosophy

By Charles Cunningham

Former Lecturer, Kinesiology
College of Applied Health Sciences


As a tennis coach and teacher of more than twenty years I have been fortunate to have had my share of success stories within my discipline. What surprises many of my colleagues is that my teaching effectiveness has little to do with my ability to teach tennis. While my pedagogical skills in this area are well-respected, what defines my classroom effectiveness and captures my students' attention is a teaching philosophy which is student centered. My effect on students beyond subject matter is illustrated by the following experience:

Jean was a rather quiet student who attended class every day and never once asked for help with her tennis game. Except for the occasional comment when I passed her court, we rarely said more to each other than hello and goodbye. This lack of meaningful dialogue and her stoic demeanor caused me to question whether or not Jean was enjoying her tennis experience.

My answer came at semesters' end when, as students began turning in their written course work, Jean began to cry as she handed her papers to me and thanked me for what she learned in class, both on-court and off. Jean not only enjoyed her tennis experience, but she also used the on-court practice and the readings from the textbook to deal with a personal crisis. Apparently her boyfriend called an end to the relationship during the middle of the semester, and because they shared several classes, Jean found it hard to focus on her studies. I was pleased to hear that she could relate the readings on motivation, self-concept, and mental health to deal positively with this personal challenge.

This experience, and many others, have heightened my appreciation of the importance of factoring the needs of my students into my teaching philosophy and methodology. When I began exploring this paradigm as teacher and coach, I felt there were three things I needed to know about my students:

  1. What do they already know?
  2. What tools do they already have?
  3. What is important to them?

I address the first two questions by telling students the first day of class that they know more about tennis than they may think. On the second day, I proceed to show them. I do an awareness exercise which involves having each student walk across the gym floor in front of their fellow classmates, saying their name in the process. I use this self-awareness exercise to draw attention to both the uniqueness which makes each student special and the similarities which puts each student on a level playing field with respect to accessing personal achievement. This exercise also helps them understand the effect self-perception and self-awareness have on performance. Early on I teach each student how to internalize performance assessment and not to measure his/her success against the effort of other students.

In addition to self-awareness, early in the semester I use what a colleague of mind refers to as a guided discovery approach to learning by showing my students that they already possess many of the tools necessary to learn, in this case, the game of tennis. I have found that teaching is more than showing students how much you know; it is helping students discover and sharpen the tools of success they already possess. Many students who take my class experience a significant amount of improvement during the semester and often these students erroneously give me too much of the credit for their success.

John was one such student. John had no tennis experience prior to taking my class and really had trouble at the beginning getting the ball over the net. Within eight weeks of instruction he progressed from having difficulty bouncing the ball on the strings to being able to consistently hit balls with the other students. And John erroneously gave me most of the credit for his success, yet I did little more than encourage him and practice with him a few minutes each day in class. My effectiveness stemmed from focusing less on what I knew and he didn't, and more on his level of awareness, curiosity and desire to improve. When I helped John discover and sharpen his own tools, the learning took care of itself.

Focusing on what's important to the student can be challenging to the instructor who believes that classroom control is best measured by his ability to dictate what is taught. Effective teaching and classroom management is heightened by information which grabs a student's attention. And nothing gets a student's attention more readily than information he can relate to in a personal way. My way of personalizing the classroom experience is viewing my students from the broadest context possible and integrating material which is germane both to the subject I teach and the lives of my students. The tool I use to fulfill this dual responsibility is called self-regulation.

Sharon was a student who lived in the western suburbs of Chicago, twenty miles from UIC. In addition to other coursework and the daily commute to UIC, Sharon worked twenty hours a week in a doctor's office where high demands and expectations were constant. She lived with her parents, and when not at school or work, she had to tolerate the demands of family members, something which took its toll when it came to studying and having a social life.

Sharon expressed to me how much she enjoyed my class because of what she read and experienced on the court. My class offered her balance, a chance to slow down relax, and reach her goals of earning good grades'. Through exercise and gaining an understanding about the importance of exercise, Sharon also found it easier to deal with some of the other issues she faced daily.

The pressure-cooker environment of higher education exposes students to levels of stress and performance anxiety found in few other arenas of life. Because of this, I offer students an opportunity to learn a skill and at the same time regain some sense of self-control often lost in the arena of academe. Sharon's experience is a classic example of how I help students defuse the pressure which stems from fulfilling external expectations by emphasizing participation rather than outcome. Sharon, like all of my students, felt free to experience benefits derived from exercise, which is engaging in an activity where you control the variables of intensity, frequency, and duration.

Adopting a classroom style that is sensitive to the needs of all students is critical if we are to prepare them to be productive in the workplace and society after graduation. What I have is not the panacea, only a beginning. I am well aware that, as instructors, we must have academic agendas which are consistent with the aims of UIC to educate its students. In looking at the graduation rate and retention rates we currently embrace, exploring unconventional methodology is a challenge we cannot afford to dismiss. The challenge for you as a teaching assistant is that of balancing wisdom and courage. You must come to UIC with the wisdom to learn from the success of those who have preceded you, but you must also have the courage to challenge time-worn, ineffective pedagogical methods and explore teaching ideas which facilitate active participation on the part of your students. For in the end, you must remember that, regardless of your chosen discipline, you don't teach subject matter, you teach people.

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