Adaptive teaching: Creating a Meaningful Learning Experience in the Classroom

Last month I had the opportunity to present at the First-Year Experience- Students in Transition conference in New Orleans. The conference serves as a platform for higher-ed leaders and administrators from around the U.S. to share and discuss the latest research in teaching, programs, advisement, and assessments. Topics center around student engagement, retention, persistence, and graduation. In particular, first generation, non-traditional, and first-year students who often find the transition into college difficult during the first two semesters. It never fails that eventually someone raises the concern that today’s students seem lazy, require a great deal of hand-holding (coddling), possess a short attention-span, and look to be entertained in the classroom. I often wonder do we really understand the term student engagement? Also, who doesn’t like to be entertained while learning. We must get beyond the mindset that learning should be a laborious effort that must be endured as a rite of passage.

As kids we were taught that learning could be fun, engaging, and connect to our reality. I know we all can remember Sesame Street, School House Rocks, Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, and Electric Company. Okay, maybe I’m dating myself but the educational TV shows of the 70s made learning fun. Music, dance, acting, puppetry, and theatrics were used to educate children. I guarantee most Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers can remember at least one lesson or song from the shows.  Many post secondary schools go to great lengths to employ the latest teaching, learning technology, and strategies to create a meaningful and adaptive (individualized) learning experience for kids. These new approaches are based on past models just with the added flare of technology. Why would we expect anything less as young or older adults entering higher education? In fact, the wish is that the college experience is building on or acting as an extension of the robust learning that is hopefully happening at the K-12 level.

Students enter the classroom with different learning styles, behaviors, cultural backgrounds, and experiences. Too often the words “teaching and learning are used as if the two are synonymous to each other. The concepts of teaching and learning should be considered independent yet interdependent actions that require separate attention. The assumption is that one equals the other which is not always the case. If we cover everything on our list (e.g., lecture, assign readings, administer a test, grade quizzes, and answer questions) then the lesson has been taught and students are learning. That is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact it becomes painfully obvious when you suddenly notice the blank stares from your students or the deafening silence that fills the room. Either the lecture was so great that all questions were answered or your students have zoned out. I suspect it’s the latter. There existing many learning theories that explain how people take in, process, perceive, and interact with information. Two of which are Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligence Theory” and Jerome Bruner’s “Constructivist Theory.”

Multiple Intelligence Theory suggests that each person possesses some distinct form(s) of intelligence that may vary in degrees. This intelligence requires information to be delivered through different methods and strategies to accommodate the learner. Eight types of intelligence are identified that can be used to guide how instruction can be designed and delivered to create a meaningful learning experience:

  • Verbal-linguistics
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Visual-spatial
  • Body- kinesthetic
  • Musical-rhythmic
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist

Constructivism Theory suggests that each person constructs new meaning of concepts and ideas by relating experiences to current and past knowledge. The premise or bottom-line is that learning is more meaningful when students can connect that information to their current knowledge and past experiences. It’s as an active learning process where students interact, transform, construct hypotheses and make decisions based on their present understanding. The information is delivered in a context that students are willing and able to learn. It emphasizes hands-on problem solving and critical thinking.

Learning can and should be engaging for both kids and adults. Creativity and learning can live in the same space. If students are able to relate to the material, connect that information to their own experiences, and apply the new knowledge to real-world situations then meaningful learning has occurred. Instructors who have never explored or considered alternative methods of teaching are not only doing a disservice to their students but also the institution and themselves. We must find better ways to meet our students where they are instead of taking the sink or swim approach. Our delivery of services, curriculum, teaching, and instruction must be flexible or at least adaptive to the rich background and multiple experiences that students bring to the conversation and classroom. Teaching should be student-centered to ensure that learning is engaging.

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