Workshop on learner-centered method of teaching science


I began teaching Regents Physics at Midwood High School in 1984. I was fortunate to be supervised by Dave Kiefer, who is a leader in science education in New York City. I followed his advice and recommendations and emulated the practices of my colleagues. The teaching method we all used is called the “developmental” lesson plan. This type of lesson includes a motivation, an aim, pivotal questions, summaries, and recitation. The basic strategy is to develop the subject matter with the students in a logical manner with the help of oral questioning. Developmental lessons are highly structured and entirely directed by the teacher. The teacher asks questions of the entire class and a student is called upon to answer or ask questions before the entire class. All the students are presumed to be learning in the same way and at the same rate.

In 1990 I transferred to Erasmus Hall High School where I taught Ninth Grade Physical Science to students with average and below average skills. Freed from the demands of teaching a Regents course, I attended many staff development workshops and learned the importance of having lessons that are “learner centered.” Cooperative or group activities, reading lessons, laboratory exercises, and library research are examples of learner-centered lessons.

I could see the value of learner-centered instruction from my classroom experience in teaching Physical Science. The highly structured lesson plans I used for teaching Regents Physics were not effective. My students were not interested in nor could they follow lessons based on “chalk and talk.” It was natural to give lessons which called for more hands-on and paper-and-pencil activities. This method of instruction is based on the idea that students must “construct” their own knowledge and, as a matter of principle, cannot learn in a passive manner. This approach to teaching is called sometimes called “constructivism.”

In 1994 I transferred to Edward R. Murrow High School and resumed teaching Regents Physics. I have made my lessons more learner-centered by providing students each day with a student lesson plan. This is a technological innovation because it is not a feasible practice without a computer or word processor. A word processor is needed to provide attractive and readable copy and to make last minute revisions.

Student Lesson Plans

The student lesson plans describe the concepts the students are expected to learn and contains numbered items which are questions, problems, and activities the students do either in class or for homework.

Lesson #2: What is a rate?

Since many concepts of physics are rates, I think a separate lesson on the concept itself is worthwhile. The first part of the student lesson plan contains an explanation of the concept to be learned. Item No. 1 is a problem that provides students with an opportunity to see if they understand the basic idea.

Lesson #3: What is motion?

The equations do not have to be written on the chalk board and the student lesson plan provides a complete and clear definition of the terms. In my opinion, the note about instantaneous speed and calculus is too esoteric to mention, but is nonetheless included in the lesson. Item Nos. 5 and 6 are questions which should be done in class. By putting the questions in writing every student gets an opportunity to answer the question.

Lesson #5: What is kinematics?

Item No. 1 is an example of a physics derivation. Most students don't follow the steps in a derivation and find them boring. However, derivations should be part of the curriculum and I generally invite a student volunteer to help his or her classmates by deriving the requested formula at the chalkboard.

Lesson # 7: What is the slope of a graph?

Lesson #13: What is a force?

The method I found most effective in presenting this lesson was to make it a group activity with a minimum amount of teacher direction. The instructional objective is for students to understand Experiment # 3, i.e., that an object can be moving at a constant speed without any force causing to do so. Many groups could figure out that Experiment #3 is inconsistent with the Aristotelian viewpoint.

Lesson #14: What is Newton's second law?

Item No. 1 is an activity that uses the skill of scientific observation. Another technique for getting students involved in a demonstration is to ask them to predict the outcome of the demonstration.

Lesson #15: What is weight?

Item No. 1 is an example of requesting simple feedback from students. In the opening paragraph and in my verbal presentation I explain what "inertia" is; however, this does not mean that students learned the concept. What helps students to learn the concept is to make them explain the concept in their own words.

Lesson #17: What is an inclined plane?

In this lesson I showed the class how to do Item No. 1 on the chalkboard and the rest of the lesson was independent study. I went around and helped the students who were having difficulty. Every student in the class learned how to calculate the components of vectors.

Lesson #18: What is friction?

Tables are sometimes needed to solve problems, or make concrete the idea that is being taught.

Lesson #31: What connects heat and mechanical energy?

Item No. 3 is an example of how written student lesson plans enable you to pose complex problems to students.

Lesson #38: What is the ideal gas law?

Item No. 1 is an example of an activity involving constructing a table. Another example of a table would be showing the amplitude, frequency and wavelength of various types of waves: water, light, sound, etc.

Lesson #73: What is electric potential energy?

Item No. 1 is an example of an activity calling for students to make a sketch.

Lesson #76: What is Ohm's Law?

Item No.1 is another example of simply asking students to reproduce what has been explained in class.

Lesson #80: What is a magnet?

Item No 3 is an example of a contrast and compare question.

Lesson #93: What is the mass-energy relationship?

How do student lesson plans improve instruction?

1) Shifts responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.

By giving students a written lesson plan, I am saying, “It is your responsibility to learn this material. I am here to help you accomplish this but you are responsible for doing the activities and making sure that you understand the concepts.” The student lesson plan serves as a written contract between the teacher and student which makes explicit what the student is supposed to understand and supposed to do. This has the affect of increasing the student's responsibility in achieving the lesson's instructional objectives.

2) It allows more flexible lesson plans with a greater variety of student activities.

In the traditional developmental lesson plan in Regents Physics, the only type of classroom activity that is practiced is having the students do a sample problem at their desks. The problems must be a simple because of the difficulty of explaining a complex problem orally or on the chalkboard. With a written student lesson plan, it is possible to design more complex and challenging student activities, problems and questions.

3) Different students have different learning styles.

Not all students are good listeners and learn well by paying attention to spoken expositions. Some students learn better by reading. In any case, by providing students with a written exposition of the lesson it means there is more than one avenue for learning the material.

Lesson plans can include free time for students to be able to consult with one another about the subject matter and do the activities. This is an alternative way of learning the material. The use of dyads, a form of cooperative learning, is a way of encouraging communication between students.

Another excellent mode of learning is one-on-one conversations between teacher and student. Many students will not listen to statements addressed to the entire class. This is why when you give a class instructions for a laboratory exercise or Delaney cards, the percent of students who correctly follow the instructions is low. The standard developmental lesson is based on the assumption that the entire class is paying attention to what the teacher is saying. This assumption conflicts with my experience about what is occupying the minds of students during class time. This is why I feel it is important to provide students with other avenues for learning.

4) Different students learn at different paces.

Some students will have no difficulty in understanding the lesson and may want to use the class time to do all the activities or the homework. Some students may be having difficulty with the concept and difficulty in doing even the simplest activity or answering the easiest question. It is important that lesson plans accommodate the diverse needs of students.

There is no free time in a traditional developmental lesson plan. The students in a physics lesson may be told to do a problem at their desk for 5 minutes; however, they must all be working on the same problem and they must all finish together. The whole idea of the traditional developmental lesson is that the class of students is learning as a whole. Everyone is presumed to be progressing at the same rate like a marching band. When a student asks a question, he or she must say it loud enough for everyone to hear. Everyone in the class is expected to listen to this question and may be called upon to answer the question themselves. This type of lesson may be suitable for certain high-achieving students, but it is not effective, in my opinion, for most students.

Student Questionnaire

After 6 weeks of using the student lesson plans, I gave the following questionnaire to my students in Regents Physics. I received 121 anonymous responses. The first number below each question (e.g. “66” under question No. 1) is the number of students who circled “strongly agree,” the second number of students circled “agree,” the third number circled “disagree,” and the forth number circled “strongly disagree.”

The percentage (e.g. “76%” in question No. 1) shows the rate of approval. For questions # 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 13, 15, 16, and 17, circling 1 and 2 indicated approval of my teaching. For questions # 4, 9, 10, 12, and 14, circling 3 and 4 showed approval. In calculating the approval percentages the simple sum of (1) and (2) or (3) and (4) was used.

1) My mid-cycle grade was fair.

66,23,22,6,117 (76%)

2) Classroom instruction is helpful in understanding the ideas of physics.

15,38,35,28,116 (46%)

3) Classroom instruction was helpful in learning how to do the multiple choice questions on the full-period test.

9,31,40,34,114 (35%)

4) I would have learned more if the teacher spent more time explaining the basic idea of each lesson.

85,29,4,3,121 (6%)

5) Grading policy on quizzes, homework, and laboratory exercises is fair.

49,49,16,2,116 (84%)

6) I am enjoying the course on physics.

14,35,31,35,115 (43%)

7) I am enjoying this course more than the science course I took last year.

10,24,43,44,121 (28%)

8) The lesson hand-outs are helpful in understanding the lesson.

31,47,23,17,118 (66%)

9) The teacher should be more strict about students having private conversations while information is being presented.

42,28,30,16,116 (40%)

10) The grades on homework assignments are unfair because students copy other student's work.

14,18,41,42,115 (72%)

11) The demonstrations with equipment (weights, carts, etc.) are helpful in understanding the ideas of physics.

49,49,13,5,116 (84%)

12) I frequently do not understand the idea of the lesson.

43,37,28,9,117 (32%)

13) The teacher's explanation of the ideas of physics are clear.

6,27,49,34,116 (28%)

14) I am hoping I get a different physics teacher for the next cycle.

47,29,22,13,111 (32%)

15) The teacher is concerned about my academic record.

13,47,34,17,111 (54%)

16) The teacher is fair in responding to student complaints.

19,35,37,24,115 (47%)

17) The teacher is well prepared and organized.

20,48,30,17,115 (59%)

Comments on Results of Questionnaire

There is an interesting conflict between questions 11) and 12). 84 percent said that the demonstrations were helpful in understanding the concepts of physics, but only 32 percent said they understood the lessons


According to the responses to question 4) there was tremendous agreement among the students that I should "spend more time explaining the basic idea of each lesson." This refers, I believe, to my use of independent study in the teaching of kinematics and dynamics. After demonstrating and explaining the concepts and after doing a sample problem, the students were required to do the problems written on the student lesson plans in class.

Most students at Edward R. Murrow High School take Regents Physics. The pass rate on the Regents Physics examination in June 1994 was 60 percent and the pass rate in June 1995 was 70 percent.

Reaction of the Administration

The administration strongly disapproved of my teaching methods. I was willing to conciliate our differences; however, the Superintendent, Principal and Assistant Principal have chosen a more authoritarian approach and our disagreements have not yet been resolved.

An attempt to conciliate our differences could have been made in three different stages or levels. The first stage could have been to define exactly, lesson by lesson, how my lessons differ from my colleague's lessons. The second stage could have been based on our agreement that the best lesson is the one that produces the most amount of student participation in the lesson. We could have assessed the quality and quantity of student participation in my lessons. The third stage could have been to compare my test results with the test results of colleagues who were giving standard developmental lessons.