Freedom to Learn Section II: Responsible Freedom in the Classroom (part three) - An unusual science course in a university

In this chapter, professor of neurophysiology Dr Herbert Levitan tells the story of how he introduced more freedom to learn into his science course – with Carl Rogers inserting comments from time to time to give his understanding of what went on.

An experiment in facilitating the learning of neurophysiology

I.             Introduction

The professor’s traditionally organised course was too demanding for some, with enrolment dropping from 120 to 60 and then to 40 and drop-outs at 30-40%. Students were voting with their feet. So, over several years, he re-evaluated his methods and his whole philosophy of education (having read Freedom to Learn), in particular making a shift in the spectrum of control from lecturer authority to facilitator of student learning. Rogers applauds the gradual approach as the most appropriate and successful way of change. Thus, in the spring of 1979, the professor offered a course “which was conducted in a manner quite different from the way I had previously offered it, and probably quite different from most science courses offered at the University.” The rest of the chapter documents this course. 

II.           Organization and conduct of course

There are eight parts to this section:
A.   Beginning
B.   Students’ comments on beginning of course
C.   The lecture process
D.   Organization of laboratory
E.   Laboratory: students’ comments
F.    Examinations
G.   Examinations: students’ comments
H.   Student lecture

A.           Beginning

The professor came to the first day of class with two options, one directive and one non-directive. He gave students a memo explaining his goals in the course and offering them increased freedom in determining their own course. He also admits that “I myself am apprehensive about how the course will evolve and turn out but I feel the risk is worth taking.” There then followed a number of class discussions which expressed a diversity of interests and during which students were encouraged to share their feelings openly. The outcome was that the students determined the content of their course cooperatively.

B.           Students’ comments on beginning of course

Comments were typified by both cautious optimism and uncertainty. Rogers highlights one student’s comment about the reassurance felt due to mutual trust, stating that the professor’s approach exemplifies “the three attitudinal conditions that have been shown to facilitate growth in both therapy and education … there can be little doubt that he came across as a real person, without fa├žade; that he understood the range of their feelings and accepted them; that he respected and prized the student and his or her attitudes.” “They have already learned one of the most important elements – that this is a person they can trust.”

C.           The lecture process

The syllabus was flexible, not predetermined. He began by collating questions from students about the topic at hand, which he organised into a mini syllabus with references. He then worked with students to think about how experiments might be designed to answer these questions, including design limitations. Results of these would then suggest new questions and the procedure would be repeated. Rogers quotes Paolo Freire from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, stating that the class has clearly reached the desirable state described by Freire:
Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.

D.           Organization of laboratory

This section details the approach to the scheduled three hours of laboratory time and students and students are given the opportunity to choose their own lab tasks, also working out for themselves a set of purposes that will provide them with a real experience of scientific work (something not generally achieved in Lab periods).

E.           Laboratory: students’ comments

Students were able to comment openly through their diaries and course evaluations about the organisation and conduct of the laboratory. Comments were varied, reflecting the variety of experiences, but there was a general sense of a depth of interest stirred in the students.

F.           Examinations

The professor turned what Rogers calls the ‘bugaboo’ of exams into a profound learning experience. There was an initial discussion of the pros and cons of exams and then the discussion turned to how the exams should be created (by whom), how they should be taken (in class, at home, by everyone, or not at all), how they should be evaluated (what criteria, weightings), and by whom.  The students themselves wrote the questions, thus learning how difficult it is to pose good questions.

G.          Examinations: students’ comments

Comments were mostly positive, with most students agreeing that it was more difficult making exams up than taking them. Rogers’ comments on one unverbalised element of this section: “to discuss such an emotion-laden topic as exams with no feelings of panic, points to only one conclusion: that students felt sure that whatever the outcome it would not unfair or personally threatening. This speaks volumes about the instructor’s way of being in the class.”

H.           Student lecture

A student negotiated with the professor and fellow students for the content and conditions of his own lecture to the class – which elicited a very favourable reaction.

III.          Evaluation of course

A.           Students’ self-evaluation

The students’ main concerns were about how the professor was going to evaluate them. However, the professor was keen for students to have the experience of evaluating themselves (and so not just trying to please the tutor). Self-evaluation was in a journal which contained their insights, perception of progress and reflections on the conduct of the course, as well as a justification of the grade they wanted submitted. This was a new and demanding exercise for the students, but as can be seen from examples quoted here, they are serious and honest commentaries. Rogers applauds the “thorough, broadly-based, carefully planned process of evaluation.”

B.           Students’ evaluation of course

Students’ evaluations of the course itself show considerable and mature reflection on the process of learning itself as a result of the newly found freedom and responsibility for students in their own education. As Rogers points out, “By far the most significant comment is the unspoken one. Not one student intentionally dropped the course, compared to the 30-40 percent dropout rate in the earlier lecture courses by the same instructor!”

C.           Summary evaluation

The professor talks here about his sense of vulnerability in this new venture – however, the previous way of working, with him taking sole responsibility, was an “unrewarding burden”. The professor's final words in summary are: “I feel the course was a step closer to the way I think it should be … it was a step I very much enjoyed taking.”

IV.         Some concluding comments

Rogers concludes the chapter by commenting on the realness of the professor, who came across to the students “in a natural way as a real person. The extent to which this contributes to the development of trust in the group cannot be overestimated.” He also points out that a “humanistic approach, facilitative attitudes, and self-determined learnings are just as appropriate in a ‘hard’ science course as in the so-called ‘soft’ subjects.” Finally, he comments on the gradual evolution of the course, which undoubtedly reduced “the shock and resentment that are sometimes found when students are faced with the necessity of making responsible choices.”