Shifting the Burden of Learning

When you leave the classroom, are you exhausted?  Does your voice become hoarse after a lecture?  Do your eyes hurt after teaching online?  Do your hands cramp from responding to students’ writing?  Jane Tompkins in “Pedagogy of the Distressed” (1990) suggests that its time to shift the burden of performance in the learning environment away from the teacher to the students.

"What the method boils down to is this: the students are responsible for presenting the material to the class for most of the semester."

As your students return from Spring Break, you will help them learn more by shifting the burden of learning upon them.

The Reason for Shifting the Burden

Deeper learning occurs when students engage the course materials.  According to Kember and Gow (1994), your teaching style correlates with the nature of students’ learning.  Student learning is “deeper” when instructors act as “learning facilitators.”  In contrast, students whose instructors approach learning as “knowledge transmission” learn on a “surface” level.

Some Strategies to Shift the Burden of Learning

  1.  “Clarification pauses (adapted from Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Break down content for the day's class into three 10-minute mini-lectures. At the end of each mini-lecture, give students 3 to 5 minutes to review their notes with partners. During this review, handle any questions or disputes and offer further clarification as needed. Strength: This is an excellent method for classes in which large amounts of factual information must be retained.” (Shakarian, 1995)
  2. “Application notes. At the end of a modified lecture, supply students with handouts that contain one to three application questions. Students select one of the three questions and write a paragraph explaining how they would apply the newly learned information to their daily lives (or to the real world). Students share their application paragraphs in small groups (3 to 4 students). At the end of the small group sharing, one application paragraph from each group is shared with the entire class. Strength: This technique requires students to use higher order thinking skills to apply concepts presented in class, and provides teachers with a way to check student understanding of the material.” (Shakarian, 1995)
  3. “Guided lecture (adapted from Kelly & Holmes, 1979). Students listen to a lecture for approximately half the class time without taking notes. At the end of the lecture, have students write down all the content they remember and then meet in small groups to clarify, elaborate, and rehearse the material. Strength: This method removes the attention-switching conflict between taking notes and listening to lecture, and often results in a better grasp of the interconnection among concepts.” (Shakarian, 1995)
  4. “You might ask students to come to class with personal anecdotes illustrating points from lecture or their textbooks that they are willing to share.  Exchanging anecdotes with the people seated next to them and perhaps submitting a few unusual ones to be read to the entire class is an effective means of engaging students personally and actively with the course materials.” (Benjamin, 1991)
  5. Small Group Peer Teaching divides a day’s course content into discrete questions which are distributed to groups of students.  The students in the group decide who will be responsible for each question.  They then spend time answering their question from the textbook and handouts.  After researching their answers, each student is responsible to share their findings with their group.  Every student becomes an expert about some aspect of the material and shares (teaches) it to their peers in the group.  The teacher then goes over the questions by asking volunteers to report their findings. At this point, the teacher finishes the class through summation and clarification of the material. (Adapted from Tessier, 2007)


  • Benjamin, Ludy. (1991). “Personalization and Active Learning in the Large Introductory Psychology Class.” Teaching of Psychology 18, no. 2, pp. 68-74.
  • Kember, David & Gow, Lynn. (1994) “Orientations to Teaching and Their Effect on the Quality of Student Learning.”  Journel of Higher Education 65, no. 1, pp58-74.
  • Shakarian, Diana C. (1995). “Beyond lecture: Active learning strategies that work.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 66, no. 5, pp. 21-24
  • Tessier, Jack. (2007).  “Small-Group Peer Teaching in an Introductory Biology Classroom.” Journal of College Science Teaching 36, no. 4, pp. 64-69.
  • Tompkins, Jane. (1990). “Pedagogy of the Distressed.” College English 52, no. 6, pp. 653-660.