Learning Theory and Learning Environments at Brigham Young University
Brigham Young University in Utah, USA, is founded on the concept: “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve” (Bednar, 2008). Its 33,500 students come from 104 countries with 65% speaking a second language. BYU’s accounting, foreign language, animation, and business programs are top 10 in the nation thus the competition to get into BYU fierce with an average 3.87 GPA (BYU, 2020). While the majority of the students are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, students from all faiths attend because the university values spiritual learning as well as secular. From my perspective as both a student and a student professor of American Sign Language at BYU, their learning environment is curriculum- and assessment-centered.
BYU’s rigorous curriculum emphasizes academic learning but also directly connects students with leaders in their respective areas of study. Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000) states that “concepts must be presented in ways that are developmentally appropriate” (p.153). Unfortunately, too often I have noticed that university professors define “developmentally appropriate” as lecture-centric learning; assuming that when a person graduates from high school they acquire knowledge best in this one format. Thus, university students must excel in verbal or logical intelligence in order to succeed, whether this is a natural learning method for them or not, marginalizing and excluding many brilliant students (Armstrong, 1993, p.16).
Aligning BYU’s Learning Environments
BYU’s standing among highly-ranked universities makes it an assessment-centered specifically summative assessment-centered, learning environment. The wonderful staff would hand out free hot cocoa, set up bouncy castles, and conduct playful games on campus to help break up the intensity of BYU’s high stakes examinations. Yet, we still spent innumerable hours in the testing center (with accounting students averaging eight hours per exam). This rigorous (and in my opinion, destructive) assessment-centered environment induced severe anxiety for even the most prepared of students. (Especially considering these were all straight-A students and already prone to perfectionism and anxiety-disorders.) These assessments compared students against a single, rigid standard, thus further ingraining a fixed rather than growth (malleable) mindset (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, p.23; Dweck, 2006).
While BYU staff invest highly in their students, classes were often traditionally structured with few student-centered teaching or learning practices. Partly to blame for their curriculum and assessment-centric environment is how U.S. universities are structured generally, to which BYU is aligned. But I believe BYU would have a more balanced learning environment if examinations were de-emphasized in place of project-based and learner-specific assessments. Rather than a one-size-fits-all exam, students would apply their learning in diverse and meaningful ways. A mathematics student could create the financial map of a hypothetical micro-loan nonprofit. Or a student in a Women’s Studies course could create an instructional video for the organization, “She’s The First.” Project-based assessments are inherently learner-centered; they account for a variety of learning methods and de-escalate the anxiety-inducing and homogenizing effect of formal examinations. These “authentic measures of assessment” would “probe students’ understanding of material far more thoroughly than do multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests” (Armstrong, 2018, p.129).
My Definitions of the Three Learning Environments
In a learner-centered environment, learning may take the form of enthusiasm for a subject, the desire to explore beyond an assignment’s limits, and the application of the curriculum to a student’s current life circumstances or goals for the future. Learning in an assessment-centered environment is founded on concrete data such as good scores on exams, high grades in the classroom, or marked improvement in skill on writing or reading assignments. In a knowledge-centered environment, the curriculum is focused on what the students ‘should’ know; learning is recognized when a student reaches the objectives listed in the curriculum.
When a school is overly focused on one kind of environment, their expectations for knowledge acquisition are extremely limited. They may define learning solely as the ability to test well. When these three learning environments intersect, all kinds of learning are recognized and embraced. Rather than lauding the “ideal student” who aces exams but has little desire to learn on their own, teachers’ expectations of what knowledge acquisition looks like will broaden.
Implications on My Current Pedagogy
My focus is on teaching minority languages, specifically American Sign Language (ASL) to college-age students. When teaching, I best recognized my students were learning when they would step outside of their comfort zones (i.e. felt “comfortable and safe” enough) to act out concepts in sign language, setting aside their fear of making grammatical errors (WGU, 2020). My curriculum concentrated on useful content; the ability to walk out the classroom door and have a meaningful conversation with a Deaf person. In accordance to my belief that language learning cannot happen appropriately without interaction in the community, my students were invited to all Deaf community events.
Through the lens of this course, I believe my foremost priority as a teacher was to create a safe, learner-based environment with a secondary emphasis on useful, community-inclusive curriculum. I now recognize that my past self was very hesitant to include formal assessment-centered practices into my teaching; I was too familiar with the damage anxiety-inducing summative exams had on myself and my classmates. (Thankfully, ASL is much less regulated and micro-managed than core subjects so I had the flexibility to adjust the curriculum to somewhat match my teaching philosophy.)
While the readings from this week did not entice me to incorporate formal assessment practices into my teaching philosophy, they did remind me that there is value for both teachers and students to use formative assessments to “monitor progress” (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, p.24). I think I would place more value on project-based assessments if I were teaching in the classroom today. Encouraging students to interpret their favorite children’s book into sign or film themselves having a signed conversation with a language model would be “authentic measures of assessment” (Armstrong, 2018, p.129).
Studying and teaching at BYU impressed upon me the need for a learning environment to be balanced and thus appropriately learner-, knowledge-, assessment-, and community-centered. BYU would benefit from de-emphasizing standardized tests to focus on project-based assessments. I believe that my current pedagogy, which has previously focused mainly on learner and knowledge-centered practices, would benefit from incorporating meaningful assessments.
Armstrong, T. (1993). 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences. Plume.
Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (4th ed.). ASCD.
Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press. https://www.nap.edu/download/9853
Bednar, D.A. (2008). BYU Commencement Address. Brigham Young University. https://entertolearn.byu.edu/learning-love-learning-and-service
BYU. 2020. Facts & Figures. [Printable handout.] Brigham Young University. https://www.byu.edu/facts-figures
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.
WGU. (2020, July 21). What is humanistic learning theory in education? Western Governors University. https://www.wgu.edu/blog/what-humanistic-learning-theory-education2007.html