Student-centered learning, also known as learner-centered education, broadly encompasses methods of teaching that shift the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student. In original usage, student-centered learning aims to develop learner autonomy and independence  by putting responsibility for the learning path in the hands of students. Student-centered instruction focuses on skills and practices that enable lifelong learning and independent problem-solving. Student-centered learning theory and practice are based on the constructivist learning theory that emphasizes the learner's critical role in constructing meaning from new information and prior experience.
Student-centered learning puts students' interests first, acknowledging student voice as central to the learning experience. In a student-centered learning space, students choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will assess their own learning. This is in contrast to traditional education, also dubbed "teacher-centered learning", which situates the teacher as the primarily "active" role while students take a more "passive", receptive role. In a teacher-centered classroom, teachers choose what the students will learn, how the students will learn, and how the students will be assessed on their learning. In contrast, student-centered learning requires students to be active, responsible participants in their own learning and with their own pace of learning.
Usage of the term "student-centered learning" may also simply refer to educational mindsets or instructional methods that recognize individual differences in learners. In this sense, student-centered learning emphasizes each student's interests, abilities, and learning styles, placing the teacher as a facilitator of learning for individuals rather than for the class as a whole.
Theorists like John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, whose collective work focused on how students learn, have informed the move to student-centered learning. Carl Rogers' ideas about the formation of the individual also contributed to student-centered learning. Rogers wrote that "the only learning which significantly influences behavior [and education] is self discovered".Maria Montessori was also a forerunner of student-centered learning, where preschool children learn through independent self-directed interaction with previously presented activities.
Self-determination theory focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and 'self-determined'. When students are given the opportunity to gauge their learning, learning becomes an incentive.
Student-centered learning means inverting the traditional teacher-centered understanding of the learning process and putting students at the centre of the learning process. In the teacher-centered classroom, teachers are the primary source for knowledge. On the other hand, in student-centered classrooms, active learning is strongly encouraged. Armstrong (2012) claimed that "traditional education ignores or suppresses learner responsibility".
A further distinction from a teacher-centered classroom to that of a student-centered classroom is when the teacher acts as a facilitator, as opposed to instructor. In essence, the teacher’s goal in the learning process is to guide students into making new interpretations of the learning material, thereby 'experiencing' content, reaffirming Rogers' notion that "significant learning is acquired through doing".
Through peer-to-peer interaction, collaborative thinking can lead to an abundance of knowledge. In placing a teacher closer to a peer level, knowledge and learning is enhanced, benefitting the student and classroom overall. According to Lev Vygotsky's theory of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), students typically learn vicariously through one another. Scaffolding is important when fostering independent thinking skills. Vygotsky proclaims, "Learning which is oriented toward developmental levels that have already been reached is ineffective from the viewpoint of the child's overall development. It does not aim for a new stage of the developmental process but rather lags behind this process."
One of the most critical differences between student-centered learning and teacher-centered learning is in assessment. Student-centered learning typically involves more formative assessment and less summative assessment than teacher-centered learning. In student-centered learning, students participate in the evaluation of their learning. This means that students are involved in deciding how to demonstrate their learning. Developing assessment that supports learning and motivation is essential to the success of student-centered approaches.
Application to higher education
Student-centered learning environments have been shown to be effective in higher education. They have been defined specifically within higher education as both a mindset and a culture within a given educational institution and as a learning approach broadly related to, and supported by, constructivist theories of learning. They are characterised by innovative methods of teaching which aim to promote learning in communication with teachers and other learners and which take students seriously as active participants in their own learning and foster transferable skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and reflective thinking. The revised European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, due to be approved by the ministers of European higher education in May 2015, include the following passage on student-centred learning: "Institutions should ensure that programmes are delivered in a way that encourages students to take an active role in creating the learning process and [should ensure] that the assessment of students reflects this approach."
A research university in Hong Kong sought to promote student-centered learning across the entire university by employing the following methods:
- Analysis of good practice by award-winning teachers, in all faculties, to show how they made use of active forms of student learning.
- Subsequent use of the analysis to promote wider use of good practice.
- A compulsory teacher training course for new junior teachers, which encouraged student-centered learning.
- Projects funded through teaching development grants, of which 16 were concerned with the introduction of active learning experiences.
- A program-level quality enhancement initiative which utilized a student survey to identify strengths and potential areas for improvement.
- Development of a model of a broadly based teaching and learning environment influencing the development of generic capabilities to provide evidence of the need for an interactive learning environment.
- The introduction of program reviews as a quality assurance measure.
The success of this initiative was evaluated by surveying the students. After two years, the mean ratings indicating the students' perception of the quality of the teaching and learning environment at the university all rose significantly. The study is one of many examining the process of implementing student-centered pedagogies in large institutions of higher education.
- ^Jones, Leo. (2007). The Student-Centered Classroom. Cambridge University Press.
- ^Rogers, C. R. (1983). Freedom to Learn for the 80's. New York: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, A Bell & Howell Company.
- ^Pedersen, S., & Liu, M. (2003). Teachers’ beliefs about issues in the implementation of a student-centered learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 51(2), 57-76.
- ^ abHannafin, M. J., & Hannafin, K. M. (2010). Cognition and student-centered, web-based learning: Issues and implications for research and theory. In Learning and instruction in the digital age (pp. 11-23). Springer US.
- ^Young, Lynne E.; Paterson, Barbara L. (2007). Teaching Nursing: Developing a Student-centered Learning Environment. p. 5. ISBN 078175772X.
- ^Johnson, Eli (2013). The Student Centered Classroom: Vol 1: Social Studies and History. p. 19. ISBN 1317919491.
- ^Student-Centered Learning. (2014). Education Reform Glossary. http://edglossary.org/student-centered-learning/
- ^ abKraft, R. G. (1994). Bike riding and the art of learning. In L. B. Barnes, C. Roland Christensen, & A. J. Hansen (Eds.), Teaching and the case method. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, Pg. 41
- ^Vygotsky, L.S. (1980). Mind in Society. p. 89. ISBN 0674076699.
- ^Crumly, Cari (2014). Pedagogies for Student-Centered Learning: Online and On-Ground. p. 26. ISBN 1451489536.
- ^Jahnke, Isa (2012). "A Way Out of the Information Jungle". In Coakes, Elayne. Technological Change and Societal Growth: Analyzing the Future. p. 182. ISBN 1466602015.
- ^Wright, Gloria Brown (2011). "Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education"(PDF). International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 23 (3): 93–94. ISSN 1812-9129.
- ^Attard, Angele; Iorio, Emma Di; Geven, Koen; Santa, Robert (2014). Student-Centered Learning SCL Toolkit. Brussels: European Students' Union.
- ^Hoidn, Sabine (2016). Student-Centered Learning Environments in Higher Education Classrooms. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
- ^Geven, K.; Attard, A. (2012). "Time for Student-Centred Learning?". In Curaj, Adrian; Scott, Peter; Vlasceanu, Laz?r. European Higher Education at the Crossroads. ISBN 9400739370.
- J.S., Armstrong (2012). "Natural Learning in Higher Education". Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Heidelberg: Springer.
- Hoidn, S. (2017). Student-Centered Learning Environments in Higher Education Classrooms. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Kember, David (2009). "Promoting student-centred forms of learning across an entire university". Higher Education. 58 (1): 1–13.
Advocate Online , October , 2008
The Learner-Centered Classroom
By Terry Doyle
Thriving in Academe
A Clear Rationale for Learner-Centered Teaching
“Although it may irritate the teacher, one of the most intelligent questions a student can ask is, ‘Why do we have to do this?'”— Robert Sylwester
The first step to helping students adjust to learner-centered teaching is to explain WHY this approach is the best possible way to enhance their academic success. This includes explaining how the new learning roles and responsibilities expected of them in a learner-centered classroom will allow them to better meet their learning and life goals.
Perhaps the best way to help students understand why we have changed to a learner-centered practice is to simply say—this is where the research has led us. New discoveries about how the human brain learns and the subsequent recommendations for how to teach in harmony with these discoveries have guided the learner-centered approach to teaching. Our students need to see that we are following the best research in designing our teaching approaches, just as we require them to follow the best research in doing their course work.
There are three rationales I believe are key to helping our students understand why we need them to
take on the new roles and responsibilities required of them in a learner-centered environment.
Changes in Our Understandings of How Humans Learn
Many of the changes students will see in our teaching approach can be explained by our desire to bring our teaching into harmony with the new discoveries about how the human brain learns. For example, we want students to do more firsthand learning, group learning, practicing, reflecting, teaching of others, and presentations because all of these learning activities require active learner engagement. We know from neuroscience research that the dendrites of our brain cells only grow when the brain is actively engaged and the neuron-networks formed in our brains only stay connected when they are used repeatedly (Ratey, 2002, p. 19). We need to continually reinforce to our students that the learning tasks we are asking them to take on, which require them to adopt new learning roles, are done to optimize the development of the neuron-networks they need to be successful college learners.
We are Preparing Students for Their Careers
The rationale for teaching many of the learning skills, behaviors, attitudes, and critical thinking strategies now a part of learner-centered college courses is that our students will need these skills for their careers. For example, we put students into small groups not only to promote a deeper level of learning but because learning to talk with or listen to others is, perhaps, the single most important skill needed to be successful in any career field. A rationale for asking students to make presentations before the whole class is that learning to speak in front of others is crucial to career success. The simple point is that most learning activities or content knowledge we teach has relevance to students’ career goals. We just have to continually point this out to them.
College must Prepare Students to be Lifelong Learners
The new reality our students need to accept is that college is no longer a terminal educational experience. The big change we must accept is to rid ourselves of the idea that if we don’t teach it to them then they will never learn it. Replacing that idea with one that says, if we don’t prepare them to be lifelong learners, capable of independent, self-motivated learning, then we have done less than a satisfactory job with their college education.
One of the reasons students are being asked to take on more responsibility for their own learning is because they will be responsible for it the rest of their lives. The responsibility we have to develop our students’ lifelong learning skills is justification for many of the changes we are asking our students to make in a learner-centered classroom. When we ask them to write copiously, read large amounts of information, learn to manage their time, work well with others, accept and give feedback and criticism, express ideas in clear, concise ways that can be easily understood by others, listen attentively, defend a position or idea, or find a proper source, we do so because they will have to do these things the rest of their lives if they are to be successful.
Each time we conduct a class activity or give a homework assignment or assessment, we can help increase our students’ understanding of why we want them to do these things by pointing out how these activities are building the lifelong learning skills they will need to compete in the global economy of an ever flattening world.
A Learner-Centered Classroom Requires Students to Have New Skills
One of the basic facts that all teachers know about the learning process is: the one who does the work does the learning. But being able to successfully do the work in a learner-centered classroom will require most students to advance their learning skills.
I have identified eight areas where students will likely need our help in developing their learning skills:
- Learning how to learn on their own.
- Developing the communication skills needed to collaborate with others.
- Taking more control for their own learning.
- Teaching others.
- Making presentations.
- Developing lifelong learning skills.
- Developing their metacognitive skills—knowing what they know, don’t know or misunderstand.
- Developing the ability to evaluate themselves, their peers, and the teacher.
Each of these areas takes a more prominent role in a learner- centered classroom. All, however, are areas where most students have only limited experiences and are often not highly skilled. For example, the ability of students to evaluate the quality of their own work is crucial to their career and life success, but few students have ever been asked to do this.
Our students will need to be taught how to do meaningful self-assessment of their work; we cannot expect them to know how to do something they have never been taught. Among the most important skills we need to help our students develop are speaking and listening. These are also the most overlooked in our teaching. The ironic part of this is that these are the very activities that our students will do more often than any other on a day-to-day basis at work. As such, they are crucial skills to their professional success.
The key to helping our students to learn in this new environment is to take a lesson from basic teacher training—always check to see what the students already know and can do before making learning assignments. If we find our students are unskilled or under-skilled, then we must teach them these learning skills before expecting them to be successful learners in a learner-centered classroom.
Thriving in Academe
“Stakeholders” is a learning activity that helps students understand why they need to take on the new learning roles and responsibilities a learner-centered approach requires. It was developed by my colleague Cecil Queen, who uses it each time he introduces a new topic. Its purpose is to help students discover reasons why, beyond a grade, it is important to deeply learn their course material. In this activity students are asked to identify people or organizations that are stakeholders in their being successful learners of the new material. All stakeholders, major and minor, are then mapped on the board. The map represents everyone who is depending on Cecil’s criminal justice students to become fully competent of the new material. A list of the stakeholders identified when the topic of domestic violence was introduced is below.
You, your supervisor, your partner, the court, police department, victim(s), victims’ children, victims’ relatives, suspect, suspect’s relatives, neighbors, your family, your wife and kids, the public, medical staff, the victim’s lawyer, the suspect’s lawyer.
“Stakeholders” Exercise enhances students’ awareness that their learning success is not just about them. Cecil also notes that the exercise has two additional benefits: (1) students see that the instructor has the same stakeholders holding him responsible for effectively guiding their learning, and (2) they come to realize he would never select a teaching approach, like learner-centered teaching, if he did not believe it was the best way to help them learn.
Thriving in Academe
Issues To Consider
Helping Students Change
Professors should emphasize lifelong learning skills.
Why do students’ learning roles need to change?
As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, has pointed out, knowing has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it. “More than ever, the sheer magnitude of human knowledge renders its coverage by education an impossibility.”
What does the research say?
Research tells us that to really learn something takes attention, time, practice, effort, reflection, connection, and application—learning is not short-term regurgitation (Ratey, 2001). Our students must take a much more active role in their learning if they are to deeply know and have the lifelong learning skills they will need to compete in a global environment.
So what is the role of content in my courses?
The role of content must be to drive the development of the lifelong learning skills, thinking abilities, and communication skills crucial to students’ success—content is not an end in itself. For example, current professions, careers, and jobs require people who can:
- Effectively communicate in a wide variety of ways with very diverse populations.
- Use information to solve problems that will occur in different contexts than the context the information was first taught in.
- Transfer information to solve new problems that have yet to even be discovered.
- Use reasoning skills that require addressing multiple pieces of data at once.
How can faculty help students to change?
Let the students do the work. Use firsthand learning, self-
discovery, self-assessment, performance, and team work.
Let discussions take place between students—keep our mouths shut! Have discussion guidelines that require everyone to participate.
Help students to see that effort results in improved intelligence and abilities—effort is not an indication of a lack of ability.
What kinds of learning activities are best?
Use learning activities that are A-R-I-I:
Authentic Assignments that reflect what the information and skills will be used for in their careers.
Relevant Use guest speakers and former students to help map the connections between course material and career work and lifelong learning skills.
Interesting Students arrive motivated; teachers need to discover what is motivating them (Zull, 2002). Having some say in what and how to learn keeps students engaged.
Important No busy work. Value the work assigned. Value in our students’ minds means the work gets graded.
References & Resources
Doyle, Terrence. (2008). Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment: A Guide to Facilitating Learning in Higher Education. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
Dweck, Carol (2000). Self Theories: Their roles in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
Ratey, John. (2001). A User’s Guide to the Brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Simon, H. A. (1996). Observations on the sciences of science learning. Paper prepared for the Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning for the Sciences of Science Learning: An Interdisciplinary Discussion. Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University.
Sylwester, Robert. (1995). A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator’s Guide to the Human Brain. Alexandria, VA: ASCD Publication.
Zull, James. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Memory and Metamemory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings.” In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.) Metacognition: Knowing About Knowing, 185-205. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
National Research Council, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, National Research Council, & Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded Ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Tagg J. (2003). The Learning Paradigm College. Bolton, MA: Anker.
Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner Centered Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.