The term student-centered learning refers to a wide range of instructional approaches that shift the focus of instruction from being teacher-directed, to being student-focused. It attempts to address individual learner needs, interests, cultural backgrounds and learning styles.
Rather than the teacher being primarily responsible for learning outcomes, student-centered learning tries to instill a sense of autonomy and responsibility for learning in the students themselves.
There is a great deal of variety in how teachers conceptualize and implement student-centered learning. However, the primary objective is for students to become more active in how instruction takes place, rather than being passive recipients of the teacher’s instructional plan.
Definition of Student-Centered Learning
Scholarly definitions of student-centered learning include:
- “The concept of student-centered learning is to bring the classroom and students to life. The teacher is considered a “guide on the side”, assisting and guiding students to meet the goals that have been made by the students and the teacher” (Overby, 2011, p. 1)
- “Student-centered instruction [SCI] is an instructional approach in which students influence the content, activities, materials, and pace of learning. This learning model places the student (learner) in the center of the learning process. The instructor provides students with opportunities to learn independently and from one another and coaches them in the skills they need to do so effectively.” (Collins & O’Brien, 2003)
Examples of Student-Centered Learning
1. Classroom Debate Competition
In a class brainstorming session, students generate a list of topics they would like to debate. One student writes the suggestions on the board and then guides the formation of pro and con debate teams.
Students choose which topics they want to debate and if they want to be on the pro or con side of the argument.
The students determine how long they need to prepare and also set the basic rules for the competition. Some students may choose to serve on the panel of judges and decide on which team wins their debate.
The students then begin working on their strategy and gathering the relevant material. They may work in small teams or pairs, it’s up to them.
The day of the competition, the student moderator coordinates the debate process and the student panel of judges listen to each team and makes a final determination as to which teams won.
2. Experiential Learning Activities
Experiential learning is learning by doing. Instead of passively receiving information from a teacher describing how to do something, the students take an active role and engage the activity.
David Kolb (1984) has been one of the most prominent advocates of experiential learning theory (ELT), in which:
“learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”
According to Kolb, experiential learning includes reflective observation, abstract conceptualization.
He continues by emphasizing that ELT is a
“…process of adaptation and learning as opposed to content and outcomes…being continuously created and recreated, not an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted” (p. 38)., and active experimentation.
Students think about their performance in a learning activity and identify their strengths and weaknesses. This well produce a new conceptualization of their existing understanding and facilitate the development of a new mindset. Those new conceptualizations are then put into practice that will either confirm or reject that new understanding and leads to the whole process being repeated.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning Experience
Lee et al. (2004) define inquiry-based learning as an “array of classroom practices that promote student learning through guided and, increasingly, independent investigation of complex questions and problems, often for which there is no single answer” (p. 9).
For example, in a traditional anthropology course, the professor may display a set of artifacts and then proceed to inform students about their cultural relevance and practical purposes.
Students diligently take notes that will be committed to rote memory and then retransmitted on an exam. Learning is passive and often fleeting.
In an inquiry-based lesson, however, the lesson is reversed. The professor displays the artifacts and says very little.
The students are then tasked with finding out as much about the artifacts as possible. They examine the items and conduct their own research. Later, the students present to the professor and their classmates what they have learned about the culture in which the items belong and other pertinent information they have attained.
Inquiry-based learning is far more engaging to students than a lecture format. There is a much deeper level of information processing which leads to longer retention.
4. Reggio Emilia Educational Philosophy
Reggio Emilia is an educational philosophy that is implemented in preschools and primary schools. It is student-centered in that learning is self-guided and based on the individual characteristics and innate interests of the students.
The core element of this approach is that children have unique biological predispositions that drive their curiosity and natural abilities. Rather than making students all conform to the pedagogical approach of the teacher, the roles are reversed. The students drive their learning experiences.
Allowing children to explore their interests allows them to develop more naturally and as whole human beings. Children are seen as born scientists where they create hypotheses and conduct experiments to discover fundamental principles and relationships between factors in the environment.
Teachers document the students’ progress through pictures and videos that are later displayed to help crystalize the learning experience.
5. Science-based Solutions to Environmental Problems
Student-centered learning is a very encompassing term that covers a wide range of instructional activities.
For example, students in introductory environmental science courses at Indiana University and Purdue University engage a program that benefits the environment of a nearby community.
The work can involve restoring wetlands and floodplain ecosystems, native plant installation, or decreasing plant species eradication. The students form their own groups, take on different roles, and allocate tasks based on individual abilities and goals.
It also gives students an opportunity to coordinate with local community members, which build several practical skills such as communication and teamwork. As the webpage about this program states, it “…provides the students with an opportunity to directly experience many of the topics discussed in their courses as well as to observe how communities can work together to solve environmental problems.”
6. Problem-Based Learning In Medical School
Problem-based learning (PBL) in medical school is a student-centered learning approach in which the teacher plays a very minimal role.
In fact, they are usually referred to as tutors and they simply offer advice and guidance to students only when necessary.
First, the students are presented with a clinical problem for a real patient case. The tutor does not reveal the diagnosis or recommended treatment regimen. Instead, students discuss the facts of the case, identifying what further information is required, and where gaps exist in their knowledge base.
They then develop a path of study with clear objectives. Because the matter is quite complex, each student is allocated a learning task that will be shared with the group at the next meeting.
The tutor is present at the meetings and may offer advice or make suggestions. The students are responsible for nearly every aspect of the project.
7. Service-Oriented Learning Experience
Service-oriented learning refers to applying academic concepts to practical matters that address the needs of society. Service learning contains elements of student-centered learning, as well as being experiential, collaborative, and project-based.
The Growing Voters framework by Tufts University is just one example of how students can take the initiative and work independently to encourage the next generation of voters to participate in democracy.
The report offers suggestions for how educators and community leaders can “…close voting gaps, expand the electorate, and support a more equitable and representative American democracy”.
Service learning puts the responsibility for action squarely on the shoulders of the students. They are responsible for handling the implementation of initiative and learn many valuable practical
However, service-learning is not just about volunteering: “…service-learning applies equal focus to both learning and the service goals. It requires an academic context and is designed so that that the service and learning goals are mutually reinforcing” (Starting Point, n.d.).
8. Performance-Based Learning Experience
Performance-based learning is all about developing practical skills related to the subject under study. By working through a real-world scenario, students demonstrate their ability to complete various tasks and engage in complex problem-solving.
For example, in the above video, math teachers designed a performance-based project called Mission Relief. The mission is for students to role-play the emergency landing of an airplane. By solving various mathematical problems regarding aeronautics, the students are able to eventually guide the plane to safety
It involves a lot of math, which most students find tedious and sometimes intimidating.
But, as you can see in the video, the students are quite engaged.
Performance-based learning places the students front and center of the learning experience.
They process information more deeply and discover the subtle nuances of a subject that can only be appreciated through experience. This helps them see the connection between abstract academic concepts and the real world.
9. Provoking Deep Learning
Student-centered learning can be practiced at any grade level. The above video shows how teachers at a primary school in Australia have designed learning “provocations” that inspire children to explore their interests in specially designed learning spaces.
First, learning tasks are written on cards and placed on a large board. Students then select the one that most interests them. Each learning task card also has a designated space in the classroom where the task is performed. Those spaces contain a variety of materials that will be useful for completing that task.
When finished, the students write about their learning experience, document what they did, and reflect upon what they learned in a Learning Journey book.
The teacher and student then use the Learning Journey book to discuss the student’s experience, identify key concepts, and what might be done differently if there were another go.
In addition to students learning about a new subject, they also learn to see themselves as capable and successful learners. This improves their self-esteem, builds confidence, and drives home the point that ultimately, they are responsible for their learning outcomes.
10. Biology Lab and Frog Dissection
Everyone remembers dissecting a frog in high school biology class. Even though it’s not every student’s favorite memory of school, it does provide students with an enhanced learning experience.
Sure, textbook illustrations can also show students how the systems of the body are interconnected, but seeing them first-hand is far superior. The whole experience is much more immersive. Plus, students also learn how to cope with unpleasant emotions and anxiety.
Instead of using real frogs, many schools use synthetic replicas. They’re remarkably similar to the real thing, complete with internal organs and fake tissue.
As biology teacher Susan Offner believes, “The learning that occurs in a dissection is qualitatively different from the learning that occurs in a lecture or paper-and-pencil setting.”
- Project-based learning
- Self-directed learning
- Peer-led learning
- The Montessori model
- Journaling and reflection
- Role-playing exercises
- Student-led conferences
- Open-ended questioning
- Collaborative learning (see some examples)
- Student presentations
- Student portfolios
- Group work
- Play-based learning
- Hypothesis testing
- Democratic classroom model
- Use of Assistive Technologies for students in need
Strengths of Student-Centered Learning
1. Increases Engagement
When student-centered learning allows students to take control of the learning process, they become more immersed in the learning experience.
By allowing students to choose the subject of study, determine the learning objectives, the path of study, and even the assessment procedures, students become more involved and motivated.
2. Develops Practical Skills
Instead of memorizing definitions for a paper-and-pencil test, student-centered learning helps develop practical skills.
It’s one thing to be able to solve a mathematical equation on an exam, but it is quite another to be able to solve a mathematical equation in a simulation that could help an airliner full of passengers land safely.
In several of the examples described above, the learning experience requires students to solve real-world problems, whether that be restoring an ecosystem or increasing voter turnout.
3. Acknowledges Learning Styles
Many of the activities that are fit in the category of student-centered allow students to determine what they study, how they study, and how they are assessed. This is just the opposite of traditional instructional approaches that try to fit all students into one form of learning.
While some students are very verbal and will do well on a written exam, other students are more visual and can demonstrate the same level of understanding by creating graphic or video portrayal of academic concepts.
4. Encourages Teamwork and Collaboration
Student-centered learning often involves working with others. Students work in pairs or in small groups to perform a task or create a project. Since the project might be quite complicated, it will require several people to complete.
This complexity gives students an opportunity to decide who does what collectively. Since there may be disagreements, students learn how to negotiate conflicts and work well with others. Teamwork is one of the most valuable skills a student can possess and it will be a skill they can rely on in the future.
Weaknesses of Student-Centered Learning
1. Independent Students
Even though learning how to work well with others is an incredibly valuable skill, some personalities function better working independently. By pushing students into group projects that make them feel uncomfortable, it could be argued that we are not respecting them as individuals.
Sure, we respect individualism by allowing students to choose what they study and even how they are assessed, but we still require that they work on a team. This can make some students feel incredibly anxious and uncomfortable.
2. Teacher Preparation
Teachers have very demanding jobs. They often remark that they have no social life from September to July because of the requirements of the job. Unfortunately, a lot of student-centered learning involves a great deal of preparation.
Teachers have to prepare materials, identify resources, sometimes even create props that students will need when engaged in the activity. That is all very time-consuming, not to mention the amount of time teachers need to spend simply thinking about what to do. They often need to have several meetings with other teachers just to do think through the process thoroughly.
3. Classroom Management
A classroom of 25 students, all talking and discussing issues at the same time can get a bit noisy. Students may need to get up from their seats, gather materials, or use resources that are located in different areas of the classroom. That can seem chaotic and out of control.
This presents a challenge for teachers. On the one hand, students need to be able to discuss matters with each other and be free to access what they need. On the other hand, sometimes too much noise and activity can be very distracting and make it difficult for students to work together.
4. Student Preparedness
For a vast majority of student profiles, student-centered learning has a great many benefits. However, some students may not be ready to accept so much responsibility. Some students need more guidance and instruction from an authority figure.
Not only does it help them feel at ease in learning, but they simply have not matured enough to handle the demands of a project. It can seem daunting and make some students feel overwhelmed.
The Teacher’s Role
The teacher’s role in a student-centered classroom is more as a facilitator that guides students through the learning process.
Although there are many forms of student-centered learning, in some manifestations, students will determine the learning objectives, topics, strategies, and assessment procedures.
Student-centered learning is a broad term that encompasses many types of learning experiences. From the notion of letting students choose what they study and how they are assessed, to the implementation of complex problem-based learning projects, student-centered learning is varied and wide-ranging.
Although on the surface, it would appear that student-centered learning offers substantial benefits to students, there are some disadvantages as well. Some students can feel overwhelmed by the lack of direction, some may experience anxiety when pressed to work with others, while at the same time, the amount of work involved for teachers can be exhausting.
Ideally, teachers strive to strike a balance between the need for students to develop into autonomous learners and develop practical skills, and the many other factors that can make it a challenging endeavor.
Jones, L. (2007). The Student-Centered Classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Lee, V. S., Greene, D. B., Odom, J., Schechter, E., & Slatta, R. W. (2004). What is inquiry guided learning? In V. S. Lee (Ed.), Teaching and learning through inquiry: A guidebook for institutions and instructors (pp. 3-15). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-centered learning in higher education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 93–94.
Overby, K. (2011). Student-centered learning. Essai, 9(1), 32.
Collins, J. W., 3rd, & O’Brien, N. P. (Eds.). (2003). Greenwood Dictionary of Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood.