Demystifying Student Centered Learning




Chutima Thamraksa

Teacher-centered or teacher-direct orientation has long been the

focus of education in Thailand. This approach has placed an emphasis

on rote learning or memorization rather than developing the thinking

skills of learners. The drawback of the system is seen through the

passive and dependent learners, who lack the skills to think critically

and creatively. Recognizing this major drawback, the Ministry of

Education has initiated a major  reform of the system—from the

traditional teacher-centered to a student-centered approach—with the

intention of producing competent, independent and life-long learners

who can keep pace with global competition. However, due to the

several changes that have occurred as a result of the implementation

of this student-centered approach,  it leaves a number of teachers

perplexed about their roles and the teaching pedagogy. This article

attempts to unfold the puzzle by first giving a definition of the term and

later on examining several aspects pertinent to the approach.


The issue of student- or child-centered learning has been an

explosion of interest among educators and school/college teachers in

recent years. In fact, the term was not much recognized until the Thai

National Education Act 1999 made it the key concept in the reform of

education. This new approach, it is hoped, will maximize the potential

of Thai people to cope with the increasing demands of the knowledgebased economy and the world of  information and communication


Even with this interest, however, there arises much confusion

and mistrust of the pedagogical movement behind the new model.

Some teachers view it as a threat to their long-time teacher-centered or

teacher-front orientation, while some fear that the approach will lessen

the significant role they play in class, i.e., as the importer ofpage 60 SLLT 2003

knowledge. Likewise, some students become sullen and hostile to this

approach as can be seen from the remarks that were recently reported

in the newspapers that “the child-centered approach is like ‘khwai’-

centered approach.” Literally, the term ‘khwai’ in Thai refers to a

large cow used to draw ploughs for farmers. When used in reference to

people or ideas, it implies that the compared people or ideas are

witless. By describing the child-centered approach as ‘khwai’-centered

approach, it can be inferred that the approach is a disappointment; it

does not help students to become  smarter but rather impedes their

progress.  Such a criticism clearly  reflects the failure, not of the

approach per se, but of the teachers’ misinterpretation, misuse and

abuse of the concept.

Despite a substantial body of literature on student-centered

learning, the majority of teachers, it can be said, are still skeptical of

whether the approach can really enhance student learning quality.

Much worse, teachers are uncertain of how and what they should do to

implement the approach. A number of questions regarding the

feasibility, viability and applicability of this teaching model are raised

widely in the teaching community. As such, this paper will attempt to

clarify and analyze the principles and aspects of student-centered

learning through the most frequently asked questions in terms of this


What Is Student-centered Learning?

Simply put, student-centered  learning is a model wherein

students are placed in the core of the learning process. As such,

students’ needs, opinions, backgrounds, and goals are acknowledged

and incorporated within the learning environment. In this model,

teachers are guided by what is best for the students when helping them

to learn or make decisions.

The concept of student-centered learning is derived from

several models. It first evolves out of the constructivist learning theory

which asserts that knowledge is constructed uniquely and individually

in multiple ways (Vygotsky, 1978, cited in Bush & Saye, 2000). It also

derives from the experiential model in which teaching is seen as

transformation of existing knowledge (Kohonen, 1992) and the active

learning model which suggests that all learning activities involve some

kind of experience or some kind of dialog such as dialog with self and

dialog with others (Fink, 2002).SLLT 2003 page 61

What Are the Characteristics of Student-Centered Learning?

On the basis of the models from which it derives, studentcenteredness entails these characteristics:

• The focus is on active learning, using an integrated approach to

connect new learning to prior learning, stimulating interest and

relevance, providing student  choice and control, adapting to

individual developmental differences, and providing a caring

and supportive learning environment (Bansberg, 2003).

• Knowledge is constructed through authentic learning. It is

learnt in a real context or the context in which it was first

generated. In other words, it links school learning experiences

to real world situations.

• Students are active participants in the learning process rather

than passive recipients. They have opportunities and increased

responsibilities to identify and self-direct their own learning

needs, locate learning resources, and construct their own

knowledge based on those needs.

• Class activities and project work are arranged differently to

allow learners a variety of choices to select according to the

needs of each student. This results from the notion that students

have different capabilities and  preferences for learning modes

and strategies.

• A learning environment, where learning may take place

anywhere, at any time, in many forms and by diverse means, is

created. Such a learning environment enables students to be

responsible for and involved in their education. As such,

students are provided with  substantive out-of-classroom

activities that increase students’ learning in a number of


• Students are motivated more intrinsically (self-motivation) than

extrinsically (external motivation). Simply put, students are

motivated from within not from without. For example, they

type a written assignment because they take pride in their work

not because they want people to admire or approve of 62 SLLT 2003

Why Switch to this New Model?

What Is the Problem with the Traditional Method?

To answer these questions, we need to look back to analyze the

nature of the traditional teacher-centered approach, and its outcome on

learners to see why a student-centered approach should be promoted as

an alternative.

The teacher-centered approach, influenced by the transmission

model,  affirms that knowledge is something that can be transmitted

from teachers to students, like a two-dimensional learning of teacher to

student instruction.  In a classroom, a teacher is the person in authority

whose job is to impart knowledge and skills, evaluate and correct the

learners’ performance according to the criteria he/she has set. The

students are relatively passive recipients of knowledge, and expect the

teacher to be totally in charge of their learning. As such, the typical

pattern of classroom interaction in this transmission model is IRE—

teacher Initiation, student Response, and teacher Evaluation (Mehan,

1979). In the IRE pattern,  teachers are always at the front of the room,

providing knowledge, asking students to demonstrate knowledge

previously taught, and evaluating the students’ responses and


This teacher-centered practice is deeply rooted in Thai society,

wherein “hierarchy” lies as a central value. Since Thais place an

emphasis on the vertical respect relation and submission to authority

(Williams, 1980), teachers, who have a much higher status than

students, are regarded as the second parents whose mission is not only

to impart knowledge but to teach morals and mold the students to be

good citizens in society as well. The image that is generally assigned

to a teacher is that of a “righteous guru” who possesses great

knowledge. As such, it goes without saying that in the learning

process, the teacher, not the learner, is placed right in the center.

In view of these two factors, the hierarchical pattern of society

and the transmission model of education, we can understand more

clearly why Thai teachers need to maintain their “righteous guru”

image through the use of teacher-front orientation and the IRE pattern.

Unfortunately, however, such teaching practice has a major downside,

for it has shaped learners to be passive recipients who merely listen,

memorize, and absorb the information transferred  by the guru rather

than to initiate or negotiate the outcome of the learning process.

Students are not trained  to exercise their analytical, critical, and

reflective thinking. Much worse,  this education system does notSLLT 2003 page 63

prompt students to become independent learners who recognize that

knowledge is constructed in many ways, see the value of learning,

realize that learning is a life-long process, and understand that there’s

no one else but themselves be responsible for their own learning.

To keep abreast with the rapidly changing world of information

and the economy that requires critical thinking, we need to empower

the students. We need to enable them to think critically and

independently, and be responsible for and involved in their learning.

Students need to be self-directed  and become active players in the

academic learning enterprise. On all these accounts, it is time to

advance from two-dimensional teacher-to-student instruction to  threedimensional student-centered learning where students and teachers are

involved in project work. According to Watanabe (1999), the latter can

“allow for a depth in the learning process through the students and

teachers active participation in the learning process—a participation

that allows for an unlimited amount of creativity” (p. 1).

How Can Student-centered Learning be Implemented?

As mentioned earlier, the teacher-centered model has long been

the focus of our education system. Therefore, in an attempt to

implement the student-centered approach, the first thing that needs to

be done is to reconceptualize teaching and learning. The traditional

concept—that emphasizes knowledge  as the object to be transmitted,

teaching as the presentation of knowledge, and learning as its

absorption—must all be reformed. We need to implement a new

conception that views knowledge as something that can be

constructed, teaching as a means to provide an environment that is

most conducive to learning, and learning as the process of learning

how to learn. Based on the new concept, teachers and students need to

modify their new roles to fit the learning process. These can be

outlined as follows:

The Role of a Teacher

The teacher’s role, in a student-centered classroom, is much

more crucial and valuable than that of the teacher-centered orientation.

Teachers need to:

• Change from the role of authority and presumed expert who

possesses all knowledge to become a facilitator who provides apage 64 SLLT 2003

setting in which the students can play an active and inquiring

role in their own learning.

• Create a learning environment that stimulates and challenges

learners, fosters critical thinking and the process of knowledge

construction. For example, teachers can enhance the thinking

skills of learners through doing  such activities  as reasoning,

decision making, reflecting, making inferences and problem

solving. These types of activities encourage students to engage

cognitively and emotionally with the learning tasks. The latter

activity, especially, can be done by building an environment

that allows students to examine complex problems using a

wide variety of resources, develop their own strategies for

addressing these problems, and present and negotiate solutions

to these problems in a collaborative manner.

• Promote collaborative learning. Collaboration among students

is an integral component of  the student-centered approach.

Working as a team, according to Kohonen (1992), can create a

positive interdependence and individual accountability among

learners as each member attempts to contribute to the team

product and thus is in charge  of helping his/her teammates to

learn. Collaboration can also foster learners’ growth, develop

social and learning skills, and  help them construct their own

knowledge through engaging in the exchange of ideas.

• Recognize the individual differences in approaches to learning.

Teachers should set multiple tasks and give choices to learners

to select and sequence their own activities independently.

• Reinforce the idea that the source of knowledge is not confined

within the walls of a classroom, but may also be discovered

outside. Some examples of sources of knowledge include:

parents, elders, libraries, museums, historical sites, authentic

materials, and the Internet.

• Utilize “authentic assessment” (“Authentic Assessment,”

2001)—one that examines a student’s collective abilities,

criterion-referenced, and performance-based—rather than

standardized assessment.

• Draw from different disciplines to integrate learning

experiences and more importantly, use team teaching toSLLT 2003 page 65

achieve integrated learning outcomes. For example, teachers

with different expertise like tourism and biology, working

together, can bring together the concepts in different subjects to

teach generally about the environment.

• Draw upon the relation between the students’ prior knowledge

and experiences to the new learning. This is based on the

notion that the learning experiences that relate to the students’

personal knowledge and experiences are the most easily learnt

and often the most difficult to forget.

The Role of a Student

In a similar vein, students play a significant role in the learning

process. They no longer view themselves as empty vessels waiting to

be filled. Instead, they need to:

• Change from the old belief “knowledge is to be transmitted by

teachers” to the new understanding “knowledge is to be

constructed,” and be aware that students are responsible for

constructing their own personal knowledge.

• Change from merely being passive recipients to taking part as

active participants who are engaged in all aspects and activities

of their learning (both cognitively and physically) that are

generally the duty of the teacher in most traditional learning


• Set meaningful goals for completing the learning activity,

assume more responsibility for meeting those goals, and

monitor their progress in order  to determine if the strategies

they are using to accomplish their goals are effective

(Glassglow, 1997).

Is the Use of Technology an Integral Component

in Student-Centered Learning?

There is no doubt that in the 21


century technology is

increasingly important. Not only does it affect the way we live, the

way we conduct business, the way we communicate with one another,

but also the way we teach and  learn. According to Tsang-Kosma

(2003), the business world demands  that schools prepare graduates

who are skilled at working in teams, can effectively solve problems,page 66 SLLT 2003

are able to process and apply information, and more importantly, can

use technology effectively in order to maximize productivity. As such,

the challenges and educational  goals for schools should focus on

creating the learning environment that incorporates technology as well

as fosters the skills necessary to empower students. If integrated

properly, technology such as audio, dynamic visual formats,

computers, and the Internet, will  enrich the learning environment by

using them effectively as a medium of instruction or a tool to enhance

student learning. Some merits of technology, as outlined by NCREL

(2003) are highlighted here:

• Technology can change the learning context from teachercentered to learner-centered activities, giving students more

control of content, creating  a more collaborative learning

environment, and providing different ways of accessing

information and communicating with people. Many interactive

software programs can lend themselves well to learnercentered instructional approaches.

• Technology provides hands-on, minds-on activities—those that

engage students’ physical as well as mental skills to solve

problems. The activities can increase students’ fluency with

given content, strengthen basic skills, help students acquire

higher-level proficiencies, increase the relevancy of instruction

to students’ lives, provide interactive feedback about their

performance, and most of all, motivate students. For example,

the use of electronic books, often on CD-ROM, can turn

reading from a static, print-based activity into an exciting,

interactive experience.

• Technology, particularly the Internet, is a tool well-suited to

learning. It provides an ideal learning environment that allows

anyone to learn by doing, to  receive feedback, to refine

understanding, to build new  knowledge, and to reflect

(“Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers,” 2003).

What Difficulties Can Arise in the Implementation

of Student-Centered Learning?

The difficulties that may arise from implementing this

innovative model include:SLLT 2003 page 67

• Some teachers resist changing  their old beliefs and usual

teaching practices. Such  resistance may occur from the deeply

rooted “righteous guru” or  “imparter of knowledge” image

fixed in their head. These teachers view themselves as the

authorities whose mission is to teach, direct, instruct, and

control students. Therefore, they may fear doing things

differently; they may see the change as a threat to their status

and profession.

• A number of teachers are not willing to implement the

approach, for they perceive that the way they teach is already

the best and thus there is no  need to change. Since these

teachers opt to use only one way or method that they feel

works best, they are not open to new ideas or other


• Some teachers are in a rush to implement the approach without

a thorough understanding of the principles and a careful plan of

teaching. These teachers are too eager to make changes and do

not take into consideration the  culture and realities of their

classroom situation.

• Some teachers lack the knowledge and skills to incorporate

technology into their own teaching. Unfortunately, many

teachers know very little about computers and are not

interested in learning; while others may try to seek new uses

for technology in the classroom but do not have sufficient

technical support. These teachers see the value of technology

but they feel frustrated because they are not trained to use these

resources in the classroom setting.

• It may be the case that while many teachers are personally

committed to serving students’ needs, the structure of their

organization and policies may  not accommodate or, in some

cases, hinder the desire to be more student-centered.

• Some students reject the approach because they want evidence

that they are being taught something. These students, like some

teachers cling to the perception that knowledge must be

transferred and thus wait for teachers to spoonfeed 68 SLLT 2003

What Results Can be Indicative of Success in

the Implementation of Student-Centered Approach?

The ultimate goal of student-centered learning is to produce

self-directed, lifelong learners. This means that teaching can facilitate

students to move from dependency toward autonomy. The success of

the implementation of such an approach can be examined from the

stages of student development below: (“Steps Toward,” 1996)

Stage One: Dependent Learners

Learners, at this very first stage, are dependent on teachers—

authorities who impart knowledge, give explicit instructions on what

to do, how and when to do it. To students, learning is teacher-centered.

Students are not given an opportunity to make choices or exercise

control over their learning.

Stage Two: Interested Learners

At this stage, learners show positive response toward the

motivation and guidelines given by  teachers. Despite a directive

approach, teachers can successfully link content to students’ interests,

show high support, and build  a good rapport in the classroom

community, all of which can reinforce student willingness and


Stage Three: Involved Learners

Students, at this level, are  much more developed. More and

more, they see themselves as participants in their own learning, seeing

the value of their own life experiences, and also the value of learning

from and with others. Learners respond well to teaching through

collaborative learning.

Stage Four: Self-directed Learners

At this stage, learners can  set their own goals, plans, and

standards. This gives them a  sense of independence in, and

responsibility for their learning. Teachers no longer give lectures, but

rather act as consultants, monitor student progress, and give feedback

in the learning process.

ConclusionSLLT 2003 page 69

Student-centered learning is a model in which students are the

focus of the learning process. This model, however, does not mean that

teachers will step aside, letting students alone run everything. Rather,

it means that teachers, when planning their teaching, will take into

consideration the views and needs of students and run the classroom to

the benefit of students. It also means that teachers will manage their

teaching in a way that makes students feel included, value the

educational process, and take control of their own learning.

Implementing a student-centered model is a true challenge for

the 21


century. The process of incorporating it into our education

system demands hard work and effort from teachers and students alike.

The key to the success of implementation requires, on the teacher’s

part, a careful study and a thorough  comprehension of the model’s

principles, as well as a genuine recognition of its value. Through the

new understanding, teachers then can change their old beliefs and

practices; they can set the new goals and standards, and plan their

teaching, taking into account what is  best for students. In so doing,

teachers can also work on their personal and professional

development. On the learner’s part, likewise, students, guided by

teachers, need to adopt a new conception of the learning process. They

need to realize that if they are to keep pace with the rapidly changing

world, and to compete in the global market place that has a growing

demand for educated workers with skills in critical thinking, problem

solving and decision making, they  must change their long-time

practice from passive to active  learners. They need to empower

themselves, gain control over their learning, and become autonomous

learners. Finally, it is hoped, teachers and students working in

collaboration, can gradually make  the learning environment become

productive and worthwhile.


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Bansberg, B. (2003). Applying the learner-centered principles to the

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student-centered learning unit: A case study. Educational

Technology, Research and Development, 48 (3), 79-91.

Fink, L. D. (2002). Active learning. Retrieved April 5, 2003, from

http://www.hcc.hawaii.edupage 70 SLLT 2003

Glassglow, N. (1997). New curriculum for new times: A guide to

student-centered, problem-based learning. Thousand Oaks, CA:


Kohonen, V. (1992). Experiential language learning: Second language

learning as cooperative learner education. In D. Nunan (Ed.),

Collaborative language learning and teaching (pp. 17-32).

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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March 3, 2003 from


Steps toward becoming a self-directed learner. (1996). The Teaching

Professor, 10 (4). Retrieved March 3, 2003  from

Tsang-Kosma, W. (2003). Student-centered learning + technology =

rethinking teachers’ education. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from

Georgia State University

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March 2, 2003  from

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About the Author

Asst. Prof. Chutima Thamraksa obtained her Ph.D. in English

Rhetoric and Linguistics from Indiana University of Pennsylvania,

U.S.A. in 1997, M.A. in English for Non-Native Speakers and a

Certificate in Teaching English  as a Second Language (TESL)from

Central Missouri State University, U.S.A. in 1988, and B.Ed. in

English from Chulalongkorn University in 1985.  She is currently the

Chairperson of the English Department, School of Humanities,

Bangkok University. Her publications include three textbooks:

Exploring through Writing: An Advanced Rhetoric; Report Writing;SLLT 2003 page 71

Critical Reading, and articles on Virtual schooling: a technological and

educational revolution, and The use of ICT on language teaching.


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