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Student-Centered Learning: Demystifying the Myth




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 knowledge based economy and the world of  information and communication technology.

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 of page 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 plows 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 issue.

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 dimensions.

• 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 performance.

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 not (SLLT 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  three dimensional 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 re-conceptualize 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 learningprocess. 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 activities.

• 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 21st 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 possibilities.

• 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 enthusiasm.

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.

(SLLT 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 st 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

special case of literacy. Theory into Practice, 42 (2), 142-147.

Bush, T., & Saye, J. (2000). Implementation and evaluation of a

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.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press.

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development. Retrieved March 27, 2003, from

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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

Watanabe, Y. (1999). Second language literacy through studentcentered learning. The Internet TESL Journal, 5 (2). Retrieved

March 2, 2003  from

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015980). Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University, Center for

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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.



*Chutima Thamraksa is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Bangkok Univeristy Language Institute

May 30th 2011

Student-Centered Learning: Demystifying the Myth


articles Featured Articles

Student Centered Learning: What does it mean for Students and Lecturers?


Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers?

Tim McMahon

Geraldine O’Neill and Tim McMahon
University College Dublin
E-mail: /

reprinted here with the permission of both authors


The term student-centred learning (SCL) is widely used in the teaching and learning literature. Many terms have been linked with student-centred learning, such as flexible learning (Taylor 2000), experiential learning (Burnard 1999), self-directed learning and therefore the slightly overused term ‘student-centred learning’ can mean different things to different people. In addition, in practice it is also described by a range of terms and this has led to confusion surrounding its implementation.

The concept of student-centred learning has been credited as early as 1905 to Hayward and in 1956 to Dewey’s work (O’Sullivan 2003). Carl Rogers, the father of client-centred counseling, is associated with expanding this approach into a general theory of education (Burnard 1999; Rogoff 1999). The term student-centred learning was also associated with the work of Piaget and more recently with Malcolm Knowles (Burnard 1999). Rogers (1983a:25), in his book ‘Freedom to Learn for the 80s’, describes the shift in power from the expert teacher to the student learner, driven by a need for a change in the traditional environment where in this ‘so-called educational atmosphere, students become passive, apathetic and bored’. In the School system, the concept of child-centred education has been derived, in particular, from the work of Froebel and the idea that the teacher should not ‘interfere with this process of maturation, but act as a guide’ (Simon 1999). Simon highlighted that this was linked with the process of development or ‘readiness’, i.e. the child will learn when he/she is ready (1999).

The paradigm shift away from teaching to an emphasis on learning has encouraged power to be moved from the teacher to the student (Barr and Tagg 1995). The teacher-focused/transmission of information formats, such as lecturing, have begun to be increasingly criticised and this has paved the way for a widespread growth of ‘student-centred learning’ as an alternative approach. However, despite widespread use of the term, Lea et al. (2003) maintain that one of the issues with student-centred learning is the fact that ‘many institutions or educators claim to be putting student-centred learning into practice, but in reality they are not’ (2003:322).

This chapter aims to:

Give an overview of the various ways student-centred learning is defined,
Suggest some ways that student-centred learning can be used as the organising principle of teaching and assessment practices,
Explore the effectiveness of student-centred learning and
Present some critiques to it as an approach.
What is student-centred learning?

Kember (1997) described two broad orientations in teaching: the teacher centred/content oriented conception and the student centred/learning oriented conceptions. In a very useful breakdown of these orientations he supports many other authors views in relation to student-centred view including: that knowledge is constructed by students and that the lecturer is a facilitator of learning rather than a presenter of information. Rogers (1983b:188) identified the important precondition for student-centred learning as the need for: ‘… a leader or person who is perceived as an authority figure in the situation, is sufficiently secure within herself (himself) and in her (his) relationship to others that she (he) experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to think for themselves, to learn for themselves’.

Choice in the area of the learning is emphasised by Burnard, as he interprets Rogers’ ideas of student-centredness as ‘students might not only choose what to study, but how and why that topic might be an interesting one to study’ (1999:244). He also emphasises Rogers’ belief that students’ perceptions of the world were important, that they were relevant and appropriate. This definition therefore emphasises the concept of students having ‘choice’ in their learning.

Harden and Crosby (2000:335) describe teacher-centred learning strategies as the focus on the teacher transmitting knowledge, from the expert to the novice. In contrast, they describe student-centred learning as focusing on the students’ learning and ‘what students do to achieve this, rather than what the teacher does’. This definition emphasises the concept of the student ‘doing’.

Other authors articulate broader, more comprehensive definitions. Lea et al. (2003:322) summarises some of the literature on student-centred learning to include the followings tenets:

‘the reliance on active rather than passive learning,
an emphasis on deep learning and understanding,
increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student,
an increased sense of autonomy in the learner
an interdependence between teacher and learner,
mutual respect within the learner teacher relationship,
and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner.’
Gibbs (1995) draws on similar concepts when he describes student-centred courses as those that emphasise: learner activity rather than passivity; students’ experience on the course outside the institution and prior to the course; process and competence, rather than content; where the key decisions about learning are made by the student through negotiation with the teacher. Gibbs elaborates in more detail on these key decisions to include: ‘What is to be learnt, how and when it is to be learnt, with what outcome, what criteria and standards are to be used, how the judgements are made and by whom these judgements are made’ (1995:1). In a similar vein in earlier literature, the student-teacher relationship is particularly elaborated upon by Brandes and Ginnis (1986). In their book for use in second level education (post-primary), entitled ‘A Guide to Student-Centred Learning’, they present the main principles of student-centred learning as:

The learner has full responsibility for her/his learning
Involvement and participation are necessary for learning
The relationship between learners is more equal, promoting growth, development
The teacher becomes a facilitator and resource person
The learner experiences confluence in his education (affective and cognitive domains flow together)
The learner sees himself differently as a result of the learning experience.
The theoretical standing of student-centred learning is often surprisingly absent in the literature. However, it appears to relate primarily to the constructivist view of learning in the importance it places on activity, discovery and independent learning (Carlile and Jordan 2005). Cognitive theory also highlights activity but in a different form than that supported by the constructivists (Cobb 1999). The cognitive view supports the idea that the activity of learning is computed in the head, or as often described ‘in the mind’. The constructivist view of activity is related more to performing physical activities, for example, projects, practicals. Student-centred learning has some connections with the social constructivist view, which emphasises activity and the importance of communities of practice/others in the learning process. However, the definitions of SCL do not necessarily highlight the importance of peers in learning (Cobb 1999; Bredo 1999).

In summary, it appears from the literature that some view student-centred learning as: the concept of the student’s choice in their education; others see it as the being about the student doing more than the lecturer (active versus passive learning); while others have a much broader definition which includes both of these concepts but, in addition, describes the shift in the power relationship between the student and the teacher.

How can you implement student-centred learning?

Learning is often presented in this dualism of either student-centred learning or teacher-centred learning. In the reality of practice the situation is less black and white. A more useful presentation of student-centred learning is to see these terms as either end of a continuum, using the three concepts regularly used to describe student-centred learning (See Table 1 ).

Table 1: Student-centred and teacher-centred continuum

Teacher-centred Learning Student-centred Learning
Low level of student choice High level of student choice
Student passive Student active
Power is primarily with teacher Power primarily with the student
In examining how you might look at this in practice, it is worth thinking how far up the continuum you are able to move within the contextual barriers in your teaching situation. The next sections will present some ideas for your practice to aid you in making that progression.

Implications for curriculum design

In relation to curriculum design, student-centredness includes the idea that students have choice in what to study, how to study. However, to what extent can this be carried out in the structures of today’s Universities? Modularisation, which will be expected in all European undergraduate courses by 2006, provides a structure that allows students an element of choice in what modules they study. Donnelly and Fitzmaurice (2005) in their chapter in this collection on ‘Designing Modules for Learning’ highlight the importance of attempting to focus on the needs of the students at the early stage of curriculum design. Choice in the curriculum is not without its difficulties and Edwards argues about the dangers of individuality in the concept of the social learner and how this can in a seemingly contradictory way lead to disempowerment (2001).

One student-centred approach to curriculum design, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), allows for some choice within a programme of areas that students may study. It allows students to set some of their own learning objectives/outcomes, dependent on prior knowledge. Problem-Based Learning, through the use of problems/issues/triggers, encourages the students to develop their own learning goals, thereby filling in the gaps in their knowledge or understanding (Boud and Feletti 1997). This element of choice or control is referred to in many of the definitions of student-centred learning. This aspect of responsibility aligns with the Lea et al. (2003) view that student-centred learning involves ‘increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student’. Problem-based learning is higher up the student choice aspect of the SCL continuum in Table 1 , than the usual problem-solving or problem-oriented exercises performed in a lecture/tutorial. These approaches are more controlled by the teacher in their presentation and outcome (Davis and Harden 1999). However, they are useful in addressing the active learning aspect of student-centred learning. Other approaches to curriculum design also support the idea of student choice and activity in learning, for example, the systems-based approach, resource-based learning, and experiential/ personal relevance approach (Toohey 2000).

A growing practice in course design internationally is the writing of learning outcomes/objectives focusing on what the student will be able to do, rather than on the content being covered by the teacher (UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning 2005). This practice is an example of the move towards student-centred learning in the curriculum and helps to shift the emphasis on the learner as opposed to a coverage model by the teacher. Donnelly and Fitzmaurice (2005) re-iterate the importance of this shift in emphasis. This is also reflected in Gibbs’ (1995) definition, i.e. an emphasis on the process and competence, rather than content. Table 2 presents some examples of student-centred learning outcomes.

Table 2: Learning Outcomes and Student-centred Learning

Student-centred Learning Outcomes:
Some examples Traditional Learning
By the end of this modules: you (the student)
will be able to: The course will cover:
Recognise the structures of the heart The anatomy of the heart
Critique one of Yeats’ poems A selection of Yeats poems
Implications for teaching/learning methods

The University of Glasgow (2004) identified four main strategies in a study on student-centred learning practices in their University. The first strategy was to make the student more active in acquiring knowledge and skills and might include exercises in class, fieldwork, use of CAL (computer assisted learning) packages etc. The second strategy was to make the student more aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. A third strategy is a focus on interaction, such as the use of tutorials and other discussion groups. The final strategy is the focus on transferable skills. This last strategy is not mentioned in other definitions of the student-centred learning but does look beyond the immediate course requirements to other benefits to the student in later employment. Table 3 highlights a sample of student-centred learning/teaching methods and includes some ideas for lecturers both within (more teacher-centred) and outside of the lecture format. You may consider, however, in striving to reduce the amount of lecture contact hours for more student-centred formats, where possible.

Table 3: Examples of student centred learning/teaching methods

Outside of the lecture format In the Lecture
Independent projects Buzz groups (short discussion in twos)
Group discussion Pyramids/snowballing (Buzz groups continuing the discussion into larger groups)
Peer mentoring of other students Cross-overs (mixing students into groups by letter/number allocations)
Debates Rounds (giving turns to individual students to talk)
Field-trips Quizes
Practicals Writing reflections on learning (3/4 minutes)
Reflective diaries, learning journals Student class presentations
Computer assisted learning Role play
Choice in subjects for study/projects Poster presentations
Writing newspaper article Students producing mind maps in class
Portfolio development
Implications for assessment practices

Black (1999) summarised some of the difficulties highlighted in the literature in the area of assessment, for example, a) that the giving of marks and grades are over emphasised, while the giving of advice and the learning function are under emphasised, b) pupils are compared with one another which highlights competition rather than personal improvement. He also explains the concept of self-assessment as essential activity to help students ‘take responsibility for their own learning’, an important aspect of SCL (Benett 1999; Black 1999:126). Foucault argued that the examination was a technique of power, where a student is ’controlled through a system ’micro-penalties’, the constant giving of marks which constitutes a whole field of surveillance’ (cited in Broadfoot 1999:88). The use of the written examination is still a strong practice in today’s Universities and is primarily a summative assessment, i.e. an assessment for judgement or accreditation. The addition of more formative assessment, which emphasises feedback to students on their learning, would ‘enhance their (student) learning’ (Brown et al. 1997; Light and Cox 2001:170). By developing more formative assessment in your courses you can provide a focus for the student by highlighting their learning gaps and areas that they can develop. Examples of formative assessment include feedback on essays, written comments on assignments, grades during the year that do not add to end of year mark and multiple-choice questions/answers for feedback only. The addition of more formative assessment encourages a more student-centred approach.

Table 4 presents practical examples of student-centred assessments as presented by Gibbs (1995). Further details of some of these assessments can be seen on the UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning website (

Table 4: Examples of student-centred assessments (Gibbs 1995)

Diaries, logs and journals
Peer/self assessment
Learning contracts and negotiated assessment
Group work
Skills and competencies
Peer and self-assessment both give some control and responsibility back to the student, emphasising ‘ an increased sense of autonomy in the learner’ as noted in Lea et al.’s definition of student-centred learning (2003). Learning contracts/negotiated contracts are goals set by the student, depending on their learning gaps, which are in turn negotiated with the lecturer (Knight 2002). The contract can also highlight the manner in which the student would like to be assessed in order to demonstrate that they have reached the goals. This can add choice in what to study and, in addition, choice in how the student will be assessed. Choice is one of the key terms in relation to student-centred learning. The concept of negotiation of learning also addresses the unique change in relationship between lecturer and student noted byLea et al. (2003) in their definition of student-centred learning.

Gibbs (1995:1), as mentioned earlier, describes the range of choices available to students in relation to assessment as: ‘……, what criteria and standards are to be used, how the judgements are made and by whom these judgements are made’. In practice, how do we give students some autonomy and decision-making in an area such as assessment? Brown et al. (1994) highlight a range of suggestions on how lecturers can involve students in the assessment process: (Table 5 ).

Table 5: Assessment process and student-centred learning

Involving students at the stage when
the task is set:
Choosing the assessment task
Setting the assessment task
Discussion the assessment criteria
Setting the assessment criteria
Involving students at the stage after
the task is completed:
Making self-assessment comments
Making peer-assessment feedback comments
Suggesting self-assessment grades/marks
Negotiating self-assessment grades/marks
Assigning self-assessment grades/marks
Assigning peer-assessment grades/marks
(Brown, Rust, and Gibbs 1994)

The suggestions in Table 5 above may seem a large jump from your current practices, therefore, you might consider moving your assessment practice slightly up the teacher/student-centred continuum. An example of a small but significant change is to provide a choice of essay topics and exam questions as a manageable starting point.

The effectiveness and critiques of student-centred learning

The use of student-centred learning appears to be reflective of today’s society where choice and democracy are important concepts, however is it an effective approach to learning? Lea et al. (2003) reviewed several studies on student-centred learning and found that overall it was an effective approach. A six-year study in Helsinki, which compared traditional and activating instruction, found that the activating group developed better study skills and understanding, but were slower in their study initially (Lonka and Ahola 1995). Equally, Hall and Saunders found that students had increased participation, motivation and grades in a first year information technology course (1997). In addition, 94% of the students would recommend it to others over the more conventional approach (Hall and Saunders 1997). Students in a UK University elaborated on the impact of student-centred learning on them, i.e. they felt there was more respect for the student in this approach, that it was more interesting, exciting, and it boosted their confidence (Lea et al. 2003).

Student-centred learning, despite its popularity, is not without its critics. The main critique of student-centred learning is its focus on the individual learner. In addition, there are some difficulties in its implementation, i.e. the resources needed to implement it, the belief system of the students and staff, and students’ lack of familiarity with the term.

Simon (1999) describes that student-centred learning, in the School system, can be in danger of focusing completely on the individual learner and taken to its extreme does not take into account the needs of the whole class. Simon highlights the point that ‘if each child is unique, and each requires a specific pedagogical approach appropriate to him or her and to no other, the construction of an all embracingpedagogy or general principles of teaching become an impossibility’ (Simon 1999:42). Edwards (2001:42) also highlights the dangers associated with student-centredness in adult education where in empowering an individual there is a potential danger of ‘a person’s physical isolation from other learners’. The importance of the social context of learning and the value of interaction with peers is emphasised in the socio-cultural view of learning (Bredo 1999). The concept of being an independent learner choosing his/her own route of learning, may in fact drive some of the sociability out of the learning process if care is not taken to emphasise the importance of peers. In relation to this individuality, Lea et al.’s study on psychology students highlighted their concern over being abandoned or isolated from other supports in a student-centred learning approach (2003).

O’Sullivan (2003) described student-centred learning as a Western approach to learning and may not necessarily transfer to the developing countries, such as Namibia, where there are limited resourcesand different learning cultures. It can be equally hard at times to see how the approach can be economical in the large classes associated with many current University undergraduate courses. A comprehensive study was conducted in 2004, by the University of Glasgow, on the use of student-centred learning with full-time undergraduate students (2004). In this study they found that student-centred learning (SCL) was more prevalent in the later years of the student degrees, and this they believe is often down to class sizes.

Another concern regarding student centred learning is the belief that students hold in relation to their learning. Students who value or have experienced more teacher-focused approaches, may reject the student-centred approach as frightening or indeed not within their remit. Prosser and Trigwell’s work in higher education emphasises the different belief systems held by staff and students (2002). They found that lecturers with a teacher-centred approach to teaching held views that students should accommodate information rather than developing and changing their conceptions and understanding. The reverse was true for those with more student-centred approaches to their teaching. Perry’s work on the development of University students highlights how students move from a dualistic view that knowledge is right or wrong to a relativist view that all answers are equally valid (Perry 1970). This study highlights that even during the University years, students can change their view on learning and as they move through the years so to may their views on student-centred learning change. In support of Perry’s work, Stevenson and Sander (2002) highlighted that 1st year medical students were suspicious of the value of student-centred learning methods.

Finally, students’ familiarity with the term can be poor. Lea et al. (2003) conducted a study on 48 psychology students in the University of Plymouth on students’ attitudes to student-centred learning. They found that, despite a University student-centred policy, 60% of the students had not heard of the term.


The changing demographics of the student population and the more consumer/client-centred culture in today’s society have provided a climate where the use of student-centred learning is thriving. The interpretation of the term ‘student-centred learning’ appears to vary between authors as some equate it with ‘active learning’, while others take a more comprehensive definition including: active learning, choice in learning, and the shift of power in the teacher-student relationship. It is used very commonly in the literature and in University policy statements, but this has not necessarily transferred into practice.

Student-centred learning is not without some criticism but in general it has been seen to be a positive experience, for example, Edwards (2001) emphasises the value of student-centred learning: ‘Placing learners at the heart of the learning process and meeting their needs, is taken to a progressive step in which learner-centred approaches mean that persons are able to learn what is relevant for them in ways that are appropriate. Waste in human and educational resources is reduced as it suggested learners no longer have to learn what they already know or can do, nor what they are uninterested in’. (Edwards 2001:37).

Although recognizing that it is not necessarily an easy task, it is hoped that this chapter has gone some way to providing evidence and ideas to move you higher up the continuum towards a more student-centred practice.


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