The term student-centered learning refers to a wide variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students. To accomplish this goal, schools, teachers, guidance counselors, and other educational specialists may employ a wide variety of educational methods, from modifying assignments and instructional strategies in the classroom to entirely redesigning the ways in which students are grouped and taught in a school.
Because “student-centered learning” has broad implications, and the term may encompass a wide variety of potential instructional strategies and academic programs, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the term is referring to when it is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation. In some cases, the term may have a very specific, technical meaning, but in others it may be vague, undecipherable jargon. For example, some educators use the term synonymously with “personalized learning” (and related terms), while others see personalized learning as one aspect of student-centered learning, but not a synonymous term or concept. For these reasons, it is important to investigate precisely how the term is being used, and what it is referring to, in a specific educational context.
The term student-centered learning most likely arose in response to educational decisions that did not fully consider what students needed to know or what methods would be most effective in facilitating learning for individual students or groups of students. For example, many traditional approaches to schooling could be considered “school-centered,” rather than student-centered, because schools are often organized and managed in ways that work well for organizational operations, but that might not reflect the most effective ways to educate students. For example, it’s far more manageable—from an institutional, administrative, or logistical perspective—if all students are being taught in classrooms under the supervision of teachers, if they are given a fixed set of course options to choose from, if they all use the same textbooks and learning resources, or if their education unfolds according to a predetermined schedule.
Advocates of student-centered learning want to challenge or overturn many common organizational or instructional tendencies in schools by making student learning the primary objective—i.e., all considerations that do not in some way improve or facilitate student learning would become secondary (or lower) in importance. The basic rationale is that schools should be designed to enhance student learning, not improve organizational efficiency.
Dating back to the 1930s, if not earlier, American educators have used the terms “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” to describe two distinct approaches to instruction. Teacher-centered typically refers to learning situations in which the teacher asserts control over the material that students study and the ways in which they study it—i.e., when, where, how, and at what pace they learn it. In classes that would be considered teacher-centered, the teacher tends to be the most active person in the room and do most of the talking (e.g., by lecturing, demonstrating concepts, reading aloud, or issuing instructions), while students spend most of their time sitting in desks, listening, taking notes, giving brief answers to questions that the teacher asks, or completing assignments and tests (for a related discussion, see direct instruction). In addition, in teacher-centered classrooms, teachers may also decide to teach students in ways that are easy, familiar, or personally preferred, but that might not work well for some students or use instructional techniques shown to be most effective for improving learning.
In contrast, student-centered typically refers to forms of instruction that, for example, give students opportunities to lead learning activities, participate more actively in discussions, design their own learning projects, explore topics that interest them, and generally contribute to the design of their own course of study. Additionally, student-centered instruction is often associated with classrooms that feature desks arranged in circles or small groups (rather than rows of desks that face the teacher), with “self-guided” or “self-paced” learning, or with learning experiences that occur outside of traditional classroom settings or school buildings, such as internships, apprenticeships, independent research projects, online classes, travel experiences, community-service projects, or dual-enrollment courses, for example (for a related discussion, see learning pathway).
Education researchers and historians have found that teacher-centered instruction has been the dominant mode in American public schools for more than a century, and evidence suggests that only a small fraction of instructional settings in American public schools could be considered authentically “student-centered” (though a greater proportion of teachers might describe their approach to instruction as “student-centered”). That said, some aspects of student-centered instruction—such as the arrangement of desks into circles or small groups, or assignments that allow students to choose their own reading materials—have been widely adopted by teachers. In many cases, the typical instructional setting in public schools likely features a blend of teacher-centered and student-centered approaches.
While student-centered learning has sometimes been criticized as a fuzzy concept that refers to a vague assortment of teaching strategies, or that means different things to different educators, in recent years some education reformers and researchers have sought to define the term with greater precision. While the definition of the term is still evolving, advocates of student-centered learning tend to emphasize a few fundamental characteristics:
- Teaching and learning is “personalized,” meaning that it addresses the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.
- Students advance in their education when they demonstrate they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn (for a more detailed discussion, see proficiency-based learning).
- Students have the flexibility to learn “anytime and anywhere,” meaning that student learning can take place outside of traditional classroom and school-based settings, such as through work-study programs or online courses, or during nontraditional times, such as on nights and weekends.
- Students are given opportunities to make choices about their own learning and contribute to the design of learning experiences.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.