SIP 4.11 Student-Centered vs. Learner-Centered Teaching

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

For years now, faculty development circles have been tossing around the phrases “student-centered” and “learner-centered.”  We are all pretty clear on the fact that the “sage on the stage” has given way to the “guide on the side,” but how do we “faculty guides” center our practice appropriately?  Aren’t “students” and “learners” the same thing in our classrooms?  Is there any value to making a distinction between the two?Diverse group of college students sitting around table with computer

Take a SIP of This: Student-Centered vs. Learner-Centered Teaching

To clarify the terms, it is useful to refer to Maryellen Weimer’s book, Learner-Centered Teaching (2002).  She writes in the preface to this work that, “being student-centered implies a focus on student needs.  It is an orientation that gives rise to the idea of education as a product, with the student as the customer and the role of the faculty as one of serving and satisfying the customer…Being learner-centered focuses attention squarely on learning: what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning … When instruction is learner-centered, the action focuses on what students (not teachers) are doing.”

We certainly don’t need or want to ignore student needs, but there is great value in making sure that our instructional methods and pedagogical approaches are helping us to deliver our curriculum in a manner that best facilitates learning. What are some ways in which we can do this?

  • It may seem obvious, but establishing learning outcomes for every student interaction can help facilitate learner-centered teaching.  What do you want your students to know or be able to do at the end of a class period?  After an assignment?  At the end of the course?  If you know what you want your outcomes to be, you can assess if you are meeting them or not–in other words, you can tell if your students are learning or not, and then adjust content or delivery appropriately.
  • Help students be aware of the tools and skills they might need to do the learning by starting off new curriculum units or projects with a “KWLH Chart” or the equivalent.  This acronym (usually pronounced, “cool”) stands for “What you already Know, what you Want to know, what you Learned, How can I learn more?.”  While this may seem like an elementary- or high school-type exercise, filling out the first two columns at the beginning of a unit and then returning to the chart to fill out the last two at the end can stimulate appropriate question asking, guided learning, and awareness of learning gaps, and at the same time foster lifelong learning.  Click here for printable KWLH chart templates.
  • Create relevance for learning in your classroom.  Take just a minute at the end of each class session to ask students how your content or activities might apply to their real lives.  Even if the answer is a short and snippy, “It doesn’t”, you can encourage class discussion that illuminates other students’ more positive responses and makes logical connections to the class material, or you can ask students just how they think you could make this learning more relevant–you might find that their ideas enhance your methods!
  • Consider pedagogies like Universal Design for Learning that encourage multi-faceted approaches in instructional design, delivery and assessment.  This empowers students with choices that are built into course design, classroom instruction, and project/assessment components that let them maximize their learning based on individual skills and interests.
  • Whenever possible, allow time for reflection on the learning experience and move students toward meta-cognition (for more on this, tune in to next week’s SIP–dedicated entirely to meta-cognitive awareness through reflective activities!).

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Student-Centered vs. Learner-Centered Teaching


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