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What is a student-centered learning approach?

“Good morning, class. Open your textbooks to page 92. Today we’ll begin our unit on climates.”

The students, seated in orderly rows, dutifully follow their teacher’s instructions. They spend most of this class period as they always do — listening and reading as the teacher guides them through the lesson and presents them with new information that they’re responsible for learning, remembering, and … well, regurgitating.

Though this rather bleak scenario isn’t by any means an accurate depiction of all teacher-centered classrooms, it does represent the general components of that standard model:

  • The teacher does most of the work
  • The teacher determines the content, method of instruction, and pace
  • The teacher’s personal preferences guide the instruction

While there’s nothing wrong with utilizing a teacher-centered model when and where one is appropriate, it’s important to realize that it isn’t the only option.

Now imagine a different kind of classroom, with students situated in small groups around the room.

“Good morning, class,” the teacher begins. “Today you’ll begin learning about climates. Each group will be responsible for researching one type of climate. You can use books from the library, your textbook, or the computer. You’ll need to decide as a group how you want to present your findings to the rest of the class.”

After further instructions, the groups choose their topics and begin working on their projects. Some students walk around the room to gather the necessary resources while others sit with their group and plan out a course of action. Everybody is engaged in some form of active learning. The teacher navigates around the classroom to answer questions, offer suggestions, provide support, and monitor the work and progress of each individual and group.

This scenario, though far from complete, provides a glimpse of a student-centered learning approach.

What is the definition of a student-centered learning approach?

It’s difficult to succinctly define a student-centered learning approach without referring to the name itself — it’s a teaching approach that’s centered on the student and their experience.

More specifically, this approach takes the following elements into consideration:

  • Culture
  • Learning styles
  • Learning needs
  • Interests
  • Academica and life goals

In a teacher-centered approach, the teacher is fully responsible for all the planning, implementation, and assessment methods. In the student-centered approach, responsibility is either partially or fully handed over to the students.

Students may have choice, responsibility, and leadership in:

  • What to study (the content)
  • How to study it (teaching/learning methods)
  • When and where to study it
  • How quickly to progress through the lesson and material (the pace)
  • How to demonstrate their understanding (assessment)

The 5 areas of responsibility

1. Content

in a student-centered classroom, you could involve learners in choosing what they want to spend time learning about. For example, the teacher may allow them to choose their topic for a writing assignment or select a book that interests them for a book report. The teacher may narrow the options and give students the opportunity to select one aspect of history or science to learn about and present on, for example. In middle and high school years, you could call upon students to develop a personalized learning plan that guides them through the process of setting goals based on their abilities and interests. Their classes are then selected based on those objectives.

2. Teaching/learning method

Rather than the teacher trying to meet the needs of every student in one well-done presentation, students have the opportunity to lead and take responsibility for their learning. This often entails giving them options for how they want to engage in the learning process. While some may do better working individually, others may thrive in a group setting. Furthermore, while some students may remember the material better by sketching out the information, others may do better with reading it, listening to it, taking notes, discussing it, or working with it in some sort of hands-on, kinesthetic format. There are many methods teachers may use to promote and facilitate this interaction with the material. Just a couple include project-based learning activities and learning centers.

3. When and where

With a student-centered learning approach, education is not limited to the classroom. Instead, students may participate in work-study programs, take online classes, or attend the local community college. Depending on the time and nature of these other forms of learning, the students may engage in them at any time of the day.

4. Pacing

Rather than require that every student progress through the material within the same time frame, student-centered learning allows students to progress when they’ve demonstrated their readiness. Those who learn more quickly can advance sooner, while those who need more time can proceed at a steady pace until they reach an acceptable level of proficiency with the material.

Nowadays, with edtech, it’s especially easy to personalize your lessons and cater to the varying needs of your students. For example, Classcraft lessons provide students with the opportunity to move through interactive lessons — called quests — at their own pace. The platform also allows instructors to differentiate activities according to students’ needs and interests.

5. Assessment

Rather than having all the students take a test to demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge, the student-centered learning approach provides students with a number of alternative options. The teacher may provide the choices and/or give students the opportunity to suggest their own assessments. For example, students could have the option to write a research paper, create a PowerPoint or other multimedia presentation, make a poster, perform a skit, or build a diorama/model of their topic.

What are the benefits of this approach?

A student-centered learning approach encourages and enables students to be more engaged in and take more responsibility for their education. While not every classroom or class period will include all the components listed above, utilizing even one area can significantly benefit your students and create a more engaging classroom environment.

Photo: Google Edu

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