What is Student-Centered Learning and Why is it Important?

What is Student-Centered Learning and Why is it Important?

Student engagement is a perpetual issue for high schools across America. Too many students describe high school as boring—but it doesn’t have to be. When students commit themselves to the process of learning, academic outcomes can soar. And when students don’t feel engaged and inspired, their academic achievement can tumble.

*As part of our ongoing work to #ReThinkHighSchool, we decided to create a series of long-form posts that seek to explain education topics central to our core work. Previous installments in this series looked at inquiry-based learning and student success. This week we are discussing student-centered learning and why it is important.

That’s why student-centered learning, or SCL, is an approach to teaching that’s being used more and more. Student-centered learning works by connecting students’ interests with the things they learn in school.

Defining Student-Centered Learning

We can classify and recognize student-centered learning by our students’ increased opportunity to decide two things: what material they learn and how they learn it. (Some educators refer to this same basic idea as personalized learning.) This learning approach differs from traditional classroom instruction, known as teacher-centered learning, because student-centered learning puts a firm focus on student decision-making as a guiding force in the learning process. 

The shift toward increased student decision-making can take a variety of forms. However, all SCL programs tend to share some features in common. For example, they emphasize making the educational process more meaningful to today’s students. SCL programs also emphasize using rigorous assessments to gauge student performance by including both teachers and students in the assessment process. 

Student-centered learning allows greater flexibility to work in small groups or learn remotely. And the flexibility that comes with SCL is increasingly important as schools adapt to the coronavirus pandemic and its shift toward remote learning. 

Today, educators need to find ways to apply student-centered learning virtually. While creating remote learning experiences can be a daunting task, we know that remote classes can be designed to incorporate student-centered learning in effective ways. 

Teachers play an essential role in the education process. Dedicated educators do everything in their power to foster positive outcomes for their students. Student-centered learning does not sideline or diminish the role of teachers. Instead, it seeks to use teachers’ expertise in different ways to increase student engagement. 

How Educators See This Approach to Teaching

Student-centered learning poses a significant shift from traditional approaches to education. However, the point of SCL is not to put teachers in the hot seat or point out flaws in the system. SCL focuses on involving teachers in the creation of a superior learning environment for everyone involved.

How do educators accustomed to teacher-centered learning feel about the switch to a student-centered model? A 2018 study published in the International Journal of STEM Education addressed this very issue. This study examined the thoughts and experiences of a group of STEM educators transitioning from a teacher-centered approach to a student-centered approach.

After being exposed to the SCL model, many participating teachers felt this new approach fit right into their existing beliefs about their roles as educators. Others had a harder time reconciling their identities as teachers with the student-centered model. However, teachers in both groups eventually found that the SCL approach helped them “become the teachers they had always wanted to be.” (It’s worth noting that a small percentage of the participating teachers chose to drop out of the study rather than change their existing teaching methods.)

What Happens to the School Curriculum?

If SCL increases student freedom, what happens to the school’s curriculum? In other words, can students hijack the curriculum to make it less rigorous or outcome-oriented? This is a genuine  concern, especially among educators who fear that student-centered learning will worsen educational standards. 

However, in reality, school curriculum still plays a central role in the SCL model, just as it does in the traditional, teacher-centered model. SCL uses curricula to help connect students’ interests with skills that prepare them for college and their desired careers. This approach doesn’t lead to a less challenging learning environment. It just ties challenging school subjects more directly to students’ real-world passions.

The collaborative environments in schools that use SCL often lead to a curriculum that revolves around group projects. These environments also foster interdisciplinary learning, as students follow their interests wherever they take them. In turn, interdisciplinary learning often leads to a deeper engagement of students’ thinking and problem-solving abilities. This approach improves the odds that high school students will work hard in their courses and helps them focus on topics they can later pursue in college and beyond.

Say, for example, students interested in ecology are working on a project centered on an ecology-related topic. As part of their work, they’ve set the goals for a successful project outcome. Since they’re collaborating in a self-chosen field of interest, they have a high investment in reaching their goals or exceeding them. 

Teacher Involvement in Student-Centered Learning

So, where do teachers fit into the equation? First, skilled educators help communicate the school’s SCL-based approach to their students. It’s also essential for teachers to guide their students’ curriculum choices and ensure that they align with the goals of an outcome-oriented learning environment. 

Challenging, but based mainly on choices made by studentsChallenging, but based mainly on choices made by teachers
Goal- and achievement-orientedGoal- and achievement-oriented

Student-Centered Pedagogy

Student-centered learning environments use pedagogy to facilitate student-empowered learning. Teachers guide students toward meaningful engagement with the material chosen by their class members by: 

  • Helping students adjust to a new and different learning environment
  • Helping students envision what successful learning looks like
  • Giving students the chance to express their ideas in their terms
  • Helping to set the goals of student-centered classes
  • Helping students learn how to set and achieve their personal, educational goals
  • Giving students enough room to fail and learn from their missteps 
  • Helping students develop their critical-thinking and self-reflection skills
  • Giving students the space to act as their advocates in the learning process
  • Showing students specific techniques for accessing the information they’re interested in
Teachers serve as facilitators and guides for student decision-making and skills buildingTeachers serve as facilitators and guides to a standard curriculum not directly influenced by students

Benefits of the Student-Centered Approach

If student-centered learning is going to impact the learning process positively, it must produce real-world results. This naturally leads to an important question: Is there evidence to support the benefits of switching to a student-centered approach? As it turns out, researchers have already done a significant amount of work on this subject.

In April of 2020, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation reported a large-scale review of SCL-related studies. This review concludes that student-centered learning does indeed produce measurable benefits.

In one study, researchers looked at 62 schools that implemented SCL-based teaching practices. The schools with SCL-based teaching practices experienced substantial improvements in their students’ performance in math and reading. In some schools, these improvements were relatively small. However, in other schools, students saw more significant gains in their reading and math skills.

Additionally, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation study review also validated many SCL’s most crucial underlying principles, such as the importance of student agency in the education process. The report also found that students who understand their learning environment and feel in control of that environment are more likely to be engaged throughout their school day. These students see increases in their level of academic performance.

The review of SCL-related studies also showed firm support for:

  • Fitting education content to student interests
  • Allowing students to gain competency and mastery at their own pace before moving on to other topics
  • Teaching students how to devise their strategies for learning
  • Teaching students how to monitor their progress as they learn new material

Other researchers have found that SCL increases academic achievement. For example, a 2014 report found that students in four Northern California high schools saw notable improvements in achievement levels when they adopted an SCL model. Results from the four schools exceeded both the local and statewide outcomes for similar types of school districts. 

Additional benefits of using a student-centered approach to teaching include:

  • Improvements in students’ communication and collaboration skills
  • Advances in students’ ability to think and work independently
  • Increased student interest in school activities and education in general
  • Stronger relationships between students and teachers through shared experiences

Potential Challenges of the Student-Centered Approach (and How to Solve Them)

Not surprisingly, there are some potential drawbacks to student-centered learning. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these drawbacks or to use them to create healthier learning environments. 

One common concern is that SCL will increase noise and chaos in high school learning spaces. On one level, this concern makes perfect sense. A student-centered learning environment may indeed look more chaotic than teacher-centered environments. However, it pays to consider the beneficial trade-offs for the increase in volume levels. 

When teachers first encounter an SCL-based school they often express surprise at the chaos of student-centered learning environments. However, they also note something fundamental. They find engaged students immersed in their chosen learning activities. By accepting a certain amount of “mess” and noise, SCL schools may find they’ve created the right conditions for committed, enthusiastic student bodies.  

Noisier, more chaotic learning spacesEmbracing the idea that noisier learning spaces are an acceptable and manageable trade-off for schools filled with engaged, productive students
The possible need to devote more time to classroom managementEstablishing norms that allow students to take responsibility for managing their in-class projects and activities
Uneven distribution of knowledge among students taking the same classesProviding individual students enough time to learn at their own pace
Students who don’t adapt well to the switch to an SCL-based environmentAdopting SCL techniques gradually rather than all at once

Teachers and administrators interested in student-centered learning are wary of the time used in classroom management rather than teaching. However, it helps to remember that responsibility is distributed differently in SCL environments. Instead of teachers being the sole determiners of what’s learned and how teachers share this role with their students. This means students become teachers’ allies in classroom management. The shift in alliances means that teachers may have more time to serve as learning resources, not less.

The third challenge for SCL is that some students may lag behind others in terms of knowledge and comprehension. However, this uneven distribution of knowledge doesn’t only pose a concern for SCL schools. Traditional schools face the same problem every day. However, SCL schools may have a successful mechanism for getting around it.

One of the core concepts of student-centered learning is giving students the freedom to gain competency and mastery at their own pace. In a traditional classroom setting, anyone who doesn’t “get” the assigned material in the allotted amount of time may fall permanently behind their peers who learn at a faster rate. However, in the SCL model, students determine when to move on, not teachers. This can lead to short-term lags in learning distribution. In the long run, it may prove to be an effective way to ensure that everyone learns to the best of their abilities.

SCL-based models must also face the challenge of students who don’t adapt well to student-centered learning. Some students may indeed have a harder time making this switch than others. To help ease these difficulties, schools can take a gradual approach to adopt new methods. The design principles of SCL builds this kind of flexibility. It’s common for schools to proceed in stages from a teacher-centered orientation to a student-centered orientation. Such a period of adjustment may benefit both students and teachers. 

How to Create Student-Centered Classes

How can administrators and teachers start creating student-centered classes in their schools? A sequential list of some of the most critical steps to take includes:

  1. Giving students introductory autonomous assignments and helping them set their goals for those assignments
  2. Helping students become acquainted with their preferred ways of learning new material
  3. Becoming more responsive to students’ areas of interest and passion
  4. Gradually increasing the number of control students have to set their assignments and learning agendas
  5. Having teachers shift from a leading role to a facilitating and resource role for student-selected activities gradually
  6. Creating a physical (or virtual) class layout that makes it easy for students to collaborate
  7. Asking students to start gauging their learning accomplishments rather than relying solely on the results of standardized tests

Larger Design Principles

There are also larger design principles behind the development of student-centered high schools. Chief among these principles is the creation of a strong mission and culture that fosters student-centered learning. Additional principles that help support the establishment of a top-quality program include:

  • Keeping student engagement at the forefront of all student-centered programs
  • Taking full advantage of all available resources (e.g., technology, time, and finances) to support the goals of the school mission
  • Putting a focus on the creation of strong, positive student-teacher educational relationships
  • Ensuring that every student has an equal opportunity to benefit from student-centered learning
  • Fostering strong ties between students and community entities (e.g., local businesses, nonprofit groups, and colleges) that can help support or enrich the school’s student-centered offerings

The study review conducted by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation also provides research findings that underscore the importance of school-level design to student-centered learning. These findings point to several characteristics that foster successful SCL programs, including:

  • A firm commitment from all levels of the school administration
  • Reorganization of the school day to provide larger blocks of class time for student projects
  • Fostering cooperation and collaboration between the school’s teachers
  • Emphasizing honest assessments of the results of student-centered classes
  • Using those assessments and other real-world data to adjust the program when necessary
  • Supporting SCL instruction with policy, professional development, and practical tools for change

The principles of student-centered school design are not inflexible. In fact, in everyday life, each school that develops a program makes some adjustments to the basic design principles. This is one of the great upsides of the SCL model. Schools can make progress toward their program goals while heeding the realities of their specific circumstances. 

A New Take on 21st-Century Learning

Student-centered learning is an increasing force in high school education. This instructional model marks a change from traditional, teacher-centered models. It does so by putting a clear focus on student choice in setting the learning curriculum. 

In SCL-based high schools, students use their interests as the inspiration for the topics they pursue in class. At the same time, teachers use their expertise and experience to support students’ efforts. With their interests at the forefront, high schoolers have a much greater incentive to become invested in their day-to-day education. They also have an incentive to help create a school environment that supports their educational goals.

Collaboration is at the heart of student-centered classes. Students don’t work on their own. Instead, they work together on projects they help create. Teachers join in this collaboration through their work as guides and facilitators. 

A substantial body of evidence supports the effectiveness of student-centered learning. Students in SCL-based programs see a range of benefits. Examples of reported outcomes include improved academic performance and a higher level of engagement with the learning process. Research indicates that a substantial percentage of teachers exposed to student-based instruction find this experience positive and in line with the goals of effective high school education.

While there are challenges in implementing student-centered learning, these challenges can be met and overcome. Rather than introducing a full program, high schools and their students can gradually switch over to the new model. The principles of effective SCL design are well-developed but flexible. This flexibility allows each school to create programs that fit its real-world requirements. 

At its core, student-centered learning shows what high schoolers can do when they feel fully engaged in their education. The power of this approach may very well spark a foundational transformation of America’s learning culture.