Balwant Singh

Posted date: Fri Jun 24 08:00:00 SGT 2016 Fri Jun 24 08:00:00 SGT 2016

Student-Centered Learning - A Practical Perspective


The purpose of this article is to introduce the concept of student-centered learning as a complementary tool to more traditional teaching methods.
Many lecturers at SIM are faced with the task of teaching to large groups and the daunting task of completing the syllabus on time for the examination. Hence, many lecturers at SIM use a very teacher-oriented approach when faced with such constraints. This article aims to encourage you to consider an alternative approach in order to improve the effectiveness of your teaching.
Student-centered learning provides many benefits as opposed to teacher-centered learning. The latter has been known to ignore or suppress learner responsibility.
Teacher-centered learning tends to encourage an autocratic, top down culture in the lecture theater as the lecturer is the primary source of knowledge. Student-centered learning, on the other hand encourages a more democratic process. 



Student-centered learning as the term implies is an approach to teaching that focuses on the needs of the students, rather than the needs of the lecturer. Student-centered learning is also termed flexible learning, experimental learning or self directed learning.
The concept of student-centered learning has been credited as early as 1905 to Hayward and in 1956 to Dewey’s work (O’Sullivan, 2004). The term student centered learning has also been associated with the work of Piaget and more recently with Michael Knowles (Burnard, 1999 ). 
It focuses on the student’s requirement in terms of ability and learning style.
Hence, the teacher is seen merely as a facilitator of the learning process, as opposed to an instructor. This approach requires that the student be a responsible participant of the learning process.
Lea et al. (2003:322) provides the following tenets of student-centered:
  1. ‘the reliance on active rather than passive learning, 
  2. an emphasis on deep learning and understanding
  3. increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student
  4. an increased sense of autonomy in the student
  5. an interdependence between teacher and learner
  6. mutual respect within the learner-teacher relationship
  7. and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner’
Learning is often presented in this dualism of either student-centered learning or teacher-centered learning.
A more useful presentation of student-centered learning is to see these terms as either end of a continuum, using the three concepts regularly used to describe student-centered learning as given in the table below.
Teacher-centered learningStudent-centered learning
Low level of student choiceHigh level of student choice
Student passiveStudent active
Power with teacher (autocratic)
Power with student (democratic)
Figure 3. Teacher-Centered Learning and Student-Centered Learning Continuum
In looking at the above in practice, consider how far up the continuum you can move given the barriers in your own teaching situation. The next sections will present some ideas to aid you in making that progression.
Why use student-centered learning – It creates a sense of empowerment, belonging and fun.
Student centered learning is geared towards meeting many of the physiological needs of the student.
By providing the correct dose of encouragement and support, students experience success and achievement when they work through and develop solutions. This provides for empowerment.
By working in teams, co-operating and building relationships in the Lecture Theatre (LT) with other students and the lecturer, students get a sense of belonging and feel valuable.
By varying the mode of delivery through using humor, variety and novelty, learning will no longer be boring and becomes fun.
Useful tips to turn your LT into an active, fun learning environment via student-entered learning
The following tips could be useful when lecturing in large groups such as in the Lecture Theater.
  • The lecturer should always lead by example. Hence, if you want your students to show interest in the topic, you must also show interest in it. Hence, deliver your lectures enthusiastically and dynamically by using gestures, animated tones and different facial expressions. Remember, enthusiasm is contagious. The worst thing you could do is to stand in front of the LT for three hours and speak in a dull monotonous voice.
  • Lecturers should encourage participation in class by encouraging students to formulate answers either by forming groups or even individually.
Group work is especially useful tool to encourage interaction and discussion. It is important to encourage interaction so that the students will be the ones that provide the solutions, not the lecturer. If advanced notice is given to students that they will be called upon to respond, they will be able to prepare and participate more effectively.
In a large LT, it may not be practical to form many small groups. Hence, one useful way to encourage participation is to break-up the LT into two or more major groups and inform the students that you will be getting one or two of them from each group to respond.
Lecturers should use a variety of teaching techniques. Hence, use some combination of lecturing and interaction instead of simply lecturing for three hours. Other useful techniques include showing videos, using presentation or even conducting debates. Hence, the lecturer should also play the role of a facilitator.
  • The Lecturer should be an active participant in the learning process. Walk around the LT, interact with the students and encourage them to provide answers instead of simply standing or siting at the front of the LT. 
  • It is also useful to provide positive encouragement and support. For example, praise students for good answers and even for attempting to provide an answer. 
  • Use humor appropriately in the LT. Hence lectures could prepare jokes and cartoons relevant to the topic.
Using student-centered learning in tutorial groups.
The tutorial session is an excellent opportunity to use student-centered techniques given the small number of students. Hence, when conducting tutorials the following should be useful to create a student-centered learning environment.
  • Distinguish tutorials from lectures. The purpose of the tutorial session is to enable the students to generate solutions to the given problem and this objective should be clearly communicated to the student at the very beginning. The role of the tutor should therefore be to correct (if necessary) the given solutions that are initially provided by the students. 
  • Participation is especially crucial in a tutorial session. Hence, using group work is particularly important. Break up the tutorial class into groups and get the various groups to present the answers to the class after a given time. The other groups should be encouraged to comment or critique the answers provided by the presenting group. In this way, common mistakes made could be highlighted and corrected. 
  • Use a variety of techniques. For example group work, individual work, or working in pairs. Pair quiet students with active ones to encourage interaction and alter the groups from time to time. Some questions could be assigned as homework whereas others could be done directly during the tutorials as quizzes. 
  • Use a variety of sitting arrangements. The tutors can design creative seating arrangements so that students can interact comfortably, for example sitting in a conference arrangement to encourage the exchange of ideas within the entire tutorial group.



Lecturers should learn to exploit the various benefits of student-centered learning and use it to complement their other teaching styles. Student-centered learning techniques are an excellent tool to enhance learning. With a little bit of creativity on the part of the lecturer, it is still a relevant tool even when teaching to a large group of students. Hence, lecturers should play an active role in encouraging student-centered learning in their own context and be free to experiment with different approaches to find out what works best. 


Bibliography & References

Burnard, P. (1999). Carl Rogers and postmodernism: Challenged in nursing and health sciences. Nursing and Health Sciences, 1, 241-247.
Jones, L. (2007). The student centered classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Lea, S. J., Stephenson, D. and Troy, J. (2003). Higher Education Students’ Attitudes to Student Centred Learning: Beyond ‘educational bulimia’. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), 321-334.
O’Neill, G. & McMahon, T. (2005). Student –Centered Learning: What does it mean for students and Lecturers. University College Dublin.
O’Sullivan, M. (2004). The reconceptualisation of learner-centred approaches: a Namibian case study. International Journal of Educational Development, 24(6), 585–602.
Plevin, R. (2013). Student engagement and motivation tips. How to engage your students (online). Available from: http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=uWRSRtdkrag (Assessed 2 April 2012).

Article contributor: Balwant Singh

Balwant Singh teaches in SIM-UOL & SIM-RMIT programmes. He was one of the recipients for the Teaching Merit Award 2012.


Category: Definitions, Literature review