In the Classroom

Implementing a Student-Centered Learning Environment in the K-12 Classroom

When it comes to engaging the student, no method works better with more consistency than student-centered learning. This is not to say that teacher-centered learning cannot be effective for some students or at certain times, but in the long run, student-centered learning is what gets results. Students are going to have more success when they are “in charge” in a student-centered learning environment because they are motivated to learn. By giving them this power, you give them control over their own learning. You place the responsibility on their shoulders to make it successful.

The issue is, most of us were taught with direct instruction, and moving away from a teacher-centered classroom can be downright scary. How do we know our students are learning if we’re not telling them what they need to know, right? There is also a fear that a student-centered classroom all but eliminates the teacher’s role in the classroom. This couldn’t be further from the truth. For the record, a teacher is just as invested in this teaching method as they would be in a traditional classroom; the execution is just different.

Research About Student-Centered Learning

Advocates of student-centered learning explain that data around these instructional strategies show how well it works, but let’s take a look at that a little deeper. 

A study that was done in 2004 showed that students who were given the opportunity to choose their own topics for writing demonstrated better writing skills. This was also true when they were given questions to discuss in groups. This study showed that student-centered learning is more effective because it allows individual students to explore new things and enhance their skills in a different way. This method naturally differentiates the classroom and is actually one of the most effective ways to measure student achievement and see where gaps in learning are, helping to drive future instruction.

In 2007, another study was conducted about the learner-centered approach. It showed how well it worked with older students in various high schools, and the benefits that they accrued had to do with better grades. It also showed how well it works when students get to work closely with their peers on projects, like essays or reports. Though they are working together (also helping to forge strong relationships between peers and also teacher-student), it encourages independent problem-solving as they work together in an active learning environment.

In 2011, another study was done about problem-based learning and it used adult learners to see what would happen. The results showed that when they were given a choice of how to learn something, like reading material or assignments, it helped them retain the information better and longer than if someone else introduced it to them. Moments like this are what encourage lifelong learning because students’ interests are at the center of the learning process, encouraging intrinsic motivation and creating a culture where they want to learn more, regardless of prior experience.

A quick Google search will show pages of studies like these. When you look at all of this data together, we can clearly see why student-centered learning works so well in the classroom. It allows students to have a say as to how they want their learning experience to look and feel, but it also gives them different ways of acquiring new information. We are also seeing that it helps them retain information better because they were given a choice on how to do so and not just be told what to do.

Student-Centered Learning Theory

The concept of this method of instruction isn’t necessarily new, but the science behind why it works is fascinating. Student-centered learning theory focuses on the human brain and knowing how it functions. Because of this, students are able to feel confident in what they are doing because they know why they should be doing it and maybe even do it without your help.

First, let’s break down some terms that you might come across when you first learn about Student-Centered Learning Theory:

  • Attention Span: This is the amount of time that you can focus on a particular topic before you need to move on to something else. In young children it might be between 5 and 10 minutes; while in adults it could be up to an hour or more, depending on the topic. This is why lectures don’t work: people’s attention spans are too short to sit and listen for that long.
  • Learning Styles: Most people have one of three learning styles: auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. Auditory learners learn by listening and talking; Kinesthetic learners require active movement rather than passive sitting in a chair; Visual learners prefer to see things happen while they read about them. If you can get your students to learn in the same style that they have mastered, then their learning will be more successful.
  • Sensory Integration: This is how humans receive information from the world around them and process it internally. This could include sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. Each sense works with different parts of the brain and, if you are able to engage some or all of these senses at once, the brain will have a better chance of holding onto information.

Just like teachers who use other types of student-centered learning activities, there will always be those that debate the merits of this style of learning. The same can be said for teachers who implement other styles and techniques. This is nothing new, but what everyone does need to understand, however, is why it’s so important that we teach kids in a way that engages them and makes them active participants in their learning (by choice….hello, intrinsic motivation!).

When the focus of instructional strategies is on the students, the following happens:

It brings out their creative side:

Research shows that students are more likely to be creative and imaginative when they feel free to explore their interests, rather than being told how they need to do it.

Encourages problem-solving:

It’s common sense that any type of education program is going to have issues here and there, which is why a student needs to learn how to problem-solve and brainstorm. They should know how to use both the traditional way (using a textbook) and their own creative ways of solving problems.

Makes them more responsible:

When you engage students in this type of learning, they are going to be more aware of whether or not they’ve done their homework or studied for the test. With any of these activities, discussing what you have learned is the only way to ensure that it has been absorbed into your brain.

More likely to remember information:

This goes along with being more responsible because when a student knows they are going to be quizzed on something, they will study and memorize it. These are the students that will breeze through finals with minimal study time, but when they know there is no chance of a test or exam, they don’t bother to learn it at all.

The Ultimate Guide to Student-Centered Learning Ease

More likely to take risks on new topics:

When you are given free rein to explore and discuss your own interests, you are going to want to venture into the unknown. You’ll be eager to try new things, but when you aren’t given a choice in your lessons, you might just take the path of least resistance and not bother taking any risks.

Better leadership skills:

When you have been allowed to develop leadership skills as early on as possible, you are going to be more equipped to handle these situations as an adult. They will know how to work with the other members of their group and delegate responsibility.

Students learn from each other:

When you have been given a chance to explore topics that interest you in small groups, you’re going to be more comfortable with everyone else. The key is to make sure these assignments are not ones where the work can just be divvied up amongst the group or one person can take charge to get it done. Student voice is key here. Just because you might have different interests than someone else doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. That is what exposure to new things is all about. 

Better life skills:

With all students having different interests, being able to utilize student choice to help them explore those topics allows us to give them a well-rounded education that teaches them how to be more well-adjusted to society. When students feel as though they are being forced to do things they don’t want to do, it will make them feel as if someone is always making decisions for them. They will grow up with the expectation that others will solve their problems for them and it won’t allow them to become well-rounded adults. Again, true student-centered learning naturally differentiates which propels student engagement and thus, student learning.

It allows students to reflect upon their learning:

When you are given the chance to review what you have learned, it will allow you to really think about where you want your education to take you. It will also give you a better understanding of why certain things were done in class a certain way and whether or not they made sense.

It helps students achieve their goals:

When students are given a chance to reflect on what they want to do in life, it will help them create a realistic plan of action for achieving their goals. It doesn’t have to be overnight, but if you keep plugging away at it, you are going to get there eventually. (If you’re interested in helping them with goal setting, check out this year-long growth mindset through goal setting activity).

Student-Centered Learning Benefits

There is proven data that explains why student-centered learning is so effective, regardless of grade level. There are two primary reasons why SCLT is so successful as a focus of instruction. The first one is that the students enjoy it more. If a student is interested in what they’re learning, then they will be better at retaining the information longer and understanding it more completely than if they weren’t interested in the material. Your class doesn’t need to be derailed by students’ interests for this to work; it’s just subtle nuances that will get them hooked.

Another reason for its success is that it helps the teacher better meet the needs of each student. This is particularly important for teachers to know because it’s hard enough just getting one kid to learn something, but when you have a whole classroom of them, keeping everyone engaged and on task can be very difficult. The teacher-centered model doesn’t allow much time to meet with individual students on a daily basis, but student-centered education does just that. It is a great way to see where your students are on both an educational front and also a social-emotional one.

Student-centered learning also enhances the creativity of students in general. This is due to the fact that they feel engaged in their learning activities, which gives them a sense of freedom to create things and learn more about what interests them. Add in students choice and you really have a recipe for success. Then when it comes time for an assessment, students will tend to do this process on their own because they have already learned how to work by themselves (also a benefit for standardized testing).

It also gives students a better chance of understanding the content because they are encouraged to ask questions when needed. In turn, that gives them an opportunity to learn more about their own learning style and the way they best learn new materials. This truly adds to academic achievement because of the level of critical thinking that takes place within their educational experiences.

Lastly, student-centered learning is also great for giving kids an opportunity to express themselves. I have seen some amazing results from students who were labeled as “lazy” and “disengaged” once I gave them the freedom to show their learning in a way to appealed to them. Ever had a kid who sleeps in class turn in an incredible Minecraft replica of a 1920’s Speakeasy? How about a girl who literally does her nails in class create an incredible painting showing the transformation of women throughout the decades? Student-centered learning straight-up benefits everyone…especially you!

How to Implement Student-Centered Learning

It isn’t difficult to switch things around to implement student-centered learning. It just takes a mindset shift on your part and legitimately takes everything you already use in the classroom and flips it on its head. You can do it on a small scale or you can make a big change all at once.

I’ve compiled some suggestions for implementing the student-centered approach in your classroom, but I’d love to hear any other techniques you guys have tried or suggestions from fellow teachers.

Example 1: 

Instead of having an assigned seat, students pick where they will sit in the classroom and learn at their desks. They have ample space for supplies and there are no desks that are too small/large for a specific child.

Example 2: 

Instead of having your students complete workbooks, you give them more freedom to pick the method they want. Then when it comes time for your assessments or final exam, you can help those who need extra support with their presentation by perhaps providing a PowerPoint template or some suggestions on how to set up the materials so that they are engaging for your audience.

Example 3: 

Instead of having students sit in rows facing the board, you let them stand up and move around to make it more interesting for them. Then again, when it comes time to give your assessments or final exam, you can write on a whiteboard or flip chart instead of the board so that they are engaged by the material and thinking about how to answer the questions for themselves.

Example 4: 

Instead of giving students worksheets, you give them a blank notebook and have them create their own workbook that includes places to write notes, draw pictures, make connections with other materials, etc. You can also provide some laminated templates in case they decide to make something more formal.

Example 5: 

Instead of working on a single assignment as a class, you can split the kids up into groups and have them work together. Then at the end, they create some sort of project or presentation based on their individual research that could be presented as a group or individually. Or if you are an artistic teacher, maybe have your students work in pairs to do a different painting or drawing of a scene.

Example 6: 

Instead of presenting information to the class, you have small groups create presentations for one another while the rest of the class listens and asks questions (these can even be used as assessments). You could also have kids present on a subject that will be useful to your class so they can explain it to others and connect with them on a level that is more meaningful.

Example 7: 

Instead of giving the students worksheets, you give them pictures or situations and have them create their own problems for one another to solve together. This would probably work best by having kids work in pairs or groups to create these problems.

Example 8: 

Instead of doing a science experiment, have your students figure out what they would do if they were there and then actually conduct the experiment. Or better yet, take a trip to a place where you can see some real-life occurrences that can be tested/experimented on. Even taking your class to the library can be a fun and exciting learning experience that can also inform them on how to do research in a way that is more enjoyable for them.

Example 9: 

Instead of getting frustrated with students who don’t understand, provide different avenues for them to get their info and help them learn something new. You should adapt your instruction to meet each individual student’s needs and not just focus on their weaknesses.

Example 10: 

Instead of asking all of the kids to work together in one big group, you split them up into smaller groups with a specific task or goal that they have to accomplish as a team. Or make it more interesting by splitting them up into teams that compete against each other.

These are just simple ways to implement student-centered learning, but any teacher can adjust them for his or her class. Give one a try and watch engagement soar.

Student-Centered Learning Examples

Student-centered learning seems like a buzzword, but I can assure you, this concept isn’t going anywhere. As a matter of fact, you are probably using bits and pieces of the concept even if you are a more traditional teacher, and if you consider these student-centered learning examples, you will realize that it is in these moments of instruction that your students are most engaged (so imagine what it would be like if you moved to that model even more!)

#1 Escape the classroom

Nothing gets my attention faster than an interesting escape activity that forces me to think creatively.  When you give students a problem or question and get them walking, talking, thinking, and moving around the room it is fun!  As they work in their groups they are also engaged with one another.  This is a wonderful learning environment that keeps students motivated and excited about the process of escaping.

#2 Free Choice Learning

If you are in the school system, chances are you have heard of differentiation by now.  Differentiation refers to how teachers provide instruction to their classes based on the needs of the students.  When these differences are related to classroom management, many teachers use free-choice learning as a way of keeping everyone engaged at all times.  If you have a student who needs more time on task, then you allow them to choose their own activity (usually something they enjoy).

#3 Guided Discovery

Perhaps the most creative student-centered learning examples are those where students learn through guided discovery. This isn’t guided instruction, it is a process where students discover something on their own and then they figure out how to solve it.  This might be an activity like park math which allows some level of open problem-solving with a little bit more structure from a teacher. Or it could be an activity like inquiry learning that is an entire classroom centered around learning through guided discovery.

#4 Group work

Group work has been shown to increase engagement and participation in the classroom.  It isn’t just giving students a problem to solve, but taking time to teach students how to work as a group.  This is often done through cooperative learning where students solve problems side by side, then check in with their groups and explain their thinking to one another.

#5 Project-based Learning

Project-based learning follows pretty closely with escape-the-classroom situations because it allows kids to be creative and explore their interests.  Project-based learning is often centered around building a final product or creating something tangible that can be shared with the whole class.  This allows students to expose their ideas and allow for debate and collaboration in an authentic manner.

#6 Inquiry Learning

Inquiry learning follows closely with guided discovery as a more structured model of student-centered learning.  The difference with this is that teachers have created the lessons to follow a certain sequence so that students have an authentic experience where they are able to explore topics and concepts in depth.

Let’s look at a math-based scenario:

You are teaching your students about compound interest. A good student-centered learning example is to tell all of the students that compound interest can be achieved by putting $100 in a Bank Account every month for 10 years. If they were to do this, then they would have $8,000 after 10 years and this would be the total of all interest earned.

If a student were to walk up and say, “But I have $100 right now,” you should allow them to put it in an account for 1 month and then get 10% interest. They will calculate that they will have $110 at the end of one year. If you are doing this math with the whole class, this is when you can really have students connect their own learning and start to feel confident in what they are doing.

If they were to get 10% interest every month for 10 years, then they would have $8,000 after 1 year. If this is an interesting topic for some students and not others, you can create some differentiation to move this concept forward. For example, you could set a rule that if they get $10,000 in one year they win a prize. This could be the whole class prize or it could be an individual prize because everyone has an interest level that is going to differ.

This student-centered learning example of compound interest could be expanded into a formula for students to see the relationship between the monthly percentage and the yearly amount, or you could have them create a real-world application problem. When they are successful at these things, it will encourage others to want to engage in this process as well.

Summing Up the Proponents of Student-Centered Learning

Student-centered instruction allows students to learn in their own way, but it also gives them different ways of learning new things and understanding what they are trying to accomplish. It allows students to feel more empowered because they have a say as to how they want the lesson plans to look and it gives them the option to work with their peers.

Student-centered teaching is a newer style that has been proven to be more effective because it allows students to learn in different ways and not just have everything handed to them. They can explore new things on their own and this encourages them to think outside the box and be creative. It also allows students to review only what they need, which will help them better retain the information that was previously taught. For our Generation Z and A students, this is one of the most effective methods of teaching that is allowing for deeper learning and engaging students, which is what we all hope to achieve as educators.

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Originally posted August 5, 2021

After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at studentcenteredworld.com/about

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