Top Three Mistakes in Student-Centered Instruction

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Did you know that when most teachers start out with the student-centered method, they aren’t truly giving their students a learner-centered experience? Join us for our free webinar where we will discuss the top three mistakes that almost EVERY educator makes when starting to plan student-focused lessons in their classroom.

There is NO SHAME in realizing that you are making these mistakes. They are quite universal as there isn’t much out there that actually explains how to successfully implement student-centered learning into your classroom. Sure, we’ve read the theory and the data that shows how beneficial it is, but there is a serious lack of information about how to do it…and do it correctly…until now.

Student-Centered World was created with one premise: help teachers both master AND quickly implement student-centered learning into their classrooms. With the right game plan and universal template, it is much easier (and more successful) than you could ever imagine! Watch our video below to learn what these mistakes are and ideas on how to fix them.

Today, we’re going to be talking about mistakes. Now, that’s not something people usually like to talk about. But I have found that when people start out with student-centered learning, there are three main mistakes that they make, and it could make it, so you don’t want to try it anymore, your kids aren’t interested in participating. Obviously, that’s not something that we want. We want everybody to have a really positive experience, but these three mistakes are very, very common. You may have even made them yourself at some point and that’s totally fine. That’s why I wanted to take some time to address them and talk about what we can do to fix them.

Welcome to the Student-Centered World podcast where we talk about all things hands-on teaching and keeping your energy and sanity in the classroom. This teacher turned consultant is making it her mission to help as many teachers as possible become the best version of themselves and keep their passion for teaching on fire. It’s her hope that we never forget why we desire to have a passion for educational progress. This is Student-Centered World, and this is Jenn Breisacher.

Today, we’re going to be taking a look at student-centered learning in the classroom and the three mistakes that most educators make when they first start out with this model. The most difficult part about transitioning to a truly student-centered classroom is that there’s not a lot out there that really explains to you how to do that. So, when you’re trying to make that leap, we do what we think is student-centered learning, there are actually very specific criteria that does spell out what that involves. There are three things that most teachers do incorrectly, but think that they’re doing it right and it leads to a lot of discouragement, lack of student buy-in, and with that it just makes it not as successful of a process.

So, we’re going to go through those three mistakes today. This is a little bit of an excerpt from our course, which is called a Passion for Progress, becoming a 100%, student-centered educator. In that course, it takes you from beginning to end on how to make that transition to really having a fully student-centered class. A lot of people say that they are student-centered, but they still do a lot of direct instruction. A 100% student-centered class has the students hands-on. They know what to expect and they actually learn more at the end than they would have with any other model. So, the course takes you through lesson planning takes you through classroom design and all the little pieces in between. So, what we’re going to cover today like I said, are those three mistakes that most teachers do make when they start out with this model to make sure that you actually are running a fully student-centered classroom and not just one that you think is. 

So, as we go over these three mistakes, I want you to really understand that they are completely normal for teachers to be making when they are trying student-centered learning. As I mentioned before, there’s really nothing out there that explains how to do this model. I know when I first started this journey, it was about 2010 and our administration came forward and said to us we want everybody to switch to this student-centered learning model. They showed us data, they showed the benefits of it, and we liked what we saw. We said okay, well how do we make that transition? They said, just make your lesson student-centered. We said okay, but how do you do that. They’re like, just make it student-centered. So there really wasn’t much guidance. 

Even at the time, if you were going and you were Googling and you’re trying to find stuff, there really wasn’t anything out there that explained how to do it. So, I watched a lot of colleagues try and then stop because they got really discouraged really quickly. I spent over five years trying out different ideas, different things that I was finding, with different students, different courses, different levels of ability to try to find a model that really worked. So, in going through all that time, I found myself at first making these mistakes, and then seeing that these exact mistakes are what we’re discouraging my co-workers from moving forward with a 100% student-centered model. So, looking at them, the first mistake is becoming too hands-off. There’s this misconception that a teacher isn’t needed anymore in the student-centered classroom, and that couldn’t be any further from the truth. 

For starters, the teacher has to do a little bit more preparation ahead of time to be able to make sure that everything runs smoothly in the classroom, but that frees up your time a little bit once you’re in with your students to do more hands-on stuff with them. The role of the teacher is very distinct to whatever activities the students may be working on. So, every single day, your life in the classroom might be a little different depending on what you want your students to get out of it. So, the teacher is going to be actively monitoring the classroom as opposed to telling the students or giving the students what they need. They’re more of a facilitator and a monitor of those particular activities. So, there are different things that you can be doing in there. 

Okay, you could be walking around with a clipboard, taking notes based off of what you’re seeing, what your students are doing. You could be sitting at your desk, but being at your computer and monitoring their progress online, there’s a lot of great websites out there or apps, where you can see what the students are doing in real-time. So, you can be monitoring their progress, whether it’s knowledge base, whether it’s effort, just to see their progress timewise. There’s a lot that you can do with that, especially planning forward, seeing exactly where your students are, and being able to meet them. You could be interacting with every single student. We know that we’re supposed to be doing that but when you have class sizes that have 27, 32, 45 kids, in some places, it’s really difficult to do if you’re trying to make sure that they’re all doing the same thing and you’re leading that. 

With this model, you have the ability to go up and talk to every single one of them. It may be about the assignment itself, that they’re working on, they might have a little bit more of a level of comfort in asking you questions doing that because they’re not speaking in front of their peers. You might just be having a little bit of side conversation with them and developing some personalized relationships with your students, which will also have them work better for you. 

There’s a lot of different variables there. Then something else you can also be filling out mastery charts or standards charts to see exactly what students are meeting what criteria for your curriculum at the time. Then again, you could be basing what you’re doing in the future off of who was meeting what need. Again, these are not the only things that you can be doing. But these are just some that come along more frequently. It really does depend on the activities that you’re giving the students the opportunity to complete. 

So, this is a testimonial from one of our students that did complete a Passion for Progress and I thought that it just really resonated with me with this concept in general. So, it says the message about what my role was in a student-centered classroom was very unclear. For my understanding, I thought student-led meant I was taken out of the equation. Again, very common misconception, I didn’t realize there were so many opportunities for me to interact with my students while not spoon-feeding them content. I can’t tell you how many teachers have used the phrase spoon-feeding, when it’s talking about the current generation in there, you know, and how they want to be able to get their information. They were also way more willing to ask good questions and to discuss the material this way to.

Most teachers, when they start out there, they’re doing this because all they that’s out there is that that students need to be doing the work on their own. So, you’re just backing yourself off. I know, when I started out, I gave a ridiculous amount of worksheets, because in my head, if I’m not supposed to be telling you the information then this paper is kind of telling you the information and then I have a way of finding out whether or not you’re getting the information based off the answers that you’re giving. Number one that’s not really effective. Number two, it made my grading double, at least in what I had to do to make sure that the kids were getting it and it was just. It was unnecessary overall. 

That goes into mistake number two, mistaking busy work for quality work. Okay, so it says just because a student is working on an assignment independently with a partner or in groups does not mean it’s a student-centered assignment. So again, right back to the worksheet idea. If you’re just giving them something to do because it takes you away from saying, okay, I’m leading them in this. That’s just busywork. If there’s no greater meaning to it, if there’s nothing that they’re going to be getting out of it, that’s a higher level. All it is busywork and the kids know busy work. What happens when you have busy work? They start just copying one another. Okay, they try to look up the answers online. They might not even do it, or they might just be filling in answers just to kind of get it done. None of that is conducive to a really strong learning environment, and that’s a problem. So, looking into that, what would be considered busy work. 

If you’re using a worksheet to just summarize information, and don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great worksheets out there that do their job well, but there are a lot out there that do not, and they just qualify as busywork. So, for instance, if you’re using a worksheet to build baseline content, so you’re making sure that all the students understand some basic content, some basic facts, and it’s helping them to all learn that that’s okay. If there’s a critical thinking element involved, that’s fine too. But if it’s just your typical think about it worksheet where they’re just filling in answers, busywork. Okay. Work that doesn’t have a greater purpose. So, what we would consider a time filler. 

We’ve all been there something you thought was going to take a certain amount of time took less so you give the kids something else because as you know if an administrator walks in and the students aren’t working, it’s not going to look good for you. So, you have these things to fill in. The problem is the kids can smell these out a mile away. They know that you’re just giving them work for the sake of giving them work, and they’re not going to take it seriously. Assignments that are absent of critical thinking. So, when you’re having them work on stuff, if it doesn’t make them think, if it doesn’t make them develop questions, need clarification, then it’s not really doing it justice and it is just busywork. The only thing that’s I think can fall under this and being okay, is if we’re working on vocabulary. 

With vocabulary, it’s just do you know, the definition of this word, but there are different models out there that add a critical thinking element. If you’re not familiar with the Frayer model look into that, where you know, what other words are like this word? What do you think this word means? There are different versions of it, where you can draw a picture, and it just adds a critical thinking element to it. So yeah, you’re going over basic vocabulary, but it just has that extra little bit to it. Then projects that don’t have the depth or the opportunity for higher questions to answer. 

So, this brings project-based learning into play. A lot of times you think, oh, they’re hands-on, they’re making something, they’re doing something, well, that’s great. But if they’re all just kind of this is the baseline criteria that you need to meet and they’re doing nothing but spitting information back at you in a different way than just a written test would be, it doesn’t develop that higher level that we’re looking for in the student-centered model. Even though it is more intricate to take care of it is still considered busy work and not student-centered learning.

All right, here, we have another testimonial. Okay, it says, when I first tried student-centered learning, I just assumed that the student was completing an assignment, I was good to go. I am ashamed to admit the number of worksheets I handed out because I didn’t realize that, wasn’t it? When you take away that busy work element, when you are making the students understand why they’re completing the work, you’re giving them the curiosity spark that they need to want to do the work. You’re taking away that question of why do we have to do this? We’ve all heard that. They want to know why. They’re inquisitive, they are children. But if they are interested, there’s something that sparked them in there. If there’s a piece to it, that they understand, that’s going to go away, all right. It’s all about whether or not the students buy-into the fact that there’s purpose to what they’re doing. There’s something greater that they’re going to be getting out of it.

All right, and that ties into mistake number three, which is giving your students cookie-cutter work. So, as a teacher, we know two things. We have known this forever in this field. Number one, no two students learn the same, and number two, we are tasked with differentiating for them. All right, so the term differentiates, to put it into words that are just a little bit more clear, is to make difference in the process of growth. When we hear differentiate, we often think of special education and that’s not it. We want to make it, so every student is met on their level, to be able to perform their best. Alright, so I have written here, why would we not give them choice in their work in order to have them do their best. Now, right off the bat, this does not mean more work for you. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done an in-person workshop or I’m talking to other teachers, and the eye roll start, and the hands go up. You’re telling me I need to make a different assignment for every single kid in the class. That’s absolutely not it. Don’t do that to yourself. What you want to be able to do is create assignments that appeal to the learning styles of your students. So, you might have kids that are visual, you might have kids that are kinesthetic, and you want to come up with different things that they’re all still getting the same content out of, but they’re approaching it a little bit differently. So, it’s piquing their interest and they’re working harder at it and they’re learning in a way that makes sense to them. You know, there’s that fun quote that goes around. I believe it’s from Albert Einstein, that says, everybody is smart, but if you ask a fish to climb a tree, they’re not going to feel…  I’m butchering the quote but I’m sure you’ve seen it and if not, hopefully, you understand what I’m trying to say here. 

Everybody learns a little bit differently. So, why would we not be trying to do something, you know, to help them out with that. So, what I like to do in the very beginning of meeting with these new students or whatever, I like to survey their learning styles. So, you can go on Google and you can get ones that are really, really long and in-depth, or you can get ones that are really short. They take this quiz, and you find out exactly what you’re working within your classroom.  So, you find out how many kids are visual, how many are auditory, how many are kinesthetic, so on, and so forth. A lot of them do overlap as well. And when you’re coming up with your activities and your assignments, and your simulations, and all this, you can keep that in mind. 

So, when you say, all right, today, we’re going to cover XYZ topic, these are the three different ways that you can go about doing that. You’ll find that kids that are kinesthetic are going to want to go gravitate towards that hand on hands-on where they’re actually making, or doing or crafting or whatever, it makes a difference. I have at the bottom here that this is way more fun and easier to grade. Think about it, if you have several students. So, we’ll think of like a high school class, for instance. You have several sections of a course, you might have 120 students, however many. If you’re grading the exact same thing over and over and over again, it gets really, really monotonous. But if you have a clump of this type of activity, a clump of this type of activity, and then each peer takes it in their own way of their own interpretation, you start seeing things that you didn’t even think about, that is covered. It’s just seeing their creativity comes forward, it’s so exciting to watch. Now, I mean, of course, if you do have IEPs in your class, you have to make sure that you are following those rules and 504s and everything. 

What I like to do is if I have, you know, certain kids in the class with IEP s, and they all have a particular modification, that’s not something that’s very difficult to grasp, I’ll try to incorporate that into the activity. So, that way, it’s already taken care of, and it’s already in there. Now, when you’re first starting out, again, you just want to try to cover the bases here. But in time, once you have these activities mapped out you might be able to literally have a list of things that the students can work on that really are hitting every single one of their particular preferences and learning. In the beginning, again, you just want to hit the main points. But as you keep rolling with this, as the years progressed, you’re going to have a huge toolkit that you can use in your classroom.

All right, here we have another testimonial, it says, I was skeptical the first time I heard about giving students a choice and what assignments they completed, and I think we can all understand that. It seemed to go against everything I knew about teaching, but I tried it and got better quality work for my kids than I ever had before. After that I was hooked and I promise you, it is shocking, shocking, the effort that you get out of these kids, once you just let them feel like they’re in a little bit more control of what they’re doing. I’ve had students that, you know, other teachers had seen, and, you know, they walk past my room, and they see them and they’re like, oh, you have so and so, you know, good luck with them. They do great in my class because they’ve never had an opportunity like this before. 

I had a student come up to me once and say, you know, he had a B average. He was like, this is the best grade I’ve ever had in this course before ever. Just the way you do things it’s so different and I love it. Then I had another girl once come up to me and we were reviewing for final exams and she really was reflecting back to when we had midterms. She was like when exams came around, no one was nervous, because we knew we knew it already. We looked at the study guides, and we looked at one another, we knew we knew it and most of us did really well on the midterm. We feel the same way going into the final. All the students behind are nodding their heads and it’s such a good feeling to know that you’re actually making a difference in the learning of these students. I think that’s the biggest takeaway from having a fully student-centered model is that these kids, they buy-into it, they love it and it’s just that heartwarming, why we all became teacher feeling that you get day after day.

So, in all of that, the question is, are you ready to adapt a truly student-centered model? So, to sort of recap on what the student-centered model would be is none of these mistakes are happening. And again, if you’ve made them if you’re currently making them, it’s okay. Now you have a grasp on how to tweak that, but the students are coming in there and they have choice in what they’re doing, and they’re all engaged, and they can tell you why they’re doing the assignments and they’re asking the questions and they’re taking it further and I’ve helped so many teachers now who came into this with their arms crossed, saying this is never going to work for my kids. It’s not going to work the group that I have. This is wrong or that’s wrong, and it’s not going to work. Once they gave it a try, they realized this is it. This is what is grasping the kids in this generation.

It makes such a difference. So, in that there are four pieces to true student-centered learning. We’re looking at lesson planning, we’re looking at classroom design, differentiation, and student buy-in. So, when you’re first starting out the lesson planning. I’m going to warn you, it might take just a little bit longer, because you want to make sure that you’re not making the mistakes and you’re putting all of the elements in that are required to make it student-centered hands on the learning styles and all that. But as I alluded to before, once you have something planned out, you have it already. So, you might tweak it for your next group of kids, like, oh, you know what this part of it might not work for these particular students. Tweak it, but you have it. 

So, when you’re starting out, it’s a little bit more, but then as you keep going, it actually gets easier. Okay, the differentiation, part of it ties into that. So, when you’re making your lessons, you’re figuring out the exact students you have in front of you. If you’re doing the exact same things year after year, you’re not reaching your students that are sitting in front of you right now as well as you could have. They’re not cookie-cutter kids. They’re all very individualized and if we want them to be doing their best, we need to make sure we’re meeting them where they need to be. Once you start doing that, you will be shocked at how much smoother your class runs. You can get observed with this, and your students are all actively working on something different from everybody else and you can say, you know, this group over here is working on this, this group’s working on that. 

You’re weaving in and out, sitting down having conversations with your students, or you’re sitting at your computer and you’re showing here is where they all are on this particular assignment and you’re writing things down, or you have kids that are actively putting their names on the boards because they need some more one on one instruction and you’re able to float around. It looks really, really great. Even though it looks a little chaotic, you can see that there’s active learning going on. That’s so important. Looking at the idea of classroom design. Okay, that’s actually extremely open-ended but there are very specific things that you can craft in your actual physical classroom to make this model work even better. 

It’s not only are we meeting the kids intellectually where they are but what about physically? Do you have a kid that needs to be able to fidget a little bit? Do you have somebody who works better if they’re standing? Do you have somebody better if they’re not at a desk but they’re kind of stretched out or at a table? There are so many options here but again, think about yourself. There’s one particular way that you just feel the most comfortable, and you’re the most productive. The kids are the same exact way. So again, if we’re trying to meet them where they are with their learning we should probably also be doing it in all other ways possible to get the best possible value out of their education in class. Then the last piece there is, in fact, student buy-in. 

Now, when you first start this process, it might be a little bit more difficult than later on in the involvement of it, and let me explain. So, I’ve always considered it, the stages of grief, and people always giggle when I say that. But when you first start out, so in my background since 2007, I’ve been a high school history teacher. My kids walk in on the very first day of school, and especially the honors kids, I tell them you will never hear me lecture, I will not show you one PowerPoint, it just doesn’t happen. They’re really, really confused but they’re excited because nobody really cares for that especially not a high school student. So, they’re all excited. Then as time progresses they start getting a little bit disgruntled, because they have to be actively doing things in every class. 

Regularly, a student is able to slip in and zone out and nine out of 10 times nobody’s the wiser. But in the student-centered class, they have to be doing things otherwise they’re going to fall behind. So, they get a little bit perturbed every day, we come in here and we have to do something and ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba. But then all of a sudden, you see one kid buy-into it and start just going through the motions, if nothing else, and then another kid sort of starts going through the motions. Then all of a sudden you see the scale tip and the kids just come in and they just start doing whatever you have for them and they start rolling with it because as time progresses, they get it, and they buy into it and they realize the merit in it. 

The beginning of your unit, it might be a little bit dry because you have to make sure that the kids are all getting the basic content that they need to be able to do this higher-order stuff. There are so many different ways that you can do it to make it engaging but it is a little bit dry. So, the first time or two that you do it, where they’re just doing more basic work if you want to think of it that way. They might be a little ho-hum about it but then once they see where that takes them in a unit, they can’t wait to get there and it’s wonderful to watch that transformation take place. So, all those four pieces come together to create that true student-centered environment. 

You might be sitting there thinking that that’s completely overwhelming. I know I did when I first started and there was nothing out there that explained how to actually do that, how to make the four pieces of the puzzle cohesive and make them work and not focus on one more than another, and what did each one of them even mean. But with the proper guidance and the structure to it, it’s really not difficult. The more you do it, the easier it gets, the more assignments you have in your arsenal, and you can really help out your students more than you could imagine. That’s actually why we started Student-Centered World to begin with. 

So, no teacher should have to take five years to figure out how to successfully execute a program that everybody is saying, oh, you need to be doing this. It’s a waste of time to be honest, I hate that I have things that flop. Not every lesson is going to go perfectly, not every assignment activity is going to go the way you envisioned it in your head. That’s just the nature of the beast. But knowing that I feel like I could have done more for some of the students I had in those early years when I was trying to adapt this it bothers me a little bit. So, I wanted to be able to have something out there that says, okay, listen, this is how you do this. This is what you need to do. There was nothing out there until we developed Student-Centered World. If you haven’t been on our website, studentcenteredworld.com, we have a blog there. Lots of different articles about different techniques, different ideas, different theories about all of this and what you can do in your classroom. 

So, at this point, we have finished our webinar. We want to thank you so much for joining us and we hope that you were able to take something away from here. Again, if you have any questions, please make sure you reach out and ask. Our whole goal is we want to be able to help as many teachers as possible really understand and be able to flourish with the student-centered model. All the data is out. It’s saying that our Generation Z that is in the classroom right now is learning this way and they’re learning well. So, we really want to be able to help as many people as possible.