We often hear that classrooms should engage in more student-centered instructional strategies, or that teachers should use more student-centered instruction. However, what does that mean? Does it mean every student is using educational technology that provides a “personalized” learning path? Does it mean that students are engaged in project-based learning? Does it mean an “anything goes” classroom with less rigor? Does it mean a classroom with a less formal structure?
To these, I would answer, respectively, “most probably,” “possibly,” “definitely not,” and “it depends on what you mean by less formal....” For instance, it is true that a student-centered classroom—which uses what is often called learner-centered instruction—will have more personalization than traditional classrooms. It is also true that student-centered instructional strategies may seem less structured (and, at first glance, a bit “less formal”) than traditional instruction. As students collaborate, conduct their own research, and create work products that look different from traditional essays and tests, classrooms can become messy and noisy environments. But this is not “anything goes.” Instead of enforcing a quiet classroom of students dutifully attending to the teacher’s lecture, the teacher’s role is focused on ensuring that students are fully engaged in learning, and are actively working and collaborating on rigorous content that meets their personal learning needs. The teacher may also find that a student-centered classroom results in the teacher not knowing the answer to every question that arises—that’s good news because it allows the teacher to model learning in an authentic setting!
While student-centered instruction has been used to mean many things, there are agreed-upon learning principles that form the foundation for a student-centered classroom: for authentic learning to take place, students must be engaged in what is learned, how it is learned, and what it looks like to exhibit expertise. In this post, we share a set of strategies that allow these principles to be realized in your classroom.
6 Key Learner-Centered Instructional Strategies
Student-centered instruction begins with an attitude that puts students at the center of the educational experience. There isn’t a single strategy that absolutely defines a student-centered classroom. There are, however, some strategies that are common across a wide variety of learner-centered classrooms.
1. Support Student Voice and Choice
The key to a student-centered approach is allowing students to share in classroom decision-making, such as allowing students to determine the form of a learning product. As an example, after students read their next book, provide an option for what format they want to use for their book report:
- Traditional essay
- Short video
Of course, this does not mean reducing rigor: students should understand, and preferably have input into, a grading rubric that makes clear the expectation of rigorous work. As students become more familiar with having a voice in classroom decisions, and as they understand the responsibility they have in ensuring rigor, students can be given more control. Students can determine how they will learn about a topic, the learning resources to be used, and how they will show competence in the area. As this shift occurs, you may find that students demand a deeper understanding of the “why” of learning and how it applies in a real-world context. For instance, a persuasive writing unit may become an analysis of media posts; or for older students, a unit on logarithms may become a project on understanding how we measure the strength of earthquakes.
2. Provide Differentiation
Not all students are the same, and student-centered instructional strategies build upon this fact. Students enter the classroom with different strengths and different backgrounds, and a student-centered view of the classroom accepts these differences as an asset, not as a set of student deficiencies to be remediated. Sometimes differentiation means that students use personalized technology to gain competence in background skills needed for the unit. More often, though, differentiation can take the form of ensuring that there are multiple ways to access concepts and show competence, as outlined in the approach called Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. UDL has guidelines for engagement (the “why” of learning), representation (the “what” of learning), and action & expression (the “how” of learning).
Thinking about learning from such a high level can help you differentiate instruction from the student’s perspective:
- A wide variety of contexts allows students the choice of context
- Information and concepts are presented in varying ways, for instance, using text, simulations, and animations
- Some learning activities are independent, and some are collaborative
You may find that students take time to become comfortable with a student-centered approach to learning. You may find that your students need support in areas such as responsible decision-making and self-management, as described by the CASEL framework.
3. Foster Collaboration
A learner-centered approach requires that the learners interact with each other, supporting each other in learning and engaging in joint problem-solving. There are many ways to foster productive collaboration, including:
- Students mentoring each other based on the unique strengths of each student (for instance, a student who typically underperforms in class may be the class expert in video editing)
- Students engaging in a jigsaw assignment, in which each student is responsible for a key part of the assignment and teaches the others what they learned
Additional techniques for moving towards more collaborative learning strategies and techniques can be found in another one of our blog posts. As students learn to collaborate, you may find students who traditionally don’t speak up in class display unexpected strengths when collaborating with their peers. Student collaboration allows students to experience taking some responsibility for their own learning, making clear that their own ideas are centered on the learning experience.
4. Engage Students in Active, or Constructivist, Learning
Research shows that all learning is an active process that takes place via students constructing knowledge. To engage students more fully in their learning in deep and meaningful ways, you can:
- Help students activate their prior knowledge and experiences. Examples of activating prior knowledge include using an opening “do now” question that asks their opinion about a related topic; completing a K-W-L chart (what do you know, what do you want to know, and what did you learn); or having them brainstorm solutions to related ideas. For instance, introduce a unit on rate with, “How can you determine how fast someone runs?”
- Encourage students to build upon their own interests, for instance, by having them decide how to apply their learning to a project or assignment.
- Plan for students to encounter difficulties while learning. Having students engage in productive struggle is a positive learning tool. Coach students through their productive struggle with a new concept or idea while not “giving away” the correct answer.
- Assign open-ended projects instead of straightforward procedural tasks. Students get to own many details around what they investigate and how they present it, and the assignments themselves have entry points for all students.
As you become more comfortable with a more constructivist approach, you may find resources on problem-based learning useful.
5. Use Diagnostic and Formative Assessments
While there are times that summative assessments must be used to evaluate what students know and can do after learning has occurred, that is only one type of assessment. In a student-centered classroom, you should use multiple types of assessments to:
- Diagnose student strengths and areas in which they need support before learning new concepts or skills (diagnostic assessments)
- Provide information on student progress during learning (formative assessments)
Both diagnostic and formative assessments can take many forms and should be considered by both teachers and students as low-stakes opportunities to aid students in their learning journeys. Students should participate in determining the form and analysis of these assessment results, and students should share responsibility for using the results to identify supports that allow them to grow as learners.
6. Leverage Technology to Implement Student-Centered Strategies
Use technology to promote all the other strategies to create a truly student-centered classroom. Technology can be used to:
- Personalize assignments based on where students need help or can be encouraged to accelerate their learning, such as we do with Waggle
- Provide different forms of assignments and assessments to different students within the same classroom, such as students working through their own sections and at their own pace in intervention programs like Read 180 and Math 180
- Support productive student collaboration, for instance, through document sharing
- Increase engagement of students in a variety of learning activities
Bringing It All Together
At first glance, it may seem as though having a student-centered classroom means a teacher-free and informal experience. This is not the case. Student-centered does not mean teacher-free: in fact, the role of the teacher takes on expanded importance. It does, however, mean a change in the role of the teacher. Instead of being the primary source of knowledge, the teacher becomes a coach and a guide. The teacher is a resource who may dispense information but who more often points to other resources, supports students in making the right decisions about how and what they learn, and admits that there are things they themselves do not know.
As you consider making your classroom more student-centered, realize that this isn’t a switch that you turn on and off. Nor is it a checklist of unrelated activities. Instead, it is a gradual process that involves interrelated elements. You can start with aspects you feel most comfortable with, such as allowing students to determine their own formative assessment activities or setting up your classroom to allow for more student collaboration. As you and your students become comfortable with these small steps, you can begin to incorporate more significant changes until you and your students are experiencing the benefits of a truly student-centered learning experience.
Learn how digital tools like Waggle can help you develop a student-centered teaching method.
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