The term student-centred learning (SCL) is widely used in the teaching and learning literature. Many terms have been linked with student-centred learning, such as flexible learning (Taylor 2000 ), experiential learning (Burnard 1999 ), self-directed learning and therefore the slightly overused term ‘student-centred learning’ can mean different things to different people. In addition, in practice it is also described by a range of terms and this has led to confusion surrounding its implementation.
The concept of student-centred learning has been credited as early as 1905 to Hayward and in 1956 to Dewey’s work (O’Sullivan 2003 ). Carl Rogers, the father of client-centred counseling, is associated with expanding this approach into a general theory of education (Burnard 1999 ; Rogoff 1999 ). The term student-centred learning was also associated with the work of Piaget and more recently with Malcolm Knowles (Burnard 1999 ). Rogers (1983a :25), in his book ‘Freedom to Learn for the 80s’, describes the shift in power from the expert teacher to the student learner, driven by a need for a change in the traditional environment where in this ‘so-called educational atmosphere, students become passive, apathetic and bored’. In the School system, the concept of child-centred education has been derived, in particular, from the work of Froebel and the idea that the teacher should not ‘ interfere with this process of maturation, but act as a guide ’ (Simon 1999 ). Simon highlighted that this was linked with the process of development or ‘readiness’, i.e. the child will learn when he/she is ready (1999 ).
The paradigm shift away from teaching to an emphasis on learning has encouraged power to be moved from the teacher to the student (Barr and Tagg 1995 ). The teacher-focused/transmission of information formats, such as lecturing, have begun to be increasingly criticised and this has paved the way for a widespread growth of ‘student-centred learning’ as an alternative approach. However, despite widespread use of the term, Lea et al. (2003 ) maintain that one of the issues with student-centred learning is the fact that ‘ many institutions or educators claim to be putting student-centred learning into practice, but in reality they are not’ (2003 :322).This chapter aims to:
- Give an overview of the various ways student-centred learning is defined,
- Suggest some ways that student-centred learning can be used as the organising principle of teaching and assessment practices,
- Explore the effectiveness of student-centred learning and
- Present some critiques to it as an approach.
What is student-centred learning?
Kember (1997 ) described two broad orientations in teaching: the teacher centred/content oriented conception and the student centred/learning oriented conceptions. In a very useful breakdown of these orientations he supports many other authors views in relation to student-centred view including: that knowledge is constructed by students and that the lecturer is a facilitator of learning rather than a presenter of information. Rogers (1983b :188) identified the important precondition for student-centred learning as the need for: ‘. a leader or person who is perceived as an authority figure in the situation, is sufficiently secure within herself (himself) and in her (his) relationship to others that she (he) experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to think for themselves, to learn for themselves’.
Choice in the area of the learning is emphasised by Burnard. as he interprets Rogers’ ideas of student-centredness as ‘ students might not only choose what to study, but how and why that topic might be an interesting one to study’ (1999 :244). He also emphasises Rogers’ belief that students’ perceptions of the world were important, that they were relevant and appropriate. This definition therefore emphasises the concept of students having ‘choice’ in their learning.
Harden and Crosby (2000 :335) describe teacher-centred learning strategies as the focus on the teacher
transmitting knowledge, from the expert to the novice. In contrast, they describe student-centred learning as focusing on the students’ learning and ‘ what students do to achieve this, rather than what the teacher does ’. This definition emphasises the concept of the student ‘doing’.Other authors articulate broader, more comprehensive definitions. Lea et al. (2003 :322) summarises some of the literature on student-centred learning to include the followings tenets:
- ‘ the reliance on active rather than passive learning, an emphasis on deep learning and understanding, increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student, an increased sense of autonomy in the learner an interdependence between teacher and learner, mutual respect within the learner teacher relationship, and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner. ’
- The learner has full responsibility for her/his learning
- Involvement and participation are necessary for learning
- The relationship between learners is more equal, promoting growth, development
- The teacher becomes a facilitator and resource person
- The learner experiences confluence in his education (affective and cognitive domains flow together)
- The learner sees himself differently as a result of the learning experience.
The theoretical standing of student-centred learning is often surprisingly absent in the literature. However, it appears to relate primarily to the constructivist view of learning in the importance it places on activity, discovery and independent learning (Carlile and Jordan 2005 ). Cognitive theory also highlights activity but in a different form than that supported by the constructivists (Cobb 1999 ). The cognitive view supports the idea that the activity of learning is computed in the head, or as often described ‘in the mind’. The constructivist view of activity is related more to performing physical activities, for example, projects, practicals. Student-centred learning has some connections with the social constructivist view, which emphasises activity and the importance of communities of practice/others in the learning process. However, the definitions of SCL do not necessarily highlight the importance of peers in learning (Cobb 1999 ; Bredo 1999 ).
In summary, it appears from the literature that some view student-centred learning as: the concept of the student’s choice in their education; others see it as the being about the student doing more than the lecturer (active versus passive learning); while others have a much broader definition which includes both of these concepts but, in addition, describes the shift in the power relationship between the student and the teacher.
How can you implement student-centred learning?
Learning is often presented in this dualism of either student-centred learning or teacher-centred learning. In the reality of practice the situation is less black and white. A more useful presentation of student-centred learning is to see these terms as either end of a continuum, using the three concepts regularly used to describe student-centred learning (See Table 1 ).