The K-12 guide to student-centered learning
Learn what student-centered learning is, how schools are currently benefiting from it, and how to implement a student-centered program in the classroom.
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What is student-centered learning?
Student-centered learning (SCL) is an approach to teaching and education that focuses on meeting the needs of each student on an individual basis. SCL can take many forms, from the flipped classroom to one-on-one tutoring. Whatever the specific practice, a student-centered learning environment encourages students both to explore the ways they learn best and to assume greater agency over their own learning.
“In a truly student-centered learning environment, teachers and students work collaboratively to co-create a learning plan or pathway that best suits the needs of each individual learner,” explain researchers and educators Dr. Christopher Harrington and Dr. Kristen DeBruler in their essay, “What Exactly IS Student-Centered Learning?”
“Yes, this means that there will be many different plans or pathways within one single classroom,” add Harrington and DeBruler. “But that’s the point, isn’t it?”
SCL grows out of constructivist learning theory, which holds that effective learning is not a passive activity. Rather, learners actively construct meaning from a combination of new information and prior experience.
The power of student-centered learning
Studies consistently demonstrate the effectiveness of student-centered learning both in short-term improvement in testing and in long-term outcomes, such as improved graduation rates, expanded socioemotional growth, and greater success in post-secondary study. SCL has also been linked to increased success in life beyond school, including in the workplace.
SCL has also been shown to be an effective tool for advancing equity, delivering outsized benefits to socioeconomically disadvantaged students. In fact, it can be an effective method for all kinds of students whom a more traditional classroom structure does not serve—from shy students to those with differing learning needs.
Why SCL now?
Interest among educators for SCL practices has increased in the wake of the learning disruptions caused by COVID-19, which has taken a serious toll on the motivation and morale of millions of students and led to increased absenteeism and lower engagement and graduation rates. SCL can provide an effective antidote to this crisis, as studies consistently link student-centered learning practices with higher levels of engagement and student agency.
“Schools have been grappling with how to keep students connected and engaged even before the pandemic hit,” says Allison Gerber, who oversees the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s employment, education, and training strategies. “Though the scope of the problem has widened, so too has the recognition that we must embrace new approaches—shaped in collaboration with young people.”
3 core goals of student-centered learning
Student-centered learning is a general approach to learning that, in practice, can take many forms and can vary from classroom to classroom and community to community. However, SCL initiatives often consciously embrace one or more of the following goals.
1. Student engagement
According to the Glossary of Education Reform, student engagement “refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”
Studies show that SCL, done right, can be an effective tool for increasing student engagement because students are encouraged to find greater meaning in the learning process, making motivation intrinsic (driven by their own interests) rather than extrinsic (coming from a teacher or other outside authority).
2. Student agency
According to Jacob Bruno, senior vice president of professional learning at NWEA, student agency is about “developing and holding onto the sense that one can set achievable goals, persevere, solve problems, overcome obstacles, and find success.”
Evidence-based studies consistently show that student agency is critical to success in school and beyond, and that student-centered learning helps cultivate agency. One SCL practice that “increases student ownership and agency” effectively is project-based learning, according to a 2018 report.
“Student-centered classrooms that capitalize on the power of self-determination can substantially increase achievement and motivation,” write Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula in a 2012 report synthesizing research on achievement motivation, school engagement, and student voice.
3. Student confidence
“Confident students are more likely to speak in class and ask for help when needed. They absorb material faster and are more excited to learn,” write the authors of a recent National Education Association article. Teachers, students, and researchers have all reported a strong connection between student-centered learning and student confidence.
“When we empower students to drive their own learning—when we show them the destinations, let them chart their own courses, and help them reroute on the way—they build their sense of self-efficacy,” adds Jacob Bruno. “They develop not only the skills and knowledge required, but also the confidence from knowing they found success themselves.”
Being at the forefront of education involves more than ensuring students get top marks, learn in state-of-the-art facilities, or achieve their college or career dreams.
Read examples from the education field along with additional data, research, and strategy advice for those working to create a brighter future in K-12.
Benefits of student-centered learning: Learning acceleration and advancing equity
Evidence-based research has consistently shown that student-centered learning can accelerate learning and improve outcomes across a wide range of subjects—and for students of all kinds, including those who have been historically underserved. Measurable benefits shown by the research include:
- Improved performance in core subjects, including mathematics and language arts
- Higher test scores on statewide exams
- Higher graduation rates
- Increased four-year college persistence rates
RAND Corporation studies of personalized learning and the implementation and effects of personalized learning in 2015 and 2017, respectively, found that this approach can benefit “students of all ability levels.” In addition, students at schools that embraced personalized learning made significantly more gains in math and language arts than similar students from comparable schools. And the greater a school’s commitment to personalized learning practices, the larger were the positive effects on student outcomes.
In addition, studies have shown SCL to be an effective tool for advancing equity. For example, a 2014 study of four public schools by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that:
- Graduation rates for Latino students, English-language learners (ELLs), and low-income students were between 10 and 24 percentage points higher than the state averages at three of four schools committed to SCL.
- Graduation rates for African-American students were almost 30 percentage points higher than the district and state averages at two of the four schools.
- Success at four-year colleges was also significantly higher for students at two of the schools.
4 ways to support student-centered learning
SCL can take many forms. While this is in no way an exhaustive list, here are four common practices among educators who incorporate student-centered learning in their classrooms.
1. Project-based learning
Like SCL itself, project-based learning (PBL) can take many forms. Edutopia defines PBL as “a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.”
“The educational value of PBL is that it aims to build students’ creative capacity to work through difficult or ill-structured problems, commonly in small teams,” according to the Boston University Center for Teaching & Learning.
In what Edutopia describes as “two gold-standard, randomized, controlled trials” encompassing thousands of students across diverse school systems, project-based learning “significantly outperformed traditional curricula, raising academic performance across grade levels, socioeconomic subgroups, and reading ability.”
2. Flipped classroom
A flipped classroom is “structured around the idea that lecture or direct instruction is not the best use of class time. Instead, students encounter information before class, freeing class time for activities that involve higher order thinking,” writes the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University.
It’s called a “flipped classroom” because it reverses the traditional practice of introducing new content at school and then assigning homework based on that content. While this technique is not new, it has become much easier to scale in the Internet age. Students can engage in digital content, from a pre-recorded lecture to more interactive content, before attending an in-person class in which they apply their learning.
The flipped classroom is considered an SCL practice because, for example, students can pause and rewind online content, so that they can learn at their own pace. In addition, it can leave more classroom time for individual attention from teachers.
3. Blended learning
According to the National Education Association, blended learning integrates a virtual and face-to-face learning environment for students. Blended learning aligns with SCL because it is a “student-centered pedagogy strategy to develop independent and resilient students with self-efficacy and perseverance to solve problems at their own pace,” explains educator and researcher Constance Bahn.
A 2022 study on blended learning published in the Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education found that the process led to:
- Improved problem-solving and conceptual engagement
- Increased engagement
- Drastically reduced failure rate—especially among historically disadvantaged students
4. Small-group and one-on-one tutoring
Tutoring in a small group or even one-on-one lends itself to SCL practices, since instructors can interact closely with students and gain insight into their individual skills and needs. Studies have found that such programs can accelerate learning and are cost-effective relative to other education interventions. Traditional in-person, after-school programs are often out of reach of students who need help the most, because they lack alternative transportation options or have adult responsibilities. However, those that offer services beyond these bounds have also been shown to be effective in combating educational inequities.
Traditionally, personalized tutoring programs have proven to be hard to scale due to staffing, funding, scheduling, and logistical challenges. However, school districts are increasingly adopting online tutoring models thanks to their extreme flexibility, digital versatility, and greater affordability.
Of course, while SCL may place students at the center, teachers remain key to the success of any SCL initiative. As a result, teacher wellness is critical to the success of SCL, especially at a time when teachers are experiencing higher levels of both stress and depression than the general adult population and schools are struggling with teacher shortages.
Read more about the importance of teacher wellness and how to support it, including by giving students access to tutors on demand.
Characteristics of student-centered tutoring programs
While one-to-one and small-group tutoring lend themselves to SCL practices, they sometimes still place the instructor at the center, rather than the student. In other words, not all tutoring programs are equally student-centered. However, a range of practices exist that can align tutoring programs with SCL practices, including:
1. Inquiry-based tutoring methods
Students may want answers from tutors, but tutors aligned with SCL practices offer guiding questions instead. In this way, students are challenged to solidify fundamental concepts, such as executive functioning, that promote long-term academic success.
2. On-demand model
For various reasons, many students can’t access traditional after-school tutoring programs—especially socioeconomically disadvantaged students. They may lack access to transportation that would allow them to stay after school, or they may have to work outside or inside the home (e.g., offering child care to siblings). Athletics and other extracurricular activities can also prevent access.
An online, on-demand model of tutoring can extend access to tutoring by overcoming barriers ranging from access to staffing and cost challenges. On-demand tutoring fits the student’s life, rather than the other way around.
In addition to overcoming scheduling challenges, on-demand tutoring systems take into consideration the fact that students may have times of the day, week, or month when they are more ready, able, and eager to learn and problem-solve. These could be prior to an exam, during various phases of writing assignments, or simply when it best suits their schedule to study and learn. Again, it is the student who decides what help is needed and when best to seek it, aligning it with other student-centered practices.
Letting students decide when and where they access a tutor not only overcomes challenges of scheduling and resources, but also helps encourage student agency. Teachers may make tutor interactions a requirement, which can be an effective way to increase students’ comfort with a new resource. However, students still get to decide when and where they participate, and what kind of specific help they need.
4. Teachers in the loop
In a traditional model of tutoring, teachers may have little or no insight into which issues students find challenging and why. By contrast, an online model—particularly a text-based system—can give teachers access to tutor interactions and quickly enable them to understand an individual student’s learning processes, a practice at the core of SCL methodology.
5. Private, broad-based access
Traditionally, schools have provided educational interventions based on low academic performance. However, such programs risk creating a stigma and can even be seen as a form of punishment. When all students have access and can log on to a platform whenever and wherever they want, districts can both lower the risk of stigma and expand access.
Reducing stigma and broadening access increase the chances that students will reach out when they need help, expanding opportunities for students to engage in self-directed learning while increasing their confidence and agency.
When you remove time limits on tutor interactions, you encourage students who may just have a quick question that is stopping them, as well as those who may need more in-depth help. The needs of the student define the length of the interaction, not the scheduling requirements of administrators and tutors.
7. A diversity of subjects
Because of resource restraints, many tutorial programs are limited to core subjects like reading and math. Although these are top priorities, students may experience more robust engagement in other subjects. Being able to access tutors in these subjects based on intrinsic motivation can have a number of positive effects that extend beyond the subject at hand, including greater confidence that helps them engage with—and seek help in—their favorite subjects.
Conclusion: student-centered learning goes beyond academics
Ultimately, education is about much more than academic achievement. By encouraging student engagement, agency, and confidence, student-centered learning has the potential to serve students both while they are in school and long after graduation.
“Student-centered learning mirrors what happens in life and the workplace; you have to set goals, take action, manage your time, reflect and revise, and have a belief in yourself that you can improve,” says Dr. Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership at FlexTech High School.
When students understand their own learning processes and are allowed to engage with their interests and passions at their own pace, they can become more confident learners for life.