Professional Development Module:
Student-Centered Teaching

By Vicky Lara, El Paso Community College

This module is designed to provide a series of annotated web sites for the instructor interested in investigating or implementing student-centered teaching. This type of teaching encompasses many approaches; however, the information usually focuses on the learning side of the coin. Although learning is the goal of instruction, teaching involves a somewhat different set of factors, challenges, problems, and solutions.

Key Concepts:

Section 1: Content-centered, Instructor-centered, and Student-centered Teaching

Content-centered teaching focuses on and meets the requirements of the content. Mastery of the content is paramount. The course’s organization cannot be changed to meet the needs of either the instructor or the students. In fact, someone completely separate from the instructor, for example, a discipline committee, often carries out the decision-making process.

Instructor-centered teaching focuses on the teacher as both authority and model. The instructor determines the content and organization of the course to a great extent. The students are recipients of the instructor’s knowledge.

Student-centered teaching focuses on the student. Decision-making, organization, and content are largely determined by the student’s needs and perceptions. Even assessment may be influenced or determined by the student. The instructor acts as coach and facilitator. In many respects, the goal of this type of teaching is the development of the student’s cognitive abilities. See “Making Our Teaching More Student-Centered” by Sergio Piccinin at

“How Teachers Teach: General Principles” offers further clarification of these three types of instruction. All three types are similarly effective for factual knowledge. However, student-centered teaching leads to “better retention, better transfer of knowledge to other situations, better motivation for further learning, and better problem-solving abilities….Active participation by students helps them construct a better framework from which to generalize their knowledge.”

Section 2: Education Versus Training

Most methodological decisions are based on the instructor’s understanding of training and education. Training is usually seen as having a narrow focus, a specific goal, evaluation based on performance of a specific activity, and a close tie to application in the world of work. Education, on the other hand, is higher on the instructional/learning hierarchy. Its goal is broader and includes the development of higher-order thinking skills. It is, however, often times quite removed from the world of work. Stan Lester argues for a synthesis of education and training through a focus on the learner. What he learns should be not only applicable, but also subject to exploration, and therefore, to a multiplicity of differing applications. See “Overcoming the Education-Training Divide: the Case of Professional Development” by Stan Lester

Section 3: Faculty Characteristics and Roles

“Faculty Characteristics and the Use of Student-Centered Teaching Strategies” presents the results of a study of faculty at 76 liberal arts colleges and universities. Three different factors affect a teacher’s choice of instructional strategies: the demographic, the experiential, and the psychological. Of the three, the more powerful factor was found to be the psychological. An instructor’s propensity to think critically, to reflect, and to be intrinsically motivated and curious greatly increase the likelihood of his/her use of student-centered strategies.

“Exploring (and possibly changing) Faculty Attitudes Toward Teaching and Student-Centered Learning” proposes that the instructor’s perception of teaching determines his/her choice of methodologies. Similarly, students’ conception of both teaching and learning contribute to the instructor’s choices.

In their article “On Student-Centered Learning and Active Participation,” Kim Haynes Korn and Gay Lynn Crossley describe the role of the teacher in a student-centered classroom. The teacher’s role is flexible, at times requiring more control and direction, at others fostering student independence and decision-making. This site presents an enlightening discussion encompassing everything from having to “complicate [the students’] ideas” to “trusting the students’ sense of purpose,” to “setting high expectations.”

TESA (Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement) is designed to train “teachers to interact with students on a more equitable basis.” It “sensitizes teachers to their expectations of all students… [and] involves teachers in reflection and careful, attentive practice of new behaviors.” Student-centered teaching demands an awareness of all students’ needs and the ability to motivate and “talk to” all students effectively.

The program teaches instructors new behaviors designed to encourage student communication, including

  • Equitable Distribution of Response Opportunity
  • Affirmation or Correction
  • Proximity
  • Individual Helping
  • Praise for the Learning Performance
  • Courtesy
  • Latency
  • Reasons for Praise
  • Personal Interest Statements and Compliments
  • Delving, Rephrasing, Giving Clues
  • Listening
  • Touching
  • Higher-Level Questioning
  • Accepting Feelings/li>
  • Desisting

Section 4: Requirements for Student-centered Teaching

“Critical Issue: Working Toward Student Self-Direction and Personal Efficacy as Educational Goals” explains that in order for student-centered teaching to work well, teachers must create certain opportunities in which students:

  • have opportunities to set and re-set their own goals,
  • set goals, define strategies and identify indicators of success,
  • think about their own performance,
  • develop meta cognitive behaviors,
  • become better at asking questions (of themselves too),
  • control text, i.e., through mapping,
  • coordinate “long-range curricular planning,”
  • develop personal efficacy

“Constructivist Teaching and Learning Styles” sets forth 12 principles for active teaching and learning based on Caine and Caine’s work, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain:

  • “The brain is a parallel processor.” It does many things at the same time.
  • “Learning addresses the entire physiology” (not just the brain).
  • “The search for meaning is innate…[and] meaning is personal and unique.”
  • “The search for meaning occurs through ‘patterning’” (establishing connections).
  • Emotions are critical to ‘patterning.’”
  • “The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.”
  • “Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception” (environment, culture, and climate).
  • “Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes” (students need time to process).
  • “We have at least two different types of memory: a spatial memory system, and a set of systems for rote learning” (rote versus spatial, experienced learning).
  • “We understand and remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory” (experiential learning).
  • “Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.”
  • “Each brain is unique….[therefore] teaching must be multifaceted.”

“Urgings and Cautions in Student-Centered Teaching” by James Rhem shares a more general series of requirements for effective student-centered teaching. It stresses “the importance of forethought,” “the importance of letting go,” and “the active creation of a social community” of students.

Section 5: The Student-centered Teaching Process

This site discusses how to implement learner-centered classrooms by describing the characteristics of such a classroom, the organization of activities in such a set-up, and the underlying assumptions. “Learner-Centered Classrooms, Problem-Based Learning, and the Construction of Understanding and Meaning by Students” encapsulates the work of Combs (1976), Savoie and Hughes (1994), and Robert Marzano (1992).

Indiana State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning web site gives quite specific information about “how to design courses based on the level of authority and control you need to have over a class and its workings.”

Section 6: Student Hostility/Faculty Resistance

In “Navigating the Bumpy road to Student-Centered Instruction,” Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent state that student-centered teaching may result in hostility from students used to being fed information. They refer to Woods’ observation “that students forced to take major responsibility for their own learning go through some or all of the steps psychologists associate with trauma and grief.” Because recognizing these steps is very important for the instructor and the student, they are listed in abbreviated form here:

  • shock
  • denial
  • strong emotion
  • resistance and withdrawal
  • surrender and acceptance
  • return of confidence and
  • integration and success

The information and suggestions offered in this site are essential for instructors considering full-fledged, student-centered teaching implementation.

This site enumerates four main issues that may result in varying degrees of instructor resistance to implementing student-centered teaching: content coverage, authority, standards, and roles. Each of these issues is complex and emotionally ladened for instructors.

Section 7: Teaching Style Inventories
This site provides a 40 question teaching styles inventory “based on the specific courses” the instructor teaches. It may be taken and scored online. It uses the following categories to describe teaching styles: Facilitator, Personal Model, Format Authority, Expert, and Delegator as identified by Anthony Grasha.

Although this site from the University of Toronto is no longer maintained, the link to this site is still active. It offers a detailed Teaching Style Inventory and Scoring Guide which may be printed and taken to provide a “Teaching Style Profile” based on planning techniques, teaching methods, teaching environment, evaluation techniques, teaching characteristics, and educational philosophy. The resulting sub-scores can then be utilized to categorize instruction as “individualized, somewhat individualized, transitional, somewhat traditional, and traditional” in the principal areas above.



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