The Learner-Centered Classroom

Advocate Online , October , 2008

The Learner-Centered Classroom
By Terry Doyle

Thriving in Academe

A Clear Rationale for Learner-Centered Teaching

“Although it may irritate the teacher, one of the most intelligent questions a student can ask is, ‘Why do we have to do this?'”— Robert Sylwester

The first step to helping students adjust to learner-centered teaching is to explain WHY this approach is the best possible way to enhance their academic success. This includes explaining how the new learning roles and responsibilities expected of them in a learner-centered classroom will allow them to better meet their learning and life goals.

Perhaps the best way to help students understand why we have changed to a learner-centered practice is to simply say—this is where the research has led us. New discoveries about how the human brain learns and the subsequent recommendations for how to teach in harmony with these discoveries have guided the learner-centered approach to teaching. Our students need to see that we are following the best research in designing our teaching approaches, just as we require them to follow the best research in doing their course work.

There are three rationales I believe are key to helping our students understand why we need them to
take on the new roles and responsibilities required of them in a learner-centered environment.

Changes in Our Understandings of How Humans Learn
Many of the changes students will see in our teaching approach can be explained by our desire to bring our teaching into harmony with the new discoveries about how the human brain learns. For example, we want students to do more firsthand learning, group learning, practicing, reflecting, teaching of others, and presentations because all of these learning activities require active learner engagement. We know from neuroscience research that the dendrites of our brain cells only grow when the brain is actively engaged and the neuron-networks formed in our brains only stay connected when they are used repeatedly (Ratey, 2002, p. 19). We need to continually reinforce to our students that the learning tasks we are asking them to take on, which require them to adopt new learning roles, are done to optimize the development of the neuron-networks they need to be successful college learners.

We are Preparing Students for Their Careers
The rationale for teaching many of the learning skills, behaviors, attitudes, and critical thinking strategies now a part of learner-centered college courses is that our students will need these skills for their careers. For example, we put students into small groups not only to promote a deeper level of learning but because learning to talk with or listen to others is, perhaps, the single most important skill needed to be successful in any career field. A rationale for asking students to make presentations before the whole class is that learning to speak in front of others is crucial to career success. The simple point is that most learning activities or content knowledge we teach has relevance to students’ career goals. We just have to continually point this out to them.

College must Prepare Students to be Lifelong Learners
The new reality our students need to accept is that college is no longer a terminal educational experience. The big change we must accept is to rid ourselves of the idea that if we don’t teach it to them then they will never learn it. Replacing that idea with one that says, if we don’t prepare them to be lifelong learners, capable of independent, self-motivated learning, then we have done less than a satisfactory job with their college education.

One of the reasons students are being asked to take on more responsibility for their own learning is because they will be responsible for it the rest of their lives. The responsibility we have to develop our students’ lifelong learning skills is justification for many of the changes we are asking our students to make in a learner-centered classroom. When we ask them to write copiously, read large amounts of information, learn to manage their time, work well with others, accept and give feedback and criticism, express ideas in clear, concise ways that can be easily understood by others, listen attentively, defend a position or idea, or find a proper source, we do so because they will have to do these things the rest of their lives if they are to be successful.

Each time we conduct a class activity or give a homework assignment or assessment, we can help increase our students’ understanding of why we want them to do these things by pointing out how these activities are building the lifelong learning skills they will need to compete in the global economy of an ever flattening world.

A Learner-Centered Classroom Requires Students to Have New Skills
One of the basic facts that all teachers know about the learning process is: the one who does the work does the learning. But being able to successfully do the work in a learner-centered classroom will require most students to advance their learning skills.

I have identified eight areas where students will likely need our help in developing their learning skills:

  • Learning how to learn on their own.
  • Developing the communication skills needed to collaborate with others.
  • Taking more control for their own learning.
  • Teaching others.
  • Making presentations.
  • Developing lifelong learning skills.
  • Developing their metacognitive skills—knowing what they know, don’t know or misunderstand.
  • Developing the ability to evaluate themselves, their peers, and the teacher.

Each of these areas takes a more prominent role in a learner- centered classroom. All, however, are areas where most students have only limited experiences and are often not highly skilled. For example, the ability of students to evaluate the quality of their own work is crucial to their career and life success, but few students have ever been asked to do this.

Our students will need to be taught how to do meaningful self-assessment of their work; we cannot expect them to know how to do something they have never been taught. Among the most important skills we need to help our students develop are speaking and listening. These are also the most overlooked in our teaching. The ironic part of this is that these are the very activities that our students will do more often than any other on a day-to-day basis at work. As such, they are crucial skills to their professional success.

The key to helping our students to learn in this new environment is to take a lesson from basic teacher training—always check to see what the students already know and can do before making learning assignments. If we find our students are unskilled or under-skilled, then we must teach them these learning skills before expecting them to be successful learners in a learner-centered classroom.


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Thriving in Academe
Best Practices

Stakeholders Exercise

“Stakeholders” is a learning activity that helps students understand why they need to take on the new learning roles and responsibilities a learner-centered approach requires. It was developed by my colleague Cecil Queen, who uses it each time he introduces a new topic. Its purpose is to help students discover reasons why, beyond a grade, it is important to deeply learn their course material. In this activity students are asked to identify people or organizations that are stakeholders in their being successful learners of the new material. All stakeholders, major and minor, are then mapped on the board. The map represents everyone who is depending on Cecil’s criminal justice students to become fully competent of the new material. A list of the stakeholders identified when the topic of domestic violence was introduced is below.

You, your supervisor, your partner, the court, police department, victim(s), victims’ children, victims’ relatives, suspect, suspect’s relatives, neighbors, your family, your wife and kids, the public, medical staff, the victim’s lawyer, the suspect’s lawyer.

“Stakeholders” Exercise enhances students’ awareness that their learning success is not just about them. Cecil also notes that the exercise has two additional benefits: (1) students see that the instructor has the same stakeholders holding him responsible for effectively guiding their learning, and (2) they come to realize he would never select a teaching approach, like learner-centered teaching, if he did not believe it was the best way to help them learn.


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Thriving in Academe
Issues To Consider

Helping Students Change

Professors should emphasize lifelong learning skills.


Why do students’ learning roles need to change?
As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, has pointed out, knowing has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it. “More than ever, the sheer magnitude of human knowledge renders its coverage by education an impossibility.”

What does the research say?
Research tells us that to really learn something takes attention, time, practice, effort, reflection, connection, and application—learning is not short-term regurgitation (Ratey, 2001). Our students must take a much more active role in their learning if they are to deeply know and have the lifelong learning skills they will need to compete in a global environment.

So what is the role of content in my courses?
The role of content must be to drive the development of the lifelong learning skills, thinking abilities, and communication skills crucial to students’ success—content is not an end in itself. For example, current professions, careers, and jobs require people who can:

  • Effectively communicate in a wide variety of ways with very diverse populations.
  • Use information to solve problems that will occur in different contexts than the context the information was first taught in.
  • Transfer information to solve new problems that have yet to even be discovered.
  • Use reasoning skills that require addressing multiple pieces of data at once.

How can faculty help students to change?
Let the students do the work. Use firsthand learning, self-
discovery, self-assessment, performance, and team work.
Let discussions take place between students—keep our mouths shut! Have discussion guidelines that require everyone to participate.

Help students to see that effort results in improved intelligence and abilities—effort is not an indication of a lack of ability.

What kinds of learning activities are best?
Use learning activities that are A-R-I-I:

Authentic Assignments that reflect what the information and skills will be used for in their careers.

Relevant Use guest speakers and former students to help map the connections between course material and career work and lifelong learning skills.

Interesting Students arrive motivated; teachers need to discover what is motivating them (Zull, 2002). Having some say in what and how to learn keeps students engaged.

Important No busy work. Value the work assigned. Value in our students’ minds means the work gets graded.

References & Resources

Doyle, Terrence. (2008). Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment: A Guide to Facilitating Learning in Higher Education. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Dweck, Carol (2000). Self Theories: Their roles in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

Ratey, John. (2001). A User’s Guide to the Brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Simon, H. A. (1996). Observations on the sciences of science learning. Paper prepared for the Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning for the Sciences of Science Learning: An Interdisciplinary Discussion. Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University.

Sylwester, Robert. (1995). A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator’s Guide to the Human Brain. Alexandria, VA: ASCD Publication.

Zull, James. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Additional Resources

Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Memory and Metamemory Considerations in the Training of Human Beings.” In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.) Metacognition: Knowing About Knowing, 185-205. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldberg, E. (2001). The Executive Brain Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council, Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, National Research Council, & Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded Ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Tagg J. (2003). The Learning Paradigm College. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner Centered Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.



  1. __-_-__-__-_-_—-_-__–_—__

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    There have been many advancements in the area of career aptitude testing. Usage of artificial intelligence to evaluate suitability of a job for a person is one of the these techniques. You can take a complete version of the MBTI personality test plus many others such as memory, IQ, problem solving, and patience tests in OptYourLife. This website’s expert system tries to find the most suitable career path for you using neural network. Moreover, salary of different careers will be considered in the final analysis to provide a more insightful advice for you:

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  2. good article, I like that.

  3. The importance of making our teaching relevant to our students is really no different than what other industries do for their customers. If we want our students to remember the information we give them, so that they can use it later when they are professionals, then we have to capitalize on what we know about how learning and memory works. Good article.

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