Learning How to Learn: Student-Centered Educational Processes

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The student-centered learning (SCL) theory sheds a light on a different way to approach day-to-day classroom life –with the learner, not the teacher, at the center of all classes. “In a student-centered class, students don’t depend on their teacher all the time; waiting for instructions, words of approval, correction, advice, or praise,” says Leo Jones in his book The Student-Centered Classroom.1

Based on psychologist Carl Rogers’ theories such as person-centered approach, which defended that answers to patients’ questions were within the patient and not the therapist, as well as contributions by theorists like Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Paulo Freire, among others, student-centered learning remains a challenge for both educators and students in the search for better results in the process of absorbing knowledge.2

Critics of the traditional learning approach – where the teacher imparts knowledge onto the students who sit quietly and learn – say it’s an authoritarian and hierarchical method,3 which often promotes memorization without an actual understanding of what’s being taught. When students become the center of the process, they automatically make a connection between new knowledge with what they already know, making classes and class content, much more useful and productive in their lives.

According to the research study Overview on Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education in Europe,4by the European Student’s Union, the massive student protests against the elitism of universities in 1968 and the need for them to open their doors to all parts of society, also led to the development of the student-centered learning concept. However, educators in the United States have used the terms “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” at least since the 1930s.5

Teacher vs. Student Centered Learning: What Are the Main Differences?

A teacher-centered classroom has many, if not all, of the following characteristics: a teacher who controls the material, the way in which students study and the pace they learn at; the teacher being the most active person in the classroom (be it by lecturing, reading aloud or other activities); students remain seated down for most of the class, taking notes or participating briefly, only when demanded by the teacher; desks are arranged in rows facing the teacher.

In contrast, a student-centered class is much different: students often have the opportunity to lead educational activities; design their projects; participate in debates; desks are arranged in a circle; many learning experiences happen outside of the classroom; travel or other kinds of explorations are arranged; the teaching and learning experience is personalized (and can still take place in a group setting).

SCL Around the Globe: Challenges and Results

Student-centered learning seems to be far from being a common practice among educators around the world, even having been studied and researched for many years. Actually, there is a considerable amount of resistance to the method, with interesting points of view about it, such as SCL leading to brain overload and preventing learning from being stored in long-term memory.

Educator Paul A. Kirschner emphasizes that studies in the past 50 years show how minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient, than instructional approaches that do guide students throughout the learning process.6 

However, some experiences do prove that the method can work if applied the right way. A study published in 2014 by Stanford University, titled Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap, documented the practices and outcomes of four urban high schools in the United States that prepared their students through SCL, to be successful in college and in their professional careers.

The results were clear: The analysis showed all schools outperformed other educational institutions with similar characteristics in their areas, especially considering African American, Latino, low-income students and English language learners.

“The student-centered schools in this study have designed their curriculum purposefully to provide students with not only the kinds of academic skills they need to do college-level academic work, but also the fortitude to persist through challenges and to be successful in their chosen careers as well. Beyond enrolling in college, the quality of students’ high school preparation influences their persistence rate in college,” the study informs. In one of the schools, 97% of students were still enrolled in college in their 4th year, a rate that far exceeds the national average.7

In Europe, there has been a perception among students, that SCL has been put into practice in recent years. Overall, 90% of surveyed students in the Overview on Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education in Europe believe that, when it comes to the implementation of SCL in higher education institutions, there has been some progress in recent years. Half of them see this progress as slow, and the other half believes that despite action is taking place, SCL still hasn’t been presented to students in a proper way – with all of its characteristics and opportunities.

Latin America has also been dealing with the challenges of this proposed change in classroom dynamics. One of the initiatives that has been encouraged in countries such as Chile, Brazil and Costa Rica, is peer institution (PI), a student-centered learning method developed by the Eric Mazur Group at Harvard University in the ‘90s, which elevates the role of the student as a crucial participant in the educational process.  

How does it work?

Before attending each class, students have to self-study material so that when class time comes around, they can answer “warm-up questions” related to the materials reviewed, in order for the teacher to gage what they’ve learned, and where there might be some gaps about the subject at hand. Afterwards, the following learning process takes place:

1. The teacher provides a set of questions to the class

2. Students write down their answers

3. The teacher reviews their responses out loud

4. The teacher then encourages peer discussion on their responses

5. Students answer the same set of questions once again based on their previous group discussion

Classes become more interesting because student participation and interaction is demanded, putting them at the “epicenter” of the classroom.

In the article Turning Traditional Education Models Upside Down, published on ReVista – Harvard Review of Latin American in 2012, both of the professors interviewed said PI worked for them, making students more motivated than ever.8

In Asia, the SCL scenario also seems to be challenging, but with considerable opportunities for growth. In Transforming Teaching and Learning in Asia and the Pacific study, edited by UNESCO Bangkok in 2015,9 it is suggested that many educators are moving towards a more “learner-centered” methodology: “The most commonly cited are project-based activities, problem and theme-based integrated learning, experiential learning, and activities that involve action research, debate, teamwork, group discussions and presentations.”  

The Learner-Centered Psychological Principles

There are 14 principles defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) that must be considered as the basis for SCL. The focus is on psychological factors that are both related to the learner and the external environment.10

Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors

Icon: Nature of the Learning Process

1. Nature of the Learning Process The learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience.

Icon: Goals of the Learning Process

2. Goals of the Learning Process The successful learner, over time and with support and instructional guidance, can create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge.

Icon: Construction of Knowledge

3. Construction of Knowledge The successful learner can link new information with existing knowledge in meaningful ways.

Icon: Strategic Thinking

4. Strategic Thinking The successful learner can create and use a repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies to achieve complex learning goals.

5. Thinking About Thinking Higher order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations facilitate creative and critical thinking.

6. Context of Learning Learning is influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and instructional practices.

Motivational and Affective Factors

Icon: Motivational and Emotional Influences on Learning

7. Motivational and Emotional Influences on Learning What and how much is learned is influenced by motivation. Motivation to learn, in turn, is influenced by the individual’s emotional states, beliefs, interests and goals, and habits of thinking.

8. Intrinsic Motivation to Learn The learner’s creativity, higher order thinking, and natural curiosity all contribute to motivation to learn. Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty, relevant to personal interests, and providing for personal choice and control.

9. Effects of Motivation on Effort Acquisition of complex knowledge and skills requires extended learner effort and guided practice. Without learners’ motivation to learn, the willingness to exert this effort is unlikely without coercion.

Developmental and Social Factors

10. Developmental Influences on Learning As individuals develop, there are different opportunities and constraints for learning. Learning is most effective when differential development within and across physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains is taken into account.

11. Social Influences on Learning Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others.

Individual Differences Factors

12. Individual Differences in Learning Learners have different strategies, approaches, and capabilities for learning that are a function of prior experience and heredity.

13. Learning and Diversity Learning is most effective when differences in learners’ linguistic, cultural, and social backgrounds are taken into account.

14. Standards and Assessment Setting appropriately high and challenging standards and assessing the learner as well as learning progress – including diagnostic, process, and outcome assessment – are integral parts of the learning process.

Student-centered learning theory
Some of the most popular education methods and theorists in the world were in one way or another influenced by student-centered learning – and some of the best-known thinkers even had something to the theory.
Maria MontessoriJean Piaget
The Italian physician and educator created the Montessori method in 1909, which is based less on the materials used, and more on the way they are used, focusing on freeing the individual’s true nature, so it can be observed and understood.11The Swiss psychologist believed man should be active in the learning process, as he understood knowledge as a result of the interaction between man and the environment. Piaget wrote that children are able to create, recreate and experiment in an autonomous way, boosting their own development.12 


1Jones, L. (2007). The student-centered classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press.

2Arnold, K. (2014). Behind the mirror: Reflective listening and its Tain in the work of Carl Rogers. The Humanistic Psychologist,42(4), 354-369. doi:10.1080/08873267.2014.913247

3Do learner-centred approaches work in every culture? (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

4Todorovski, B., Nordal, E., &Isoski, T. (2015, March). Overview on Student Centred Learning in Higher Education in Europe [PDF]. Brussels: European Students’ Union ESU.

5Concepts, L. (2014, May 07).Student-Centered Learning Definition. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

6Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

7Friedlaender, D., Burns, D., Lewis-Charp, H., Cook-Harvey, C., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2014, June). Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap [PDF]. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

8Student-Centered University Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

9Hau-Fai Law, E., & Miura, U. (2015). Transforming Teaching and Learning in Asia and the Pacific [PDF]. Bangkok: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO Bangkok.

10Learner-Centered Psychological Principles: A Framework for School Reform & Redesign [PDF]. (1997, November). Learner-Centered Principles Work Group for the American Psychological Association’s Board of Educational Affairs (BEA).

11O Método. (2017, May 21). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

12Educação, P. C. (2013, February 06). Portal Educação – Artigo. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

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