Student-Centered Learning


Student-Centered Learning

In efforts to improve public education in the United States, much of the attention has been on helping teachers maximize their own abilities, and to make campuses effective – and efficient – at the business of schooling. But what if students themselves were the focus, and the primary goal was to structure their learning in the way that best met their individual needs? That’s the question put forth by advocates of student-centered learning, an educational approach that is gaining ground, bolstered by federal incentives to encourage innovation in the classroom and new research connecting students’ engagement to their academic success.  

In efforts to improve public education in the United States, much of the attention has been on helping teachers maximize their own abilities, and to make campuses effective – and efficient – at the business of schooling. But what if students themselves were the focus, and the primary goal was to structure their learning in the way that best met their individual needs? That’s the question put forth by advocates of student-centered learning, an educational approach that is gaining ground, bolstered by federal incentives to encourage innovation in the classroom and new research connecting students’ engagement to their academic success.  

To be sure, expectations are ever greater for both schools and students. Educators are continually seeking news ways of boosting students’ critical-thinking skills and spurring deeper learning, to better prepare students for both postsecondary and workforce success. Advocates of student-centered learning contend that the approach offers the best opportunity for students to meet the myriad challenges that await them.

What Is Student-Centered Learning?

In a student-centered learning environment, students are given choices of how and what they learn, based on the theory that students thrive when they can see a direct connection between the instructional material on the one hand and their own interests and real-world experiences on the other. There are frequent assessments – including self-assessments by the students – to ensure the requisite content is mastered.

The concept of allowing students’ own interests to drive their education isn’t entirely new. In fact, the roots of it can be found in the work of early 20th-century educator John Dewey, psychologist Carl Rogers, and Maria Montessori. Following publication of his popular book “Horace’s Compromise” in 1987, former Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Theodore Sizer created the Essential Schools Coalition, which prescribed collaborative learning environments with a “teacher as coach, student as worker” premise.

Yet the past decade has seen significant growth in the number of U.S. schools experimenting with approaches that incorporate some of these central elements. The language used to articulate the concept has also shifted over the years. And today, educators often use different terms to describe student-centered learning. Concepts fitting under that umbrella include personalized learning, student-teacher partnerships, adaptive learning, and collaborative learning. Two other important elements: Competency-based education, which is gaining popularity particularly in higher education as a means of recognizing the skills students bring with them to the classroom, and proficiency-based instruction, which allows students to move ahead at their own pace once they’ve demonstrated they’ve mastered the material.

Traditional “teacher-centered” classrooms are sometimes criticized as too rigid to meet the needs of a diverse population of students who inevitably are at varying levels of ability, learn best in different ways, and have different interests. By comparison, in student-centered learning environments, teachers focus more on coaching than lecturing. Classrooms’ physical environment is often more flexible as well, with open seating plans and no obvious “front” of the classroom.

The classroom is shaped as a collaborative environment, with the student as an active, rather than passive, participant. Students are given choices of how and what they learn, encouraging them to find a direct connection between the instructional material and their own interests and real-world experiences. When students demonstrate mastery, they can advance rather than wait for the rest of the class to reach a similar tipping point.

Student-centered learning does have its critics, both of the philosophical premise and the associated logistics. Experts warn that the approach requires special training to effectively manage an open-plan classroom environment. Not all districts or schools are prepared to provide the requisite professional development or day-to-day support teachers need to successfully implement the student-centered learning model. Such classrooms can be noisy and chaotic, and because the teacher isn’t delivering the same information to the entire group at the same time, it’s possible that some students will miss out on important content, skeptics say. The Education Trust, an advocacy organization focused on closing achievement and opportunity gaps for minority and low-income students, has also raised questions about whether competency-based instruction is equitable.

“There is appeal to moving students through the curriculum as they are ready,” Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at Education Trust, told the Wall St. Journal. “But the risky downside is that it could translate into lower expectations in terms of how fast low-income and minority students are expected to progress.”

In surveys, teachers themselves have expressed skepticism about being able to effectively cover an entire year’s syllabus using student-centered learning, particularly given the increased expectations of the new Common Core State Standards. Others mistrust the model as fad pedagogy and are reluctant to have their classrooms used as incubators. In some instances teachers report that students themselves are resistant to the new learning style, particularly the expectation for group work. In fact, in its guidance to members, the National Education Association writes that the first step in adopting a student-centered learning environment is explaining it to the students, and helping them understand that it will “better allow them to meet their learning and life goals.”

What States Are Doing

Student-centered learning received a sizeable boost from the federal government in 2009 with the announcement of the Investing In Innovation (i3) grant program, which encouraged schools to form public-private partnerships:

  • In 2010, the Forsyth County (Ga.) Public Schools, in partnership with the University of Georgia, received a three-year, $4.7 million grant to develop district-wide personalized learning environment that would better monitor individual students’ progress and be more responsive to their needs. The grant also allowed the district to combine instruction, grading, and offline assessments into one platform for teachers.
  • In 2012, The New England Network for Personalization and Performance, created by the Plymouth (Mass.) Public School District and the Center for Secondary School Redesign, was awarded a $5 million i3 grant to implement a new educational approach at 13 high schools. The network is a coalition of four states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire – working with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Rural Schools and Community Trust. The other project partners are the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which includes 33 high schools, and the University of California Los Angeles School of Management, which will serve as the evaluator.
  • In 2013, ConnectEd – The California Center for College and Career – was awarded $3 million in i3 funds to explore the effectiveness of “linked learning” (focusing on real-world experiences and hands-on instruction) as a means of improving outcomes for high school students. The partners for the project include the James Irvine Foundation, which will provide support to the four school districts in the pilot program.

Additionally, the 16 recipients of the district-level Race to the Top grants have each incorporated an element of personalized learning in their proposals. (See the American Institutes of Research report for more on this issue.)

What the Research Shows

The Center on Reinventing Public Education examined student-centered learning programs nationwide in 2012, and determined that implementing them could be done successfully by reallocating existing school resources. At the same time, CRPE researchers concluded that by building public-private partnerships for student-centered learning, districts could attract substantial new resources and support.

In a 2012 literature review, the Center on Education Policy concluded that tapping into student motivation was an important element in school improvement efforts. Not surprisingly, students’ motivation – often along with their academic achievement – increased when they saw a direct connection between what they were learning and their own interests and goals.

Programs that were found to be successful at boosting student motivation include some alternative education programs that incorporate community service into the curriculum, as well as those that encourage students to be more independent thinkers – all approaches that fit under the student-centered learning umbrella. The studies have also found that when students are motivated, they demonstrate a better grasp of the subject matter, have higher self-esteem, and are more likely to graduate.

In a recent report, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that at four California high schools using a student-centered learning approach, minority students were out-performing their peers – at traditional campuses – in some cases by a significant margin. The case-study high schools offer open enrollment and serve populations of predominantly minority students from low-income families. As the report’s authors noted, “Student-centered practices are more often found in schools that serve affluent and middle-class students than those located in low-income communities. Creating student-centered learning environments is one way the country can effectively address the opportunity gap for these students.”

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Video Resources from the 69th EWA National Seminar

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Video Resources from the 69th EWA National Seminar

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Jo Boaler speakers to reporters during EWA's seminar on motivation held at Stanford University in November (Credit: Stanford University/Marc Franklin)

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The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

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Boston, Massachusetts
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EWA Radio

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EWA Radio

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(Flickr/Steven Depolo)

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

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EWA's 68th National Seminar gets underway in the Windy City, hosted by the University of Chicago.  (EWA/Emily Richmond)

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Blog: The Educated Reporter

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Elena Silva of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Photo credit: Melissa Bailey

More students are earning high school diplomas – but the diplomas don’t mean those students are ready to succeed in college.

Nicholas Donohue, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made that observation as he began to argue for a dramatic rethinking of the way schools measure learning, promote students and award diplomas. He made the argument during a “Deep Dive on Competency-Based Education and Student-Centered Learning” at EWA’s National Seminar in Nashville in May.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Webinar: Reporting On Summer Learning

While students might be basking in a long summer break, that leisure time carries a heavy price tag: on average, students will return to school in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is typically even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

In High Schools, Overcoming ‘Undermatching’

Competitive colleges in the U.S. have an image problem: By many accounts, their student bodies are much whiter and richer than the general population. Over at The Hechinger Report, Jamaal Abdul-Alim reports on a program aimed at steering academically high-flying low-income and minority students to the nation’s top-ranked universities.


Students at the Center

A project of the nonprofit Jobs For the Future, Students at the Center “synthesizes and adapts for practice current research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning and deeper learning outcomes.” The organization’s mission is to “strengthen the ability of practitioners and policymakers to engage each student in acquiring the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for success in college, career, and civic life.”


Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education

The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) fosters research, policy, and practice to advance high quality, equitable education systems in the United States and internationally.


James Irvine Foundation

Founded in 1937 to benefit the people of California, the James Irvine Foundation’s mission is expanding opportunity. The foundation has awarded more than $1.3 billion in grants to over 3,500 nonprofit organizations across the state.


Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Based in Quincy, Mass., the nonprofit Nellie Mae Education Foundation focuses on improving the equity and quality of public schools in New England, with a special emphasis on student-centered learning, district and state-level change, research and analysis, and increasing the public’s understanding.


Coalition of Essential Schools

This organization grew out of the work of Theodore Sizer, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who advocated an aggressive overhaul of how the nation’s high schools are structured, with a goal of improving student interest and engagement. 


Student-Centered Learning Approaches are Effective in Closing the Opportunity Gap

The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education finds student-centered learning programs are closing achievement gaps for minority students at four high schools.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat No. 3: Differentiated Instruction

Each week, The Educated Reporter will feature a buzzword or phrase that You Need To Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to

Word on the Beat: Differentiated instruction.


Getting Down to Dollars and Cents: What Do School Districts Spend to Deliver Student-Centered Learning?

The Center for Reinventing Public Education examines how much school districts are spending on student-centered learning programs, and how existing resources can be effectively re-allocated.


Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform

The Center on Education Policy’s literature review of student motivation concludes it’s an overlooked piece of school reform efforts.


Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice

Researchers for the Students at the Center (a project of Jobs For the Future) connect higher student engagement and motivation with stronger academic achievement.

Key Coverage

N.H. Schools Embrace Competency-Based Learning

Brittany Rollins is hanging out a lot at the local animal shelter this year. Delving into the issue of pet euthanasia and writing about it will help her earn English/language arts credits toward graduation. The 17-year-old senior at Newfound Regional High School, in the rural central New Hampshire town of Bristol, is part of one of the most aggressive statewide efforts in the country to embrace competency-based learning.

EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Western Governors University President Robert Mendenhall

Robert Mendenhall is president of Western Governors University, a nonprofit online school. He spoke with EWA about the role of distance education in re-training the nation’s workforce, and a new federal initiative aimed at improving the quality of teacher preparation programs.

Key Coverage

New England Project Aims to Use ‘i3′ Aid for Innovative Learning Approaches

In Laconia, N.H., high school principal Steve Beals sees the potential of a schoolwide culture that celebrates learning beyond a traditional classroom.


Teachers’ Beliefs about Issues in the Implementation of a
 Student-Centered Learning Environment

A case study conducted by Columbia University researchers looked at how teachers’ perceptions of student-centered learning significantly impact the program’s implementation and effectiveness.