Learner-centered Instruction

As educators, we all think of ourselves as “learner-centered,” so why has this become a buzz word in academic circles? The decade of the 90s will most assuredly go down as the beginning of an era of assessment and accountability for higher education. With mounting pressure on higher education institutions to develop students that have the skills and competencies needed to function successfully in the workplace, stakeholders from governors to state legislators to parents demanded a better understanding of what exactly is “learned” in college. A shift from content-centered teaching to learner-centered teaching is best described in the work done by Barr and Tagg (Table 6). They propose content-centered faculty deliver content to students – it is the “sage on stage” delivery where if I, as the content expert, tell you all that I know about a content area – the assumption is the student will come to know it as a result of listening to the faculty member. In contrast, learner-centered faculty embrace the concept of active learning which is supported through the learning theory outlined above. The learner-centered faculty member believes that only when students engage actively in the content, will they be able to learn and retain the information that then can be taken beyond the classroom and out into the workplace.

A more concrete example comparing “content-centered” vs. “learner-centered” follows. In a content-centered ethics course the mission and purpose would be for the faculty member to transfer knowledge from faculty to student through faculty developed lectures on the topic of ethics. Conversely, in a learner-centered ethics course, the mission and purpose would be to elicit the student’s discovery and construction of their own knowledge on the topic of ethics. Rather than the traditional 50-minute lectures in the content-centered classroom, the learner-centered class would involve experiential learning with students engaged in academic service learning and “hands on-real world” experience where they are required to grapple with ethical issues relevant to dentistry such as lack of access to oral health care services. The reader is encouraged to examine an article10 by Gadbury-Amyot, et al., which describes how an ethics course made the transition from the “Instruction Paradigm” to “Learning Paradigm,” as described by the work of Barr and Tagg. In the “Learning Paradigm,” the learner-centered faculty member becomes a facilitator of learning versus the content-centered faculty who values being the “expert” on the topic with little to no idea of how students are interpreting the content.

Learner-centered faculty believe the students can learn only when they engage in the learning process and only through students grappling with ideas and concepts will meaningful and long-term learning take place. The learner-centered faculty member expects students to take responsibility for their own learning by becoming self-directed learners, ultimately improving their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Most academic programs have responded to increased demands for accountability by ensuring their curriculum has been thoughtfully conceived with logical and rational sequencing to maximize the learning experience for the student. Again, looking to learning theory to inform curriculum, the learner is taken through a sequence that includes the introduction of foundation knowledge and concepts followed by the introduction of more complex concepts and learning that can be built upon a solid body of foundation of knowledge. Well-designed assessment plans that include capstone projects such as portfolios are able to document the journey of student growth from novice to competent graduate and require the students to engage in reflection and self-assessment.

The hallmark of a competent individual has been defined as one’s ability to accurately self-assess.5 Portfolios used for assessment are purposeful collections of evidence accumulated over time and from multiple sources with the intention of documenting the learning process by involving students in active reflection on their learning. Capstone projects, such as portfolios, provide the venue where students engage in self-assessment and meaning making about their educational experience. While faculty ultimately deem students competent and ready for graduation, capstone projects, such as portfolios, provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate their competency through the evidence provided by reflecting and assessing their growth, from beginning professional students to competent graduates.

Table 6. Content-centered Instruction vs. Learner-centered Instruction.3
The Instruction Paradigm
(Content-centered)
The Learning Paradigm
(Learner-centered)
Mission and Purposes Mission and Purposes
Provide/deliver instruction Produce learning
Transfer knowledge from faculty to students Elicit students’ discovery and construction of knowledge
Offer courses and programs Create powerful learning environments
Improve the quality of instruction Improve the quality of learning
Achieve access for diverse students Achieve success for diverse students
Criteria for Success Criteria for Success
Learning varies Learning varies
Inputs, resources Learning & student-success outcomes
Quality of entering students Quality of exiting students
Curriculum development, expansion Learning technologies development
Quantity and quality of resources Quantity and quality of outcomes
Enrollment, revenue growth Aggregate learning growth, efficiency
Quality of faculty, instruction Quality of students, learning
Teaching/Learning Structures Teaching/Learning Structures
Atomistic; parts prior to whole Holistic; whole prior to parts
Time held constant, learning varies Learning held constant, time varies
50-minute lecture, 3-unit course Learning environments
Classes start/end at same time Environment ready when student is
One teacher, one classroom Whatever learning experience works
Independent disciplines, departments Cross discipline/department
Covering material Specified learning results
End-of-course assessment Pre-/during/post-assessments
Grading within classes by instructors External evaluations of learning
Private assessment Public assessment
Degree equals accumulated credit hours Degree equals demonstrated knowledge and skills
Learning Theory Learning Theory
Knowledge exists “out there” Knowledge exists in each person’s mind and is shaped by individual experience
Knowledge comes in chunks and bits; delivered by instructors and gotten by students Knowledge is constructed, created
Learning is cumulative and linear Learning is a nesting and interacting of frameworks
Fits the storehouse of knowledge metaphor Fits learning how to ride a bicycle metaphor
Learning is teacher centered and controlled Learning is student centered & controlled
“Live” teacher, “live” students required “Active” learner required, but not “live” students required
The classroom and learner are competitive and individualistic Learning environments and learning are cooperative, collaborative and supportive
Talent and ability are rare Talent and ability are abundant
Productivity/Funding Productivity/Funding
Definition of productivity: cost per hour of instruction per student Definition of productivity: cost per unit of learning per student
Funding for hours of instruction Funding for learning outcomes
Nature of Roles Nature of Roles
Faculty are primarily lecturers Faculty are primarily designers of learning methods and environments
Faculty and students act independently and in isolation Faculty and students work in teams with each other and other staff
Teachers classify and sort students Teachers develop every student’s competencies and talents
Staff serve/support faculty and the process of instruction All staff are educators who produce student learning and success
Any expert can teach Empowering learning is challenging and complex
Line governance; independent actors Shared governance; teamwork independent actors