August 8th, 2012

Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching


In May I finished a second edition of my Learner-Centered Teaching book. Revising it gave me the chance to revisit my thinking about the topic and look at work done since publication of the first edition ten years ago. It is a subject about which there is still considerable interest. The learner-centered label now gets attached to teaching strategies, teachers, classes, programs, departments and institutions. Like many trendy descriptors in higher education, with widespread use comes a certain definitional looseness. Active learning, student engagement and other strategies that involve students and mention learning are called learner-centered. And although learner-centered teaching and efforts to involve students have a kind of bread and butter relationship, they are not the same thing. In the interest of more definitional precision, I’d like to propose five characteristics of teaching that make it learner-centered.

Supporting Learning Outcomes - Free Report

1. Learner-centered teaching engages students in the hard, messy work of learning.

I believe teachers are doing too many learning tasks for students. We ask the questions, we call on students, we add detail to their answers. We offer the examples. We organize the content. We do the preview and the review. On any given day, in most classes teachers are working much harder than students. I’m not suggesting we never do these tasks, but I don’t think students develop sophisticated learning skills without the chance to practice and in most classrooms the teacher gets far more practice than the students.

2. Learner-centered teaching includes explicit skill instruction.

Learner-centered teachers teach students how to think, solve problems, evaluate evidence, analyze arguments, generate hypotheses—all those learning skills essential to mastering material in the discipline. They do not assume that students pick up these skills on their own, automatically. A few students do, but they tend to be the students most like us and most students aren’t that way. Research consistently confirms that learning skills develop faster if they are taught explicitly along with the content.

3. Learner-centered teaching encourages students to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning it.

Learner-centered teachers talk about learning. In casual conversations, they ask students what they are learning. In class they may talk about their own learning. They challenge student assumptions about learning and encourage them to accept responsibility for decisions they make about learning; like how they study for exams, when they do assigned reading, whether they revise their writing or check their answers. Learner-centered teachers include assignment components in which students reflect, analyze and critique what they are learning and how they are learning it. The goal is to make students aware of themselves as learners and to make learning skills something students want to develop.

4. Learner-centered teaching motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes.

I believe that teachers make too many of the decisions about learning for students. Teachers decide what students should learn, how they learn it, the pace at which they learn, the conditions under which they learn and then teachers determine whether students have learned. Students aren’t in a position to decide what content should be included in the course or which textbook is best, but when teachers make all the decisions, the motivation to learn decreases and learners become dependent. Learner-centered teachers search out ethically responsible ways to share power with students. They might give students some choice about which assignments they complete. They might make classroom policies something students can discuss. They might let students set assignment deadlines within a given time window. They might ask students to help create assessment criteria.

5. Learner-centered teaching encourages collaboration.

It sees classrooms (online or face-to-face) as communities of learners. Learner-centered teachers recognize, and research consistently confirms, that students can learn from and with each other. Certainly the teacher has the expertise and an obligation to share it, but teachers can learn from students as well. Learner-centered teachers work to develop structures that promote shared commitments to learning. They see learning individually and collectively as the most important goal of any educational experience.

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  • Debra Ferdinand

    Dr. Weimer:
    Thank you highlighting these essential learner-centered teaching characteristics. No 2. – "Learner-centered teaching includes explicit skill instruction" – stands out for me as I think it is mostly overlooked. I think further tips on how to explicitly "teach students how to think, solve problems, evaluate evidence, analyze arguments, generate hypotheses" while teaching the content would be very helpful in developing this learner-centered teacher characteristic.

    Many thanks,
    Debra Ferdinand, PhD

    • Michael Vail Blum

      It bothers me a little, there is a danger for the teacher in “teaching students how to think” is something that starts to take on the attitude that students are cattle that need to be directed in the “correct” direction. I believe that the student that views the world and problem solving in their own unique way only can be a good thing and create innovation. The best example I can point to is Albert Einstein.

      • Rehanna Allen

        I think you’re looking at it the wrong way. It is a way to get children to think for themselves before asking questions. It is a way to build children’s critical thinking and to solve problems on their own.

      • Julie Lonon

        I think it would be problematic to teach them ‘what’ to think, but I don’t see a problem in encouraging and helping them to assess information or to examine their assumptions. Many students will literally have nothing to say if you ask ‘what reasons do you have for holding that idea/assumption?’ because they’re never looked at their own thinking and they’ve never really been taught how to be skeptical. I would argue that being skeptical is the ‘correct’ direction to ensure that they make logical, fact-based decisions rather than ‘because my mom told me’ or ‘thats what we think in my family.’ Information is likely to be more ‘correctly’ assessed with a skeptical eye, a curiosity about how they arrived at that conclusions, and the maturity and willingness to reassess and reevaluate in light of evidence.

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  • varholick

    I teach in an accelerated program for adult learners. "how to think" is definitely missing in most of these students but how do you make time to train them to think and still cover the material especially when they think they are already putting in too much time.

    • Kent Slack

      Granted, there really isn't time provided in curriculum to teach students to think. However, this is something that can be taught in whatever context you are teaching. I feel that teaching thinking skills largely involves the choice of learning activities and assessments. With well structured activities that use higher levels in Bloom's Taxonomy, these skills can be nurtured and developed by students. Start by giving your students tasks that require them to think a little and use some of the lower levels of the taxonomy, such as Understand type activities. Provide them good feedback, coaching, and effective demonstrations/examples. Then as the semester progresses, transition to using higher levels of the taxonomy that require more thinking. Ask your learners to analyze, evaluation, or create. These type of activities require much more thought, and if they are properly prepared, then they can learn to think and succeed at these tasks.
      Chances are that they will be more motivated and engaged in the learning as well. Not too many people are highly motivated by Remember type activities.

      • Jan

        I agree 100%. I actually keep a handwritten chart of verbs and nouns based on the Bloom's taxonomy levels thumbtacked right by my computer screen. I have found this visual (and kinesthetic–I rewrite when it fades…) reminder really helps me efficiently write effective assignments.

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  • Paul C.

    When can we expect the second edition of Learner-Centered Teaching to be available?

    • Hi Paul,
      The second edition will be available in January or February 2013.

      Mary Bart
      editor, Faculty Focus

  • katherine douglas

    Here is a book ready for pre-order from Teachers College Press (or Amazon)

    The Learner-Directed Classroom
    Developing Creative Thinking Skills Through Art

    Diane B. Jaquith and Nan E. Hathaway, Editors
    Pub Date: September 2012, 176 pages

    Paperback: $29.95, ISBN: 0807753629

  • Alesha K. Russey

    Awesome article!

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  • Jan

    Thank you! These points are huge things that I wresle with on a daily basis. It reminded me of several ideas to foreground in my classes this semester ("The goal is to make students aware of themselves as learners and to make learning skills something students want to develop.") The idea of sharing power calls strongly to me because I have learned so much from my students every time I do this.

  • john simpson

    I love how these are succinct. I have over 35 years of teaching experience in Australia and recently in the US. I have always had a student centered classroom with differentiated programs so students can work on their needs and within their learning styles. This began for me in 1982. I would love to share experiences that stem back to this period of time and the ongoing successes I have had at all levels.

    • amit

      hi mr, simpson.. this is amit for india. India doen't have any student centered methodologies . Me being a chemistry teacher and teaching for some years , i have realized that this is he need of the hour . can u plz guide me so that i can apply the methodologies required to attain the learner centered progeam . u can add me on face book . my email id is .. thank you . i'll be waiing for you reply.


    Your perception/views on the learner-centered are good at all. so keep on struggling to come up with other new things as they help to broadens our minds as students in universities {UDOM-TANZANIA}

  • paradis

    thanks.The reader need clear improvement

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  • Nadi Mofokeng

    Thank you so much for sharing this relevant information with us. This is so relevant, it helps a lot especially if you are a student teacher who still wants to implement the learner centred method in your classroom. it gives you the guidelines.

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  • julius virtudazo jr

    It helps a lot in my report!!!

  • Emily

    I'm currently inverstigating the use of classsroom presentations as a prominent shift from teacher-centred to learner-centred and this report really helps me to focus more on details in my own work so Thank you !

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  • Senele Good-Enough

    Thank you so much for giving us that marvellous information its a great pleasure for me since my assignment is based on that characteristics.

  • Willie Justis

    This sets an ideal setting for learning, however as a Pastor and a father I realize that the public education system is not set up in this way. One of my desires is to set up a tutoring service that can adapt these attributes to help students learn at a pace that is comfortable to them. We fully realize that everyone doesn't learn at the same pace or in the same way, and when everything is grouped together in one learning style some people miss out.
    Ideally we need to find a way to assess our learners and their styles and adapt our curriculum to help them maximize the learning experience. I agree with the article that if we find creative ways to help the learners participate in the teachable moments, they likely will be more open to learning. As an educator it is my responsibility to promote engaging ways to help learners learn using every mode of teaching available.

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  • queen

    Thank you very much , this information has helped so much in my assignment.

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  • youthensembletheater

    It seems that there are two strains of teaching in the performing arts. 1) to be the master teacher who holds the knowledge and directs the students, 2) to be the coach/facilitator that supports the learner to hear her own voice, carve out a creative process… obviously, I am in the 2nd group of teachers. For 20 years I have worked with Teaching Artists to take this approach and find it increasingly challenging within the world of the performing arts. I am leading a staff development to do just this… and am so at odds about how to do this well. Essentially, how to take a student-centered approach to staff development for teaching artists… open to suggestions for materials!

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  • Nkosinathi

    Valid points indeed these characteristics are evident on daily basis in the classroom, thanks a lot may you continue with your writing.

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  • abu

    good well explained points.i have gained something from it and it will go along way shaping my future teaching profession

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  • Michael Vail Blum

    I teach basic recording arts. Number 4. (Learner-centered teaching motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes) stands out for me. In creative fields the artist or in this case the student who is learning the tools to become a self sustaining artist must be able to have control over the process. I agree that if the learning process is OVER managed by the teacher, the student will loose all motivation to problem solve in a creative way that suits their own unique talents.

    Very Best,
    Michael Vail Blum

  • Michael Vail Blum

    The 5th characteristic (Learner-centered teaching encourages collaboration) really appeals to me. I teach recording arts and in audio projects, students really gain lots of insight and experience working and problem solving together. I agree that the teacher can lend his or her expertise to the student, but it is the student that has the responsibility in the end for their own learning.