Student-Centered Teaching: The Academic Leader’s Role in Shifting Paradigms

During the past 10 years or so, higher education institutions have made strides in transitioning from an instructor-centered approach to a learner-centered approach to teaching. These strides, both large and small, have transformed the college classroom environment to provide students with greater opportunities for active learning, collaboration, and engagement.

But are these changes occurring as rapidly and completely as needed, and are academic leaders doing everything they can to champion an institution-wide paradigm shift to student-centered learning?

Not according to Roxanne Cullen, PhD, of Ferris State University, and Michael Harris, PhD, of Kettering University. In the recent online seminar, Using Course Syllabi to Foster Learner-Centeredness, Cullen and Harris discussed how important it is for leaders to demonstrate a passion for the learner-centered approach that is evident at the personal and institutional levels.

In addition, making the paradigm shift requires both a baseline examination of current practices as well as a blueprint for reaching the established goals. Cullen and Harris have developed a rubric-based system which allows departments to use course syllabi for this purpose.

Using the Syllabus Assessment Matrix (SAM) academic leaders can review the policies and language used in course syllabi to “determine the level to which faculty are trying to build community, foster independent learning, and employ assessment and evaluation mechanisms to determine if learning outcomes are being met.” Results of this assessment give a clear indication of what’s occurring in specific classes and across the department, and can help guide professional development, Cullen says.
The Syllabus Assessment Matrix includes the following categories and sub-categories, which are scored on a scale from 1-4 based on whether instructor-based or learner-based principles are reflected:


  • Accessibility of teacher
  • Learning Rationale
  • Collaboration

Power and Control

  • Teacher role
  • Outside resources
  • Syllabus focus

Evaluation and Assessment

  • Grades
  • Feedback mechanisms
  • Evaluation
  • Learning outcomes

Data from the Syllabus Assessment Matrix can be used in a variety of ways, and make a great starting point for discussions with faculty on how the department as a whole can increase learner-centeredness beyond what’s currently being done, Harris says.