Learn: Student-Centered Learning

Student centered learning places the learner at the center of the process. Although it may seem like schools today are organized this way, they actually are very inefficient at individual learning, mostly because they assume everyone learns the same way at the same pace. Students who can search, integrate and demonstrate will be better supported in the new student centered learning environments.


Searching is one of the most important learning skills. The explosion of information requires students to quickly sort through academic assignments with hundreds of answers and millions of hits. Getting online at night, students will be able to see the videos of their teachers, videos of their assignments and search the web for how this all makes sense to them.

Justin Tarte is the Director of Teaching & Learning in the Union R-XI School District in Union, Missouri.


When students arrive in classrooms they now have to integrate. They have to integrate what their searching revealed to them the previous night, they have to integrate the separate pieces of knowledge they have learned in service of the assignment they were given, and they have to integrate their knowledge with other students and their searches. Coming into class the next day finds students ready to bring their search results to their group learning process.

For more than 40 years, the brothers David and Roger Johnson (both long-time faculty members in the Education department and founding directors of the Cooperative Learning Institute at the University of Minnesota), have studied cooperative learning techniques in the classroom and collected empirical evidence about the impact of cooperation and collaboration on student learning. To learn more about cooperative learning and some popular approaches to its use in the college classroom, we’d recommend this introduction written by two chemical engineering professors from North Carolina State for a symposium on active learning in the analytical sciences.

How Cooperation & Collaboration Affect Learning

The Johnsons’ findings are both convincing and compelling. In their book, Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, the Johnsons and their research collaborator Karl Smith reviewed nearly a century of research into cooperation and reported that cooperation improved learning outcomes in nearly every instance. In 1998, they published a short article in the journal Choice which summarized their views on cooperation and its impact individual student learning, and in 2009, they produced what was essentially a concise summary of their career work in Educational Researcher, both of which are well worth reading. They have described successful cooperative learning situations as possessing the following essential elements:

  1. Positive interdependence (each group member depends on and is accountable to others, providing a strong incentive to help and accept help from their peers)
  2. Individual accountability (each person in the group learns the material)
  3. Promotive interaction (group members help one another, share information, offer clarifying explanations)
  4. Social skills (group members must practice leadership, communication, compromise)
  5. Group processing (group members must regularly assess how well they are working together and make necessary adjustments) [From the Johnson Brothers’ website]


Searching and integrating now leads to demonstrating. Students need to learn how to demonstrate what they know and can do. They need to search well for the information that will support their opinion, they need to marshal that information into evidence of an opinion, and they need to demonstrate their understanding by integrating everything into a coherent argument for what they know.

New Student-Centered Learning Policy

The big testing development in classrooms has been in formative assessment, the idea that giving more informal assessments along the way, helps both student and teacher. For example, documenting that students are not getting the vocabulary learned early on in the unit helps teachers go back over it and helps students really learn it, in time for the end of course test. But the increase in testing at the state level has overshadowed the developments at the classroom level. Might this be the time to draw upon classroom level testing ideas in order to inform national policy?

If more informal testing, under the broad idea of “formative assessment,” reveals better assessment of student learning, might a sample of local examples be used to inform a national estimate for learning? Instead of high stakes punishments, formative assessment sampling could be used in the same way we use a thermometer, that is to say, taking the temperature in order to understand one aspect of the patient. Why not use formative assessment to sample more generally how some of the students in a classroom, some of them across a grade level, a part of them in a school or a part them in a district are doing? And then, could we use these results to target schools for improvement? Wouldn’t it make sense to send resources and fund peer-to-peer professional development to schools in need of improvement based on informal assessment? If we can construct new policies around student-centered learning that benefit all of us, from student to teacher to parent we might increase the national estimate of learning while also improving it.

Wiliam, D. (2010) Innovation that works. Workshop at SSAT conference, Birmingham, November. Retrieved 28 November 2010