Moving Toward Learner-Centered Models in HigherEd

Blog Series, Higher Ed & Post Sec, Learning

Eric Frank

Driven by the need to improve student outcomes, a new paradigm shift is taking place in higher education. Traditional “instructor-centered” teaching is now making way for “student-centered” learning – also known as the learner-centered model – which considers the unique academic experiences brought to the college classroom by each student.

At the core of this approach is understanding and accepting that each student comes to class with their own past, both academically and experientially. As such, they also have their own academic goals and aspirations. It follows that students should not receive the same exact type of instruction, and should not be expected to succeed in the same exact way.

Approaches to student-centered learning are innovative and varied to meet the needs of each student. According “Student-Centered Learning: Addressing Faculty Questions about Student-Centered Learning,” a report published by Jeffrey Froyd and Nancy Simpson of Texas A&M University, the approaches usually fall into the following categories:

  • Activity-Based Learning: discovery exercises, an exchange of ideas (in person or online), simulations, problem-based learning, and project-based learning
  • Choice: students choosing assignments, when and where they study, how they want to approach a topic, and deadlines
  • Collaboration: team-based learning and peer exchanges
  • Real-World Challenges: problem-solving and community outreach
  • Metacognition: transparency of progress and learning pathways, reflection on learning, and self-motivation

Moving from instructor-centered teaching to student-centered learning can be daunting for many educators who may be more accustomed to the “sage on a stage” model. As you read descriptions and examples of learner-centered instruction, it might seem like a wholesale reconstruction of current practice. However, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. Faculty can take small steps to incorporate learner-centered principles into their teaching practices to benefit their students. One emerging strategy is the incorporation of “smart” next-generation courseware or technology-enabled learning environments that dynamically adapt to the needs of each individual learner.

Teacher helping her students in computer class in college

What is Next-Generation Courseware?

In its simplest form, next-generation courseware – sometimes referred to as “adaptive courseware” – is a web-based learning environment designed to augment teaching and learning. In the case of formal learning, this courseware is a set of tools that brings together the convergence of learning science – or what we know about how people learn – with content, data and technology, in order to optimize the learning process and bring about a change in a student’s knowledge state.

In this context, platforms help guide and support instruction by providing detailed, timely, and context-specific assistance. As students work through learning activities, the software makes recommendations when students err, provides robust feedback, and maintains a low profile when they are performing well. This embedded and ongoing feedback approximates the role of a human tutor, helping students stay motivated and fine-tune their learning. By giving the power to the learner to practice and master material at their own pace, they are more likely to take ownership of their learning experience.

In addition, embedded, formative and summative assessments have the added transformational benefit of providing detailed student learning data. Both instructors and students can review this data in the form of dashboards, receiving real-time feedback on how and why learning is occurring. In the learner-centered model, detailed, timely and accurate progress and performance dashboards enable both faculty and students to stay engaged and productive in the learning process.

This nuanced view of student learning performance offers an easy on-ramp for faculty who may be looking to transition to more student-centered instructional techniques. While traditional types of periodic quizzing and assessments are lagging indicators about what’s happened in the past, predictive learning models like those embedded in next-generation courseware offer insight into what’s likely to happen in the near future, and give faculty earlier insight as to who might be struggling. This allows for timelier, targeted, and more individualized instructional interventions that can be applied right at the point of need.  

Some next-generation courseware goes further by integrating pre-assessment questions tuned to prerequisite skills deemed necessary for course success. As students begin a course of study, they can be assessed to test whether or not they have the required knowledge for successful learning. If they do not, the courseware dynamically adapts by revealing “just in time” remediation content that is individualized for each student. In this way, each student is able to progress forward, regardless of his or her individual starting point.

The idea is not to use computers to replace, or even reduce, the role of a passionate and effective instructor, but to use technology as a powerful “virtual assistant.” The right software can aid faculty in the process of teaching, giving both faculty and students more granular insight into individual learning progress. Real-time insights into what students absorb while actively learning is a powerful new tool that can help faculty move students from passive receptors of information to active participants in their education. Educators become facilitators of learning, carefully constructing the learning experience, while technology plays a critical support role in an optimized learning experience.

As noted by Nobel laureate cognitive scientist, Herb Simon:

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”

Learning outcomes based on instructor-determined teaching goals will continue to be integral to learning, particularly student-centered learning. The learner-centered approach changes, but doesn’t eliminate, the role of the instructor in the learning equation. While the instructor’s role in this model is no longer mainly about transferring knowledge, it’s still about determining what students should learn and how they learn it. By successfully moving from instructor-centered teaching models to student-centered learning strategies, educators can effectively use technology like smart courseware help students become active agents in their own learning – a skill essential for lifelong success.

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Eric Frank is CEO of Acrobatiq. Follow Acrobatiq on Twitter, @acrobatiq.


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