Student-Centered Teaching

Teacher behavior and patterns play a crucial role in the attitude students have, and what kind of environment exists in the classroom. Teachers need to provide a safe, stimulating, accepting environment; have high expectations of self and students; be a model of active inquiry; get students to question; get students to apply knowledge; view the world as a classroom; be flexible; put in extra time; and make a difference (Pennick and Bonnstetter, 1993). What a teacher does in the classroom is the difference between students passively sitting in class, and students who are actively trying to make meaning from what they learn in a class.

A classroom where a teacher is promoting the learning environment described above would have students actively engaged in conversation about content. Students would perceive to have control of the classroom discussion in that their ideas would help the teacher decide where to go next. Learning would be guided rather than forced. Students would take initiative to look for information in appropriate resources. All ideas would be accepted and looked at equally by students and teachers. Discussions would be based on information available or ways to get support for ideas. Students and teacher would appear to be equals in the learning process, but the teacher has the difficult task of facilitating student learning and providing bits of information where necessary and appropriate.

The classroom environment described above is considered a student-centered classroom. This varies from the traditional teacher-centered classroom because the teacher is not the all knowing answer bank/lecturer. Instead, the teacher acts as facilitator for students to come to a deeper understanding through evaluation of various ideas and evidence. According to Penick and Shymansky (1981), classes that are student-centered showed greater than 90% on-task time even though students are given much freedom in contrast to purely teacher-centered classrooms in which teacher dependency developed in students. Without the teacher holding students hands, the students were unable to stay on task. (We are always teaching kids something – sometimes we teach them to rely on us too much)

The question arises as to how a teacher can encourage the previously mentioned student-centered environment? First off, to stimulate an intellectual environment the teacher should have resources available for students such as articles, journals, texts, equipment, online access, etc (Penick and Bonnstetter, 1993). Also, teachers should ask questions that require student thought. Yes/no questions should be avoided as well as simple short-answer questions. These types of question require little thought on the part of students and do not lead to further discussion by the class. Too many times I hear teachers ask students “questions” that are really just fill in the blank sentences. This promotes no higher level of thinking than the simple “hunt and find the bold word” worksheets teachers handout for homework. Instead of simple one word questions, thought provoking questions or questions that need extended answers should be asked. If students do try to respond briefly, the teacher should ask the student to clarify or elaborate (Schlitt and Abraham). Teachers should ask questions such as: “how does a scientist know they have come to the right answer?” A student may respond by saying, “he convinces other scientists”. While this response is on the right track, the teacher can elicit more information by asking a follow-up question such as: “how does he convince other scientists?” This question should be posed to the class so that one student is not singled out, and multiple ideas are shared.

Use of questioning strategies helps the teacher guide the student from just a typical response to a more in depth answer that relates the response to previous experience, helps the student apply the concepts, make predictions, and explain their reasoning. Students should be made aware of this strategy as it can help them develop more logical thought processes explicitly, without the aid of the teacher. By asking better questions, students are able to make better connections, and deepen their understanding of the material. Teachers also gain a deeper insight into student understanding. Yes/no questions give students a 50% chance at the right answer regardless of their understanding, whereas extended answer questions get students explaining their ideas completely. From these explanations, teachers can see what pieces of knowledge students are missing or misusing; providing valuable information to help with teacher decision-making.

In my next post, I will address what else (besides effective questions) is necessary to achieve the learning and student-centered environment described above. Importantly, just asking a good question is NOT enough to get your students fully engaged.


  1. Obviously completely changin over to student-centered learning would require a dramatic shift in goals and expectations of schools. It also requires more time spent by the teachers on planning and reflecting on the lesson, which is probably the biggest roadblock. As I was beginning to change to a more student centered environment, I found that I was spending much more time out of class making curriculum decisions than before and reflecting on whether or not students learned what I wanted them to. The trade off was I was much more available in class to be a facilitator for my students. Most of the time the students were eager to get to work and relied more on peer help than on me.

    If I had not changed my position this summer, I suspect I would have completely changed the way I taught my class. My new goal is to find ways to incorporate this in my new position and to (hopefully) guide other teachers in my building to try to become more student centered as well.

  2. Dear Jerrid
    Really enjoyed reading your post. It is a very important and global issue.
    It's a direct result of the individual-focused western democratic thinking (blown out of proportion by the consumerist "You're the best, you deserve it" advertising brainwash).
    This actually makes you accept that every student is an individual, and by becoming a teacher we took the implied responsibility of catering for those individual characteristics.

    My comes when these ideals clash with a cultural-religious tradition which is based on the inferiority of the individual compared with the responsibility towards the greater good of the community, especially loyalty and subordination to the patriarch.
    Such environment brings about a great deal of conflict which any western educator working outside that discourse has to give a very careful thought.
    I didn't. I'm learning the hard way. I keep on believing that every students of mine is an individual who deserves to be given the best opportunity in every minute of the class.

    The only thing I miss from posts like yours and arguments for student-centred classroom, is the the admission that this is a very hard struggle. One that is worth it, by all means.
    Having to be students-centred when your students believe that they deserve it is hard, the only thing harder, perhaps, is to make your students believe that they are individuals, they have needs and those can be catered for and that school is not somewhere where they go (when it doesn't rain too hard) because they have to but because they can learn something about the world and themselves.
    Thinking about it a bit more: this needs teachers who believe that they are individuals who are teachers because that's what they wanna be.
    Am I back to my hobby-horse then? - Teacher training, professional development - without this there is no way there will ever be a shift in how we see our students' and our role in the classroom.

    I beg to disagree with Wm Chamberlain's first sentence above. Why else would parents send their children to school? Yes, I want my kid to be given the best education because he deserves it, and it's too late and tragic to use the conditional. This has to happen. Now. Because we are giving a children a word destroyed by us and our parents and we are failing to educate them in how to make all those wrongs right.

    Sorry about the long comment.
    Great article.

  3. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

    Dissertation Editing