Student-Centered Teaching

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

What does it mean to be Student-Centered?

Student-centered teaching means that student needs are the first consideration in course design. It also refers to practice that requires students to assume a large share of responsibility for conducting inquiries, applying knowledge, and making meaning of what they have learned. Student-centered teaching is sometimes associated with “non-directive teaching,” which reduces time spent on lectures and increases time spent in class on activities that engage students in analysis, evaluations, problem-solving, and processing information (McKeachie, 1954; Ach, 1951; Albrecht & Gross, 1948). Student-centered teaching tends to improve student satisfaction with the learning experience and deepen students’ understanding of how the knowledge may be valued in their own lives (Bills, 1952; Nilson, 2010; Weimer, 2013) This tutorial will address:

Student-Centered Teaching Facets

Examples of Student-Centered Teaching

Student-Centered Acitivty Outside the Classroom

Making Choices about Techniques

Student-Centered Teaching Facets

  1. It targets specific needs and knowledge deficits
  2. It uses methods that suit students learning styles
  3. It maximizes student engagement through immersion in personal reflection and activities
  4. It strives to maintain relevancy in course content

Student-centered teaching has been shaped and informed by Humanistic educational philosophy, constructivism, pragmatism, and contemporary neurological science.

  • Humanism underscores the value of meeting each student’s individual needs in order that each experience intellectual development, self-actualization, and personal growth (Aloni, 2002)
  •  Constructivism is the theory that all knowledge, including declarative, procedural, and conditional, is the product of the individual’s interaction with ideas, the social milieu and institutional environments in which ideas are interpreted, applied, and valued (Vygotsky, 1978)
  • Pragmatism, as articulated by John Dewey (1997) asserted that teaching should be immediately relevant to students and facilitate student’s exploration of the problems implicit in taking up a vocation and participating in civic life
  •  Contemporary neurological research that documents significant changes in the brain and dendritic development as a result of stimulation of diverse cranial regions

Examples of Student-Centered Activities in the Classroom

  1. Engage students in pair-sharing or small group discussions in which they must summary main ideas from readings, frame a research project, evaluate the accuracy and fairness of a report, design a product, interpret statistical data (including charts, graphs, and tables), identify key questions based on recent studies, discuss the way new ideas and knowledge have altered their perceptions of others or specific issues and social problems, and complete discrete tasks such as comparing or contrasting
  2. Require students to complete journals based on class or field experience
  3. Facilitate research in class by conducting a search of digital sources that blends didactic instruction with actual manipulation of software programs accessing data bases and search engines such as Google Scholar
  4. Reserve class time for students to complete problem sets, small projects, or lab work and allow time for a review of their understanding of the processes and outcomes
  5. Use class time for reading scholarly works or proof-reading student essays and explore the quality of compositions and the veracity, relevance, significance, meaning, perspectives, and implications of works
  6. View media presentations including YouTube clips and allow students to respond to what they have seen and conduct a class analysis of the main ideas, implications, strengths and limitations of presentations
  7. Use class time to simulate clinical activity (nursing, teaching, social work, physical therapy, etc.) or to role play interactions between the student (future professional) and client (current student or instructor) and facilitate debriefings that allow students to reflect upon and evaluate the quality of their behavior and communication
  8. Reserve class time for students to engage in formal debate and to debrief their experience with an eye to the quality of their arguments and and reflection on what they learned about presenting them effectively
  9. Use class time to host performances and/or presentations of students' original works in music, drama, cinema, fashion design, painting, sculpture, drafting, graphic design, and other creative works and allow time for formal critiques and discussion about the meaning of their works
  10. Engage students in the process of designing original research with ample time in class to explore examples of well-constructed theses, outlines, bibliographies, research notes, and proper citations

Student-Centered Activities Outside the Classroom

Many of the acvities listed above may be engaged outside the classroom, albeit without the advantage of immediate instructor feedback. The objective of student-centered activities outside the classroom is to engage students as much as possible in learning procedures that require more than reading or viewing material and mining that material for declarative knowledge; it is to imerse students in experiences which they, themselves must analyze, evaluate, and synthesize. Here are some examples:

  1. Nursing and Health Education students may be assigned a walking tour of San Francisco fo rthe purposes of understanding the impact of homelessness on human health. During the tour, they must talk with at least ten people who identify as homeless, two workers who serve the homeless trhough food banks, church shelters, or other community agencies. The tour may take more than one day to complete. Students may submit their findings in either a report form with illustrations, maps, and other graphic assets, and a narrative about what they learned from the experience about the impact of homeless on human health; they may also submit findings in the form of a poster.
  2. History, Economics, Social Work, or International Relations students may be assigned an interview project investigating the experiences of undocumented residency in the Bay Area. The project calls for them to interview at least four people who are self-identified undocumented residents of the Bay Area who have given students permission to use their narratives anoymously. The purpose of the interviews is to improve students' understanding of why individuals risk adverse consequences of residing in the US without documentation, their experiences with living in the US as an undocumented resident, their concerns, and their needs. Students may submit written reports that contain summaries and excerpts of the interviews as well as their own reflections about what they have learned about themselves, others, and social justice.
  3. Business, Managment, and Hospitality students may study the differences between small, private catering services and large, corproate catering services by interviewing managers and workers in both venues. Students may report their findings on a range of issues including the impact of government regulations, marketing, labor management, customer relations, and effective budgeting.
  4. Biochemsitry, Diatetic, and Chemistry students may be assigned the task of investigating the use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in local restuarants. Students may create a sample popoulation of six restaurants and task those who take customer order whether MSG is in the food. Students may then purchase items and submit the sample entrees to testing for MSG using biosensor test strips. Findings and implications may be submitted in short reports or presented in poster form and address the issue of business ethics and customer relations.

Making Choices about Techniques

 As there are no magic formulas for how to select, construct, pace, assess, or moderate student-centered activities, the professor is challenged to exercise discretion. Here are some suggestions about how to make effective choices about student-centered teaching:

  1. Know your students; inventories of prior knowledge or pre-testing at the beginning of the semester/quarter, data from student work completed in the last term, and the insights of one’s colleagues in the discipline provide instructors with some sense of the declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge need to mastery in order to progress
  2. Identify the knowledge that should be prioritized and ensure that these are clearly and explicitly integrated into course outcomes
  3. Determine the type of assessment that is most likely to target knowledge and skill for development, what kind of criteria is essential to use in assessing student work, and then, what kinds of activities are most likely to prepare students for summative assessments and to rehearse their knowledge and skills in ways that generate formative feedback
  4. Be mindful that many students need highly structured and explicit teaching in order to be successful. Be especially clear about how to proceed with assignments and why they are important
  5. Remember that lectures can be very effective for explaining, clarifying, and exemplifying declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge


Albrecht, M. & Gross, L. (1948). Non-directive teaching. Sociology and Research, 32: 874-888.

Aloni, N. (2002). Enhancing humanity. The philosophical foundations of humanistic education. The Netherlands: Kluwer Publications.

Asch, M. J. (1951). Nondirective teaching in psychology: An experimental study. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 65(4),

Bills, R. E. (1952). An investigation of student-centered teaching. The Journal of Educational Research, 46(4), 313-319.

Dewey, J. (1997/1938). Experience and Education. New York, NY: Free Press.

McKeachie, W. J. (1954). Student-centered versus instructor-centered instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 45(3), 143.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Wiley. com.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Additional Resources

Braseby, A. M. (2015). The flipped classrooom. Idea Paper #57. The Idea Center

Designing a Student-Centered Syllabus. University of Delaware, Center for Teaching and Learning Assessment.

Just-in-time Teaching with Dr. Karen Grove, San Francisco State University [Merlot Elixr Project]

Millis, B. (2012). Active learning strategies in face-to-face courses. The Idea Center Idea Paper #53.

Engage students with simulation lab. Luanne Livermore, San Francisco State University [Merlot Elixr Project]

Using Cpncept Tests with Dr. David McConnell, North Carolina State. [Merlot Elixr Project]