Student-centered learning strategies can be very challenging to implement in the modern classroom. In contrast to direct instruction, which usually centers around a teacher delivering lectures to the class, student-centered learning (also referred to as “learner-centered pedagogy” [LCP] or “active learning”) allows students to become invested in their learning.
Early research by famous developmental psychologists, such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, found that children tend to learn best by choosing, working on, and presenting projects themselves, with the scaffolding aid of a teacher or more experienced student. While students do get “voice and choice” in the exact projects they want to work on – say, deciding what book to read for a report or how they want to present what they learned – the teacher’s role is to guide them toward success by helping each student with their individual needs. Research shows that students feel most engaged in their lessons with active, student-centered learning and are therefore more able to reach their potential.
However, this student-based structure is challenging to implement in post-elementary education. While most elementary school students spend most of the school day in self-contained classes (that is, with one teacher in a single classroom), most middle and high school classes are departmentalized by subject, and teachers may have over a hundred students cycling through on a daily basis. On top of that, we need to take class size into account. The average middle or high school class size in Illinois and Texas hovers around 21 students per departmentalized classroom. Given these challenges, instructors may need to get creative to ensure that every student receives the individual attention they deserve. Here are some student-centered learning strategies that will enable you to effectively lead any classroom to maximize student engagement and learning outcomes.
Despite its disadvantages, direct instruction does have one significant upside: it is easy to deliver to a classroom. Lectures contain dense, quickly-delivered information. Especially now, in the age of test preparation, delivering lectures in your classroom may sometimes be necessary. Fortunately, there are ways to make lectures more interactive and effective. First of all, consider ways to involve discussion in your lectures. Incorporate breaks where students can talk in small groups and – most importantly – go to each table to facilitate discussion and ask questions. Mix introverted students with extroverted peers to encourage communication. Remember that the aim is to involve every student in the conversation, not just those who actively raise their hands.
It may also be beneficial to consider having students take notes collaboratively. Research shows that collaborative note-taking can help students better understand their classwork without increasing their stress and work levels. Use collaborative note-taking software like Google Docs, Notion, or SimpleNote to help your students set up groups. Notion has built-in resources for wikis and projects, which may help with collaborative glossaries or due dates. In comparison, Google Docs or Simplenote may be better for less complex note-taking schemes.
Then, encourage students to work together more collaboratively and broadly. For example, instead of each student writing notes for just a small selection of the topics, each member of the group can instead contribute a few bullet points for each topic in a master document that all students will use to study. Pooling knowledge is an important part of peer scaffolding; it can help less-confident students find their voice and allow gifted students to share additional knowledge.
Helps Students Set Their Own Goals
One concern about the student-centric model is that giving students too many choices without guidance may confuse them. This may, ironically, lead them to take easy options out of convenience. It may also make assignments more difficult for you to scaffold and grade. Therefore, it may be better to establish a list of broad standards that students need to meet and options for demonstrating them rather than just a list of exact criteria. Child psychologist Barbara McCombs calls these “non-negotiables”: students need to meet the curriculum standards, but how they get there is up to them.
For example, if you want students to create a project about the Revolutionary War, give individuals a choice between five and ten categories of information (i.e., the political acts leading up to the war, the rise in Patriotism, historical figures, etc.), and break them up into groups of two or three students. From there, help students establish what type of project they would like to work on: Perhaps it is a mini-film, musical performance, or recipe book. Then, guide students to create a timeline with SMART goals using online worksheets or resources.
Use special focus on the “time-sensitive” part of the measure: What benchmarks will students need to hit to ensure they complete their projects on time? This could be handing in notes, having a “rough draft” of your project ready, or the like. Make sure to keep in communication with every student group as the project progresses. Give them class time to work as often as possible, and encourage student meetings for them to ask each other questions. This way, they know that you are a resource for guidance, but they have the freedom to decide exactly how they want to complete the work.
Using student-centered learning strategies, you can make your departmentalized middle and high school classrooms places of independent learning. Student-centered learning can be difficult to implement due to our current test-based learning systems, but it can be done by encouraging students to utilize each other as resources. As the teacher, you can act as a guide to reinforce what they need to learn, and they can decide how to learn it. Every student has individual needs, and a student-centered model can help you access them without sacrificing academics.
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