9.15 Student Centred Learning

Author: David Baume


I assume you bring to your reading of this a question. Perhaps something like “What is student centred learning?” Or “How, or why, might I do student centred learning?” Something like that.

If you haven’t got such a question, then, respectfully, you might make better use of your time elsewhere.


“What do you want to know?”

“OK, go away, find out, and report back.”

A more learning-outcomes-based approach would take a slightly different form:

“What do you want to be able to do?”.

“OK, go away, learn to do it, and come back and show us that you can do it.”

That’s the heart of student centred learning. Well, maybe not the heart. Maybe just the core. But, however sophisticated we get, if either of these two steps is missing, it’s not student centred learning.

Interestingly, a lot of so-described student centred learning doesn’t even match this very basic account. Why not? Because it often takes the form:

“This is what you need to know, or be able to do. Go away, learn it or learn to do it, then come, and back and tell us about it / show us that you can do it.”

That’s not student centred learning. Why not? Because the question; the account of what is to be learned; comes from the teacher, not from the student. The power of student centred learning lies in the fact that it’s the student’s question, the student’s need to develop some capability, that the student is trying to address. Otherwise it’s just research, just skills development. Potentially valuable. And much much better than nothing, than just teaching and learning. But not student centred learning. Only half of student centred learning. And, I suggest, the poorer, less interesting, the less useful, half.

SCL102 (or 201 – I’m not sure)

There is a logical problem in teaching student centred learning. The medium (teaching) is, not just not the message, but probably incompatible with the message (student centred learning). Student centred learning is a process, that staff can facilitate, but that students have to do.

So, instead of me trying to teach you student centred learning, here are a few propositions about student centred learning. Reading these propositions, even learning them, won’t enable you to teach by student centred learning. Nor would reading and learning them enable students to do student centred learning. But these propositions can facilitate a useful conversation, maybe even some useful actions, towards student centred learning. However, as with a lot of propositional knowledge, you don’t really know it; in this case, student centred learning; until you’ve done it. And your students don’t really know it until they’ve done it. And, preferably, know that they’ve done it.

  • As suggested in SCL101 above, there are three main components to student centred learning:
    1. A student defines a question, a learning need; preferably a question they really want to know the answer to, or something that they really want to be able to do. This defining can with great value be done iteratively, in conversation, with feedback and successive drafts, until the student has a good question, a good account of a learning need.
    2. The student identifies, obtains, accesses, critically reviews and uses sources to get some answers, or does whatever they need to do to develop some capabilities.
    3. The student reports back with their answer to their question, or demonstrates what they have become newly able to do.
    4. (Not discussed in SCL101 above, but as further valuable steps, students can seek, receive, judge and where appropriate use feedback on their current answers, their new capabilities.)
  • People engage in self-directed learning all the time in their normal lives. It’s only in educational settings that it becomes problematic. Which is odd. Until you remember that a major premise of an educational setting is that it is a place where teachers teach; which includes defining what is to be learned, and then teaching it; and where students learn, principally through being taught.
  • I snuck into point 1a, twice, the word “good” (emphasis added). If we teachers are going to engage in student centred learning, we really should have conversations with students about the qualities of a good question, a good capability to develop. While we are doing that, we might as well also have some conversations about the qualities of good answers. Note: “Have conversations about.” Not “tell students (the qualities of a good question / answer / capability.” Although, as in any proper conversation, you are going to put in some of your own ideas about what makes a good question, a good answer, a good capability, as well as hearing and valuing what your students say. And your students, being cue conscious, and also respecting your greater knowledge and expertise, will incorporate some of your ideas about what makes a good question, answer, capability, into their work. Even in student centred learning, you can do some teaching. You are not entirely redundant.


By the time they get to University, students are very good at learning through being taught. Not necessarily so good at directing their own learning – in an educational setting, at least, remembering my comments above that, in the real world, they do self-directed learning all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “not necessarily so good at directing their own learning”, and replace that with “not necessarily having much confidence in their ability to direct their own learning”. That may be more accurate.

In SCL301, how will we help our students to grow and extend their competence and / or confidence in student centred learning? The same way I hope we teach a great variety of capabilities. Good methods include:

  • Persuading them of the value of student centred learning, in their current course of studies (if you can truthfully say that) and certainly when they are out in the real world. Why “if you can truthfully say that”? Because, if learning and succeeding on your course actually involves learning your answers to questions you have set; or even learning to develop their own answers to questions you have set; then the first half of student centred learning will not be a very valuable skill to them on your course. Because no one will value their ability to ask questions.
  • As you do 1), encourage / support / challenge them to devise successively bigger and better and more difficult and complex and interesting questions; identify capabilities with similarly extended qualities; and then of course to answer these questions, develop these capabilities. In parallel with this, get them to devise and apply and then critique and develop further more sophisticated and appropriate accounts of the criteria for good questions, good answers, good capabilities.
  • If you’re feeling brave, and if the regulations and conventions of your course, school, university, permit, make their final assessment task doing one more examples of the activities described in the previous two elements of SCL103.

Final assessment

This isn’t a course, obviously. It’s an article, a web page.


If it were a course, how would you prove that you’ve passed it?

My question, your answer. I know, I’m only halfway to being student centred.

As I said at the start, it’s hard to teach student centred learning.

You just have to do it.

All it takes is courage.

And maybe a few ideas from here.

Tell us how it goes. Share your stories. We all have a lot to learn about this. And it is vital, for a future in which fewer and fewer of us will be able to make a living or lead a full life simply by answering other people’s questions.


9 The Real Deal

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