Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Student centred learning: Is it possible?

Len Sparrow
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology

Heather Sparrow
Educational Development Unit
Edith Cowan University
Paul Swan
School of Education
Bunbury Campus, Edith Cowan University
    At both school and university level there has been a call for a move to student centred learning. This paper will consider the debate and suggest some activities, which can be used by university teachers to move from teacher centred to student centred learning models. A powerful student centred model would have integrated aspects of student choice of time and place for study, the content to be studied, the assessment of the material, and acknowledgment of prior knowledge and skill. Such student centred learning with classes of over thirty students based on the criteria presented may not be easily achieved, practical or even possible in the university setting. Compromises and variations in emphasis between student centred and teacher centred strategies incorporating negotiated and non-negotiable content with flexible delivery modes may be a way forward.
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Student centred learning and the drive to adopt it as the central pedagogy of university courses, has been part of vigorous discussions in teaching and learning for a number of years. Student centred learning has been recommended by many experts and influential reports. While references to student centred learning abound in the literature, definitions are often confused with other teaching strategies, for example: This paper will outline an interpretation of student centred learning, describe attempts to introduce student centred activities to mathematics teacher education courses, and discuss some of the issues arising from the adoption of these approaches.

Definitions of student centred learning

Gibbs (1992) offered a useful definition of student centred learning. He stated that student centred learning, "gives students greater autonomy and control over choice of subject matter, learning methods and pace of study" (p. 23). This view highlighted three core characteristics of student centred learning by promoting the idea that students should have more input into: An important implication of this definition is the need for students to assume a high level of responsibility in the learning situation and be actively choosing their goals and managing their learning. They can no longer rely on the lecturer to tell them what, how, where and when to think. They must start to do this.

The recommendation for a shift of emphasis in responsibility from teacher to student is common in contemporary pedagogy. In a summary of the characteristics of effective learners, de la Harpe, Kulski and Radloff (1999) noted good learners:

In a parallel debate regarding lifelong learning. Candy (1994) suggested lifelong learners have, among other things, an ability to inter-relate aspects of knowledge, and a capacity to manage learning. Knowles (1984) outlined elements of learning needed for working with adults which also identified a role for the teacher that focussed on placing students at the centre of learning. Students were to be actively involved and take a high level of personal responsibility in learning. He saw self direction as the keystone to adult learning and argued that the needs and experiences of the learner should take precedence over the expertise of the instructor. Adults, he suggested, are self directed learners who are unique due to their personal experiences.

The need for student centred learning

While the rhetoric of theory and research is influential, personal experience is also a powerful motivator. Mathematics teacher education lecturers were actively engaging student teachers in the debate about the possibilities of student centred learning in schools. They reflected, with some irony, that the university course as it was modelled, was more focussed on teacher responsibility, control and effort than on student learning. Hogan (1996) voiced this realisation:
I was struck by the irony that I did an enormous amount of reading and thinking about education in order to prepare my lectures, plan effective workshops and select readings and texts for my students, while the students did relatively little. I was the most active learner in my class - because I had total responsibility for what was learned and how it was presented for consumption (p. 79).
She noted that she was doing the majority of the work in her classes, when she felt it should have been the students who were thinking. Her teacher directed style of working was not meeting her own expectations for student learning and further, it failed to demonstrate practically the theoretical advantages of one of the approaches the course itself challenged students to adopt in their teaching in schools.

Implications for teaching and learning

The group decided that they would reorganise the way they taught mathematics, and move towards a student centred model. As they reflected on what to do, a number of significant questions arose:
  1. How is it possible to engage students deeply, working in ways like adult humans learn - multi-sensory, collaborative, solving real problems?
  2. How is it possible to empower students by giving them control and choice?
  3. How can one focus on student needs rather than what one wants to give them?
  4. How is it possible to acknowledge individual differences in students?
  5. How is it possible to identify strengths, weaknesses and prior learning and incorporate these into a course?
  6. How is it possible to work with individual goals and pathways?
  7. How does the teacher find out what the students want to know and how they want to learn it?
  8. How is it possible to assess how well students know these things?
  9. How does one use these answers to develop student learning?
The learning context in the university classroom is complex (just like the school classroom). All classes have a diversity of students, with a range of backgrounds, experiences and a variety of knowledge about the subject under consideration.

There were also dilemmas to wrestle. Many students, in particular surface learners, tend to want to be told what to do and what to think. There is often a feeling among students that the lecturer has been paid to teach and should set about teaching. The tradition of telling as teaching is strong. How far is one prepared to move from this tradition toward more student centred approaches and risk poor appraisals by students?

Further questions occur as one moves to a student centred approach to teaching and learning. If diversity of student knowledge and needs are acknowledged, then how does one teach classes where each person has a different set of strengths and weaknesses and prior learning? Where is the balance between what 'is good for them to learn' and what they want to learn? If students already know and understand much of the material to be considered should they have to learn it again, or learn something else or be given credit for it? How does one support student centred learning? Does one establish individual goals and pathways in negotiation with the student or allow 'open slather', with the student deciding what to learn, when to learn it and how it might be assessed?

Developing from teacher centred to student centred learning

In the face of so many questions, dilemmas and potential problems it is easy to understand why many university teachers choose to ignore both the theory and research, and stick with traditional teacher centred models. However, the group was determined to change their approach. Given the number of potential problems, it was decided to introduce specific student centred activities gradually, rather than radically restructure complete units. This had several advantages as a change strategy. It: Described below are examples of some of the teaching and learning activities that have been tried by the group in primary mathematics education units.

Self paced teaching booklets

As part of the first year of a mathematics education course, Swan and Sparrow (1996) developed a series of booklets that attempted to give students flexibility in the time and place of their work. The booklets were designed to support workshop sessions, distance education and personal study. A non-negotiable core of tasks and knowledge was established, which was generally completed in class, although if the students preferred, these tasks could be completed at home or in other places and at other times. Students were encouraged to assess their own needs and focus their attention in the learning areas relevant to them. If, for example, they were confident about how to calculate using fractions, they did not have to complete that section. A wide range of optional tasks were also provided so that students could undertake additional work in areas of weakness

Independent study modules and self directed learning kits

An early attempt (Jones & Sparrow, 1994) to move the focus of learning replaced the usual teacher directed workshops, with an independent study module. Students were given some choice (two out of four themes) in subject matter. The lecturers structured the activities and supplied most of the support material needed (for example, Sparrow, Kershaw & Jones, 1995) in the undertaking. Students were encouraged to work in teams, select their place and time of working on the activity and consult the lecturer as needed. They were given four weeks to complete the modules. Swan (1996) elaborated on the study modules by developing a set of learning kits which incorporated a variety of resources (videos, journal articles, mathematical equipment) relevant to undertaking learning tasks.

Poster presentations

Poster presentations were used as part of a move to offer students flexibility in the place and content of learning. Students, in groups of three, were asked to construct a poster to be displayed and shared with their peers. The theme of the poster could be selected from a list of five themes given by the lecturer, which were related to the subject matter of the unit. A basic, non-negotiable structure for the poster was established, within this the students could enhance the content and style as they pleased.

School based, action research projects (project partnerships)

Project partnerships (Down, Hogan & Swan, 1997) required students to form small groups centred on common interests, and select from a range of tenders, for a school based project that matched their interests. They then negotiated with the school to undertake the project within the time limits established. The level of responsibility required of the students in this situation was significant. They negotiated and organised learning, and acted in a fully professional manner.

Self initiated assignments

Flexibility related to content was more difficult to incorporate into a teaching programme, than choices of study place and time. Initial work by Swan, (1997) and Sparrow, (1999) used the idea of a negotiated assignment as an attempt to develop student choice in content. Within a minimal structure (the assignment must have a focus in mathematics and be supported by research findings), students were able to devise a personal content area to explore. Some students attempted known areas of weakness, for example the teaching of fractions, others selected an area of interest, for example teaching mathematics to autistic children, while some chose to explore a topic already covered on the course, but in greater depth.

What was learnt

The commitment to student centred approaches is continuous, but the engagement with activities described above have already enriched the group's professional understanding and development. Reflections on learning highlighted many insights. For example, the group members have:

Where to now

If one is to follow a student centred approach to learning then careful thought must be given to the use of teaching techniques such as web based learning. Generally this could offer flexibility in place and time but may not be useful in content choice. Reviewing of assessment towards portfolio development or the use of competency measures may have to be addressed. The issue of accrediting learning and prior experience need consideration. At another level there may be an emphasis on exposing our teaching methods for students to reflect on whole learning experience. More support has to be given to students in analysing their needs so that they can be used as part of the learning process. From a content stance there needs to be a clearer identification of core learning (what is non-negotiable) that must be achieved by students.


The title of this paper asks if student centred learning is possible. The answer appears to be yes, but with limitations. It is feasible to allow student choice of time and place but harder to provide student choice in content and to acknowledge and use student strengths and weaknesses. It is, however, a worthwhile direction to explore.


Candy, P.C., Crebert, G. & O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing lifelong learning through undergraduate education. NBEET Commissioned Report No. 28. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

de la Harpe, B., Kulski, M. and Radloff, A. (1999). How best to document the quality of our teaching and our students' learning? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 108-113. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf99/dj/delaharpe.html

Down, B., Hogan, C., & Swan, P. (1997). School/university project partnerships. Paper presented at the Best Practice Showcase, Edith Cowan University.

Gibbs, G. (1992). Assessing more students. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.

Hogan, C. (1996). Getting the students to do the reading, think about it and share their ideas and responses. In J. Abbott & L. Willcoxson (Eds.), Teaching and learning within and across disciplines, 79-81. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf96/hogan79.html

Jones, K. & Sparrow, L. (1994). Independent study modules. Paper presented at the CAUT forum, Edith Cowan University.

Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sparrow, L. (1999). I really would like to know about .... Course ED 416 Primary mathematics. Curtin University.

Sparrow, L., Kershaw, L., & Jones, K. (1994). Calculators: Research and curriculum implications. Perth: Mathematics, Science and Technology Education Centre.

Swan, P. (1997). Research assignment. Course MPE 3105, Edith Cowan University.

Swan, P. (1996). Self directed learning kits: Providing flexibility for students and staff. Paper presented at Best Practice Showcase. Edith Cowan University.

Swan, P. & Sparrow, L. (1996). Teaching and learning mathematics K-7. Perth: Mathematics, Science and Technology Education Centre.

Please cite as: Sparrow, L., Sparrow, H. and Swan, P. (2000). Student centred learning: Is it possible? In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/sparrow.html

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