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Using student-centered learning to guide assessment and outcomes

Student-centered learning, not surprisingly, aims to place students at the center of the learning process, emphasizing their active participation, engagement, and autonomy. So how can you actually achieve this? When lessons are focused on student interests, needs, and abilities, they foster intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, by designing assessments specific to student interests and classroom engagement, educators can uphold academic integrity, because motivated students are less likely to take shortcut solutions.

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager

Student-centered learning, not surprisingly, aims to place students at the center of the learning process, emphasizing their active participation, engagement, and autonomy. So how can you actually achieve this? When lessons are focused on student interests, needs, and abilities, they foster intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, by designing assessments specific to student interests and classroom engagement, educators can uphold academic integrity, because motivated students are less likely to take shortcut solutions.

Learning includes assessment and so too, does student-centered learning; it is a critical intersection between the instructor and student where instructors learn what it is students do or do not know and students receive the feedback they need to further their learning. Assessment in student-centered learning allows the learner to practice skills and review concepts as they move through the course or program, ensuring that it reflects students' progress, learning needs, and individual strengths.

What is student-centered learning?

Student-centered learning is an approach to education that places the student at the center of the learning process. It shifts the traditional teacher-centered model to one that focuses on the needs, interests, and abilities of individual students. Learners have opportunities to choose what to study and also learn how and why, because students are actively involved in their own learning, take responsibility for their education, and play an active role in decision-making.

Rather than take a prescriptive approach, “Student-centered learning is about meeting students where they are and giving them what they need, but doing so in a way that meets the needs of each student individually. It is about giving students the ability to direct their own learning, go at their own pace, and demonstrate what they know in a way that truly shows their understanding. The ways in which school districts accomplish this personalization of student learning can vary” (Harrington & DeBruler, 2019).

To that end, key principles of student-centered learning vary and number anywhere from three to thirteen in number; for now, there is no definitive list of principles. The U.S. Department of Education lists three: individualization, interaction, and integration. Green and Harrington highlight four: voice, choice, competency-based progression, and continuous monitoring of student needs (Green & Harrington, 2020), while Paul Ramsden lists thirteen principles (Ramsden, 2003).

Maryellen Weimer, a noted researcher on student-centered learning, calls out seven principles of learner-centered teaching:

  • Teachers let students do more learning tasks, i.e. let them summarize, draw conclusions, pinpoint difficult areas in the reading, etc.
  • Teachers do less telling, i.e. get better at asking questions.
  • Teachers do instructional design work more carefully, i.e. create more in-class
    assignments that help students apply cognitive skills to relevant material.
  • Faculty more explicitly model how experts learn, i.e. are willing to share their own
    learning process and thought process in answering unexpected questions.
  • Faculty encourage students to learn from and with each other (self-explanatory).
  • Faculty and students work to create climates for learning. This is less fuzzy than it sounds. It is about e.g. giving students options so that they accept responsibility for their learning.
  • Faculty use evaluation to promote learning, i.e. use peer assessment and feedback as a point of departure for a discussion (Weimer, Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice, 2002).

And finally, the University of Calgary synthesized a list of principles based on numerous sources:

  • Actively engage learners: Ensure learning material is stimulating, relevant and interesting; explain material clearly; use a variety of methods that encourage active and deep approaches to learning, as well as adapt to evolving classroom contexts.
  • Demonstrate passion, empathy and respect: Show interest in students’ opinions and concerns; seek to understand their diverse talents, needs, prior knowledge, and approaches to learning; encourage interaction between instructor and students; share your love of the discipline.
  • Communicate clear expectations: Make clear the intended learning outcomes and standards for performance; provide organization, structure and direction for where the course is going.
  • Encourage student independence: Provide opportunities to develop and draw upon personal interests; offer choice in learning processes and modes of assessment; provide timely and developmental feedback on learning; encourage metacognition to promote self-assessment of learning.
  • Create a teaching and learning community: Use teaching methods and learning strategies that encourage mutual learning, as well as thoughtful, respectful and collaborative engagement and dialogue between all members of the classroom community.
  • Use appropriate assessment methods: Clearly align assessment methods with intended course outcomes; provide clear criteria for evaluation; emphasize deep learning; scaffold assessments to ensure progressive learning.
  • Commit to continuous improvement: Gather formative and summative feedback on your teaching; practice critical self-reflection; consult scholarly literature on teaching & learning; identify clear goals for strengthening your teaching practice (University of Calgary, retrieved July 11, 2023).

All of the lists, however varied, ask instructors to see each learner as unique and distinct individuals.

Is there a difference between student-centered and learner-centered teaching?

According to researcher Maryellen Weimer, “Being student-centered implies a focus on student needs. It is an orientation that gives rise to the idea of education as a product, with the student as the customer and the role of the faculty as one of serving and satisfying the customer…Being learner-centered focuses attention squarely on learning: what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning…When instruction is learner-centered, the action focuses on what students (not teachers) are doing” (Metropolitan State University of Denver).

It is important to keep in mind the nuances between student-centered and learner-centered teaching as we navigate our own education as instructors. That said, many people do use the terms interchangeably.

What does student-centered learning look like?

According to TEAL and the U.S. Department of Education, “Do you remember the best class you ever had? The class in which you were most confident? In which you learned the best? More than likely, this was a class in which you discovered new knowledge and felt motivated to learn both by the instructor and by an intrinsic desire to know more. The student-centered classroom facilitates learning by increasing motivation and effort.” A student-centered learning environment embodies this ethos of learning as being fun.

There are many ways to uphold student-centered learning. But some of the qualities of this approach manifest in the following ways:

1. Active participation: Students actively engage in the learning process through hands-on activities, discussions, and problem-solving. They are encouraged to explore, inquire, and discover knowledge on their own.

2. Personalization: Learning experiences are tailored to meet the unique needs, interests, and abilities of each student. Instruction is differentiated, allowing students to progress at their own pace and delve deeper into areas of particular interest.

3. Collaboration: Students are encouraged to work collaboratively, fostering peer-to-peer interaction, communication, and teamwork. Collaborative learning promotes social skills, critical thinking, and the ability to work effectively in groups.

4. Inquiry and critical thinking: Students are encouraged to ask questions, think critically, and analyze information. They learn how to evaluate evidence, solve problems, and make informed decisions. Inquiry-based learning is often used to promote active exploration and discovery.

5. Authentic and real-world contexts: Learning is connected to real-world applications and authentic tasks. Students have opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills to practical situations, which enhances relevance and deepens understanding.

6. Self-reflection and metacognition: Students engage in self-reflection and metacognitive processes, becoming aware of their own learning styles, strengths, and areas for improvement. They develop strategies for self-assessment and self-regulation, taking ownership of their learning journey.

7. Teacher as facilitator: The role of the teacher shifts from a lecturer or instructor to that of a facilitator and guide. Teachers provide support, resources, and guidance, while allowing students to take more control of their learning.

Student-centered learning acknowledges that each student is unique, with their own strengths, interests, and learning preferences. It aims to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment that empowers students, promotes active engagement, and fosters a lifelong love of learning.

If you’re uncertain whether or not components of a curriculum are teacher-centered or student-centered, teachthought provides some examples and suggestions.

What is the difference between student-centered learning, blended learning, authentic-learning, personalized-learning, and customized-learning, etc.?

Blended learning is a format of learning for students, one that combines traditional face-to-face instruction with online methods.

Authentic learning is an educational concept that emphasizes student interests and involves real-world problems relevant to learners. Blended learning, personalized-learning, customized-learning, and authentic-learning are ways to support student-centered learning. It too, is a subset of student-centered learning.

Personalized learning also centers students and their needs for pacing and learning pathways as does customized learning, which consider the unique needs of each child.

Each of these concepts are ways to create and support student-centered learning. According to Harringon and DeBruler, “Student-centered learning is an approach that aligns all aspects of a school community (curriculum, staffing, finances, technology, facilities, schedules, community partnerships, etc.) in a way that truly focuses on the desired outcomes for each individual student, while accounting for the differences of each student. Blended learning, personalized learning, and customized learning are all models that schools and school districts may choose to implement in order to create a student-centered learning environment” (Harrington & DeBruler, 2019).

What are student-centered assessments?

Student-centered assessments (SCAs) can be a valuable tool for educational institutions and classrooms, enabling students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, while moving toward goals mutually agreed upon by teacher and learner. Setting objective standards for learning performance — beyond grades — is an effective way to empower students to take ownership in their own academic growth.

Student-centered assessments help ensure that students are actively engaged in their learning trajectories by encouraging them to critique their own work and identify areas of progress and areas needing improvement. Putting this ownership on students promotes sustainable, self-regulated learning. Students who are highly involved in their development and accountable to agreed-upon objectives tend to learn more and perform better in school than students who do not (Zimmerman & Schunk 2011).

SCAs allow teachers to customize goals to different groups of students, factoring in what types of objectives will work best to foster motivation, meaningful learning, and retention. The process of coming to a mutual agreement and putting specific learning outcomes in course syllabi and assignments also helps to ensure that goals are consistent across the class.

How do you use student-centered learning within assessment?

Assessment is not an endpoint but a checkpoint within the learning process. It is where critical data exchange occurs; for teachers, assessment is a way to learn where students have gaps in learning and then inform future curriculum and teaching whereas for students assessment is a way for them to gain feedback to guide their next steps. Without assessment we would not learn what it is students have learned; ideally, assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning. Here are some ways to guide assessment in a student-centered learning environment:

1. Clear learning outcomes: Begin by clearly defining learning outcomes that reflect the skills, knowledge, and competencies students should acquire. These outcomes should be communicated to students so they understand what they are expected to achieve.

2. Formative assessment: Incorporate formative assessment strategies throughout the learning process. Formative assessment provides ongoing feedback to students, allowing them to monitor their progress and make adjustments as needed. Formative assessment can include low-stakes quizzes, self-reflection exercises, peer assessments, and classroom discussions.

3. Authentic assessments: Use authentic assessments that connect to real-world contexts and tasks. Authentic assessments can involve projects, case studies, presentations, performances, portfolios, and simulations. These assessments provide students with opportunities to apply their learning in meaningful ways and showcase their understanding and skills.

4. Self-assessment and reflection: Encourage students to engage in self-assessment and reflection on their learning journey. Provide them with tools and frameworks to evaluate their progress, identify areas for improvement, and set goals for future learning. This process promotes metacognition and empowers students to take ownership of their learning.

5. Differentiated assessments: Recognize that students have diverse learning needs, strengths, and interests. Design assessments that are flexible in a variety of assessment formats. Offer various options and formats for students to demonstrate their understanding, such as written assignments, oral presentations, multimedia projects, or hands-on tasks. This approach accommodates different learning styles, measures depth and breadth of knowledge acquisition, and helps students showcase their abilities effectively.

6. Collaborative assessments: Foster collaborative assessments where students work together to solve problems, analyze information, or create projects. Collaborative assessments encourage teamwork, communication, and critical thinking skills. They also promote social interaction and cooperation among students, enhancing their overall learning experience.

7. Ongoing feedback: Provide timely and constructive feedback to students throughout the assessment process. Feedback should be specific, actionable, and focused on both strengths and areas for improvement. Use a mix of teacher feedback, peer feedback, and self-assessment to provide a comprehensive view of students' progress.

8. Reflection on assessment: Engage students in reflection on the assessment process itself. Encourage them to think about how the assessment aligned with their learning goals, whether it provided an accurate representation of their abilities, and how it could be improved. This reflection supports students in becoming more self-aware and enables them to provide valuable input on the assessment design.

By incorporating these strategies, assessment in a student-centered learning environment becomes a tool for enhancing learning, promoting student engagement, and supporting students' individual growth and development. Further, student-centered learning can become something else entirely: student-centered assessments.

Ways to create effective student-centered assessments:
  • Set clear goals: Teachers and students mutually agree to performance goals and how they will be defined and measured for each task. Action verbs like “define,” “create,” “argue,” or “solve” are often incorporated. Goals go beyond objective right and wrong answers. Students should be able to explain a process or apply what they have learned. In algebra, for example, students may be required to not only provide the right answers but to show and explain their process. Rubrics can be an effective assessment mechanism in support of setting concrete, comprehensive goals while helping students understand the standards and expectations.
  • Monitor and measure progress: Students monitor their progress and performance on assignments by objectively comparing their work to expectations and asking themselves tough questions: Am I able to argue for x, or solve for y? Even if I have the right answer, did I reach it using a reliable process? In this stage, students make notes about what is necessary for their own continued improvement.
  • Revise: At this point, the student and instructor meet to discuss paths toward completing the agreed-upon objectives, taking into account student progress and what learning methods have been most and least effective. This step integrates assessing performance, evaluating learning methods, and gauging motivation.
The differences between student-centered and traditional assessments

Student-centered assessments allow the learner to practice skills and review concepts as they move through the course or program. For educators, institutions, and states, SCAs provide feedback summative assessments sometimes miss. Used over time, SCAs provide a clearer picture of knowledge gaps, which teaching methods are most effective, and how to optimize teaching approaches for different types of learners. This is why student-centered assessments often help to improve attainment gaps in lower-performing schools. When used in combination with a digital assessment platform, these assessments can help educators monitor performance through categorical analysis, while also providing the learner with helpful understanding of their own progress.

Formal tests like standardized tests, final exams, final projects, and term papers designed purely for evaluation are examples of traditional, summative assessments. These more traditional assessments evaluate learning but don’t necessarily provide the feedback to further learning or consider the individual needs of a student in their learning journey.

Traditional, summative assessments are usually compared to an established standard and graded against that standard, whereas student-centered assessments measure capabilities against a comprehensive set of established goals. SCAs also tend to capture the student’s thought process, such as how a problem is approached, rather than just the answer. That differentiator makes student-centered assessments effective for developing reliable methods of learning and thus promote higher-order thinking.

Types of student-centered assessments

Assessment is an opportunity to provide what Miller calls “the right just-in-time instruction,” and in doing so, creates increased student engagement in a more student-centered classroom (Miller, 2015).

So what do these student-centered assessments look like?

Peer assessments – Peer assessment methods allow students to give feedback to one another, supported by set expectations and a standard of constructive criticism. This type of assessment harnesses the student’s desire to meet the expectations of their peers and allows them to hold one another accountable for shared success. In this way, peer assessments improve engagement and retention.

Peer review is a well-researched topic. Dr. Alexander W. Astin highlighted factors that influence college students’ learning, concluding that “The strongest single source of influence on cognitive and affective development is the student’s peer group … it has the capacity to involve the student more intensely” (Astin, 1996). Turnitin Feedback Studio has peer review assignment tool called PeerMark.

Process portfolios – Portfolios collected throughout a semester or program demonstrate progress in learning, from novice to master. A single assignment or test only shows a snapshot of learning. The process of continuous work, progress, and learning also increases student engagement and self-discipline. This works through reflection on how successfully completed assignments contribute to attaining performance goals.

Exhibitions – This method raises the anticipation for a culminating academic moment. The exhibition itself, such as a presentation, is usually a summative assessment, but the work leading up to it includes ongoing assessment, feedback, and revision. Having a climactic goal enhances the motivational effects of SCAs.

Traditional formats like short-answer and essays, too, can be student-centered; for example, consider asking essay questions that highlight student-led discussions in the classroom, or that ask the student to bring their own personal experience into analysis. Making questions specific to your classroom and to your students not only connects teaching and learning, but helps students understand that their input and learning matters.

Finally, there are ways to transform more traditional summative assessments into more formative experiences for both instructor and students. While final exams don’t have as much possibility, mid-course exams have the potential to become formative, particularly when feedback is timely, specific, and actionable. Such feedback slots into the student learning journey and can be valuable.

How do you create a student-centered assessment?

Walvoord and Anderson, in their book Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment, reviews some of the components of grading and assessment design. Their suggestions, which fit well with student-centered learning goals, include:

  • “Consider what you want your students to learn: Effective grading practices begin when the teacher says to herself, By the end of the course, I want my students to be able to. . . .
  • Select assignments and tests that measure what you value most: Choose assignments that are likely to elicit from your students the kind of learning you want to measure. Choose assignments that are interesting and challenging to your students. Use peer group collaboration.
  • Construct a course outline: Start with what you want your students to learn, not what you want to cover.
  • Check tests and assignments for fit and feasibility: Make sure assignments fit with learning goals and ensure the workload is feasible for yourself and your students.
  • Collaborate with your students to set and achieve goals: Get students to develop their own personal and learning goals for the course and strategies by which they can accomplish those goals.
  • Make assignment and test Instructions clear to students: Develop a careful and thoughtful assignment sheet for students for each major assignment or test” (Adams, pgs. 4-5).
Are certain subjects more suitable for student-centered learning and assessment?

The nature of student-centered assessments helps to make assignment and test instructions clearer, since students are not only told what they are expected to deliver, but how and why it matters. For this reason, SCAs are equally adaptable to all subjects and all types of learning environments, no matter if a course’s content is more focused on subjective or objective learning.

From writing poetry to solving equations, as long as assessments test the knowledge and skills educators want students to master and all stakeholders are focused on learning and growth, there is value in implementing student-centered assessment.

Overview: student-centered learning in assessment

Student-centered learning is an educational approach that prioritizes the needs, interests, and active participation of students in the learning process. Unlike traditional teacher-centered approaches, where the teacher plays a central role in imparting knowledge, student-centered learning shifts the focus to the learner and emphasizes their autonomy, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills in assessment and beyond. Student-centered learning promotes collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills. This fosters the development of social skills, empathy, and a sense of community among learners. Overall, student-centered learning empowers students, recognizing them as active participants and creators of knowledge. It is a learner-focused approach that prepares students for the complexities of the 21st century, equipping them with the skills and mindset needed to thrive in an ever-changing world.