Putting Learners In Charge: Learner-Centered Teaching

by Jessica Mansbach

The first paragraph of your course syllabus states, “Welcome to the course! In this course, we will cover many topics.” The first paragraph of your colleagues’ syllabus states, “Welcome to the course! In this course, you will learn about many topics.” Do you notice the difference? It may be subtle, but the phrases “we will cover” versus “you will learn” suggest differences in students’ role in learning. We will cover suggests that students play a passive role in class, learning what you decide to cover or teach. You will learn suggests that students will play an active role in the class, taking responsibility for their learning.

Learner-Centered Teaching Strategies: Why They Matter

Learner-centered teaching strategies help you design and teach a course in which students take responsibility for their learning. When students are in charge of their learning, they generate questions about course content, ask questions about how to learn and study, interact with their peers to solve problems, and practice critical thinking. Students’ motivation tends to increase since they have some control over their learning, and their retention of course content also tends to increase since they are questioning what they are learning and how they are learning it (Weimer, 2011).

However, many instructors believe that as subject matter experts, they are responsible for deciding what students should learn and how they should learn it. Many instructors with this belief think that they need to teach students the right answers to questions, decide what content to teach, and deliver content as efficiently as possible. This instructor-centered approach, though, puts students in a passive role and does not give them the opportunity to ask many questions, make choices about what content to learn, or understand why they are learning what they are learning. As passive learners, students’ motivation tends to decrease and they have little reason to interact with their peers (Peery & Veneruso, 2012).

In her article Changing the Way We Teach: Making the Case for Learner-Centered Teaching, Maryellen Weimer (2011), a scholar in learner-centered teaching, explains that using learner-centered teaching strategies may require that instructors alter the way they think about teaching and the strategies they use to teach. In a subsequent article, Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching, Weimer (2012) provides examples of how to shift from instructor centered-teaching to learner-centered teaching.

Examples Of Learner-Centered Teaching

1. Teach students to think for themselves

Asking students to generate discussion questions or summarize the weekly discussion are two ways you can ask students to think about what they are learning and what it means and to assume responsibility for their learning. Prior to asking students to generate discussion questions or summarize the week’s content, it is important that you model how to do both of those activities so that students get a sense of what they are supposed to do and how to do it. Using learner-centered teaching strategies, then, does not mean that you abdicate your duties as an instructor, since you should still be modeling what you want students to do and taking the time to construct meaningful discussion questions and other course content that aligns with course learning outcomes (Weimer, 2012).

2. Teach students vital skills they need to learn  

    Weimer (2012) explains “Learner-centered teachers teach students how to think, solve problems, evaluate evidence, analyze arguments, generate hypotheses—all those learning skills essential to mastering material in the discipline” (para. 3). Students do not necessarily know how to demonstrate these skills, so designing activities that allow students to practice is important. For example, after sharing a few lecture outlines or demonstrating in a short video how to evaluate evidence, you can ask your students to create their own lecture outlines or evidence summaries (Weimer, 2012).

3. Teach students to reflect on how and what they are learning

A key premise of learner-centered teaching is that students need to know how to learn and how to evaluate whether they are learning. To help students develop the skill of reflection, include questions in assignments and activities that ask students about the process they went through to complete the task or about how they addressed any learning challenges (Weimer, 2012).

4. Allow students to make decisions about what content to learn  

    When students can make choices about what they want to learn, you enhance their motivation to engage with course content since they can pursue their own interests related to the content (Weimer, 2012). For example, you can assign students a research paper and allow them to select from a variety of topics. Or, you can allow students to submit an assignment as a paper or video.

5. Promote student-to-student interaction  

Learner-centered teaching strategies emphasize student-to-student interaction since students will learn about course content and the learning process by seeing how their peers think. As the instructor, you help facilitate meaningful student-to-student interaction by teaching students how to collaborate (Weimer, 2012). For example, before you ask students to work in groups to demonstrate discussion content or summarize the week’s content, you can give them a few short articles to read about how to have a productive collaboration.

For more information on how to use learner-centered teaching strategies, peruse the resources below or talk with a Learning Designer.


Peery, T. & Veneruso, S. (2012). Balancing Act Managing Instructor Presence. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/balancing-act-managing-instructor-presence-and-workload-when-creating-an-interactive-community-of-learners/

Weimer, M. (2012). Five Characteristics of Learner Centered Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/five-characteristics-of-learner-centered-teaching/

Weimer, M. (2011).  Changing the Way We Teach: Making the Case for Learner Centered Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/changing-the-way-we-teach-making-the-case-for-learner-centered-teaching/


Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press

Bart, M. (2010) The Benefits of Making The Shift To Student Centered Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/the-benefits-of-making-the-shift-to-student-centered-teaching/

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (2000). Critical issue: Working toward student self-direction and personal efficacy as educational goals. Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues//learning/lr200.htm

McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2013). McKeachie’s teaching tips. Cengage Learning.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. John Wiley & Sons.

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