Student-centered learning and teaching

16 Oct

I was working on one of my assignments for my doctoral studies and searching for a good definition of student-centered learning. Imagine my delight when I realized that APA provides a beautiful and comprehensive definition that is a real joy to read. As many of you already know, Nina’s Notes is dedicated to helping teachers to adopt and use more student-centered practices in their classroom. I just want to group the practices into the 3Cs to have a manageable and functional framework. Yet, what I see below fits perfectly well into my teaching/learning philosophy (emphasis and colouring mine):

This definition of learner-centered is based on an understanding of the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles as a representation of the current knowledge base on learners and learning.
The Principles apply to all learners, in and outside of school, young and old.  
Learner-centered is also related to the beliefs, characteristics, dispositions, and practices of teachers – practices primarily created by the teacher.
When teachers and their practices function from an understanding of the knowledge base delineated in the Principles, they
(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed
(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives
(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and
(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.

What else can I say?

This is exactly how I was taught during my own teacher education in Finland.  The teaching and learning process where teachers are learning facilitators and students intrinsically motivated and accountable for their own learning  should look like this in the classrooms everywhere in the world! And APA even provides more tools for  getting there!

Please read ahead:


Principle 1: Nature of the learning process.
The learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience.
Principle 2: Goals of the learning process. 
The successful learner, over time and with support and instructional guidance, can create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge.
Principle 3: Construction of knowledge. 
The successful learner can link new information with existing knowledge in meaningful ways.
Principle 4: Strategic thinking
The successful learner can create and use a repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies to achieve complex learning goals.
Principle 5: Thinking about thinking
Higher order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations facilitate creative and critical thinking.
Principle 6: Context of learning
Learning is influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and instructional practices.



Principle 7: Motivational and emotional influences on learning
What and how much is learned is influenced by the learner’s motivation. Motivation to learn, in turn, is influenced by the individual’s emotional states, beliefs, interests and goals, and habits of thinking.
Principle 8: Intrinsic motivation to learn
The learner’s creativity, higher order thinking, and natural curiosity all contribute to motivation to learn.
Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty, relevant to personal interests, and providing for personal choice and control.
Principle 9: Effects of motivation on effort
Acquisition of complex knowledge and skills requires extended learner effort and guided practice. Without learners’ motivation to learn, the willingness to exert this effort is unlikely without coercion.



Principle 10: Developmental influence on learning
As individuals develop, they encounter different opportunities and experience different constraints for learning. Learning is most effective when differential development within and across physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains is taken into account.
Principle 11: Social influences on learning 
Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others.



Principle 12: Individual differences in learning
Learners have different strategies, approaches, and capabilities for learning that are a function of prior experience and heredity.
Principle 13: Learning and diversity
Learning is most effective when differences in learners’ linguistic, cultural, and social backgrounds are taken into account.

Principle 14: Standards and assessment
Setting appropriately high and challenging standards and assessing the learner and learning progress-including diagnostic, process, and outcome assessment-are integral parts of the learning process.


How can we make this become reality in classrooms?  Please check Nina’s Notes for some tools!  And let’s keep on collaborating in highlighting the importance of student-centered practices!


Summarized from the APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Also see: for more information about learner-centered practices and their importance to the field of contemporary education.  


17 Responses to “Student-centered learning and teaching”

  1. patbuoncristiani October 17, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    This is a very useful organizational structure Nina. I am an enthusiastic advocate for student centred learning. I do, however, have a major concern and it is touched on by Principle 11: Social influences on learning. It is incumbent on the teacher to create circumstances where students understand what there is to be learned. Let me explain. I was the principal of a very high poverty, urban, black school in the USA. I was also the principal of a middle class, white school in Australia. One huge difference between these two schools was the breadth of experiences and opportunities available to the children. My USA kids hardly knew what there was to be learned. To centre learning around their interests, experiences and perspectives would be to limit them terribly.

    The role of the educator in schools such as these is to find ways to broaden the children’s horizons so that they become aware of how much there is to be learned. Of course, the current system in the USA and increasingly in Australia means that there is so much focus on passing mandated tests that there is little or no time left over in the school day to do this broadening.

    Thanks for another interesting read.

    • Nina October 17, 2013 at 6:57 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Pat! It goes too well together with yesterday’s Washington Post article telling us how in 13 states poor children are the majority of students in public schools.

      It is hard to dream big or even set reasonable goals for yourself if you don’t know what your choices are! So, I of course agree with you, wholeheartedly!

      My wish is to see much, much more formative process assessment and self-evaluation in education, so that students will see their progress. At the moment summative assessment is too dominant. And there are many studies showing how much more we learn when we know that we can have an effect on our own learning.


      • patbuoncristiani October 17, 2013 at 7:34 am #

        Thanks for directing me to that article Nina. The figures are frightening. But it seems to me we/they are still missing the point. Poverty is causing poor outcomes at school. Isn’t this similar to saying that lifestyle is causing a rise in diabetes? Why is it that we understand quite clearly that to curb the rise in diabetes we need to change lifestyle patterns yet we don’t understand that to cure the problems with education we need to address poverty? The solutions offered in this article largely revolve around how to treat the symptoms rather than eradicate the root cause. And what disturbs me most is the view that we need to keep these kids out of their homes for as long as possible – before school, pre school, after school, vacation programs. I fear the USA is in the early stages of a major social decline and possibly major social unrest as well. Unless the growing income disparity and consequent increase in a financial and social underclass is addressed, there will be no point in fiddling with how we assess our children.

  2. 4c3d November 7, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    I had not come across the APA but find the principles reassuring since they fit well with experience. Number 12 is of particular interest since it is aligned with my concept of Learning Intelligence (LQ). Although the principles are aimed at teachers or those who manage learning I believe we need to make learners aware of the options they have to manage their learning to meet their own learning needs (i.e. LQ). By making the learner aware of this we can help level the playing field a little. I have taught challenging learners in challenging schools and know from experience that this approach works. The moment a learner ‘gets it’, the moment they realise they can manage their own learning environment, is a wonderful thing to see. Anyone interested in LQ can find out more at : There are now 16 articles on LQ covering skills, attributes and beliefs of learners and the link to LQ.

    • Nina November 7, 2013 at 7:32 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Kevin. I very much appreciate the way you discuss both teachers’ view and learners’ view in your posts! It is extremely important to realize how learning and teaching are two different, yet intertwining, processes in the classroom.

      Successful learners are more aware of their own metacognition, I think, and your LQ will help more students be empowered to be accountable for their own learning!


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