The concept of student-centered learning (SCL) goes back to 1968 when massive student protests took place against the elitism of universities demanding them to be open for all society.
Political recognition of SCL was gained in 2009 through the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Ministerial Communiqué, where it was stated that student-centered learning requires empowering individual learners, new approaches to teaching and learning, effective support and guidance structures, and a curriculum focused more clearly on the learner in all three cycles.
Later on, the importance of SCL and learning-outcomes based learning was reiterated in the Bucharest Ministerial Communiqué in 2012 and the European Commission’s Communication on Rethinking Education. In 2015, the Yerevan Ministerial Communiqué encouraged higher education institutions and staff in promoting pedagogical innovation in student-centered learning environments.
The approach of student-centered learning and teaching aims at empowering students to build their own learning experience and provide them with skills to challenge common knowledge. It is also based on the idea that students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, but they are in the driver’s seat of their learning experience.
The most important feature of the SCL approach is that it is not limited to a certain methodology but rather a cultural shift of the learning experience. Student-centered learning is based on flexibility and individualization of the learning process, meaning that teaching methods should be adjusted to the individual needs of a diverse student group.
The paradigm shift from teacher-centered toward student-centered learning brings frustration to some academics who assume that the application of SCL diminishes the role of the teacher. However, focusing on empowering students through SCL does not neglect the importance of the teacher, but shows his or her role as a facilitator.
SCL brings more functions to the role of the teacher, who has to facilitate the learning based on a process of constructing knowledge and new understanding, encourage an active approach to learning by doing, and guide students to self-directed learning with students taking increasing responsibility for their learning. This is the process where the student is encouraged to take ownership for his/her own individual learning path.
In order to map out a common understanding of the SCL concept by providing a common comprehensive definition, as well as guidelines and checklists for the implementation of the concept, European Students’ Union (ESU) and Education International (EI) jointly undertook the project Time for Student-Centered Learning (T4SCL), which ran from 2009 to 2010. The project led to the definition of SCL that is now widely used by educational stakeholders and policy-makers.
This definition adequately brings together a number of concepts and perceptions, as well as tried and tested methods of SCL. It serves to enhance the positive effect of a SCL approach within higher education, most importantly for individual students who are to use SCL approach best practices in their daily lives (European Students’ Union, 2015)1
At the conference launching the T4SCL project in May 2010, teachers and students examined the theory behind SCL. As a result, a list of nine general principles were outlined, as follows:
PRINCIPLE I: SCL Requires an Ongoing Reflexive Process
Part of the underlying philosophy of SCL is that no one context can have one SCL style that can remain applicable through time. The philosophy of SCL is that teachers, students and institutions need to reflect on their teaching, learning and infrastructural systems on an ongoing basis. This way, the student learning experience is continuously improved, and the intended learning outcomes of a given course or program component achieved in a way that stimulates learners’ critical thinking and transferable skills.
PRINCIPLE II: SCL Does Not Have a “One-Size-Fits-All” Solution
A key concept underlying SCL is the realization that all higher education institutions are different, as well as all teachers and students. Therefore, SCL is a learning approach that requires learning support structures, which are appropriate to each given context, and teaching and learning styles appropriate to those undertaking them.
PRINCIPLE III: Students Have Different Learning Styles
SCL recognizes that students have different pedagogical needs. Some learn better through trial and error, others learn through practical experience and some by reading literature.
PRINCIPLE IV: Students Have Different Needs and Interests
All students have needs that extend beyond the classroom. Some are interested in cultural activities, others in sports or in representative organizations.
PRINCIPLE V: Choice Is Central to Effective Learning in SCL
Students like to learn different subjects and hence, any offer of study courses/methods within the learning path should involve a reasonable amount of choice.
PRINCIPLE VI: Students Have Different Experiences and Background Knowledge
Learning needs to be adapted to the professional and life experience of each individual. For instance, if students already have considerable experience in using information and communications technology, there is no point in trying to teach them the same thing again; if they already have considerable research skills, perhaps it would be better to help them in theory.
PRINCIPLE VII: Students Should Have Control Over Their Learning
Students should get the opportunity to be involved in the design of courses, curricula and their evaluation. The best way to ensure that learning focuses more on students is by engaging students themselves in shaping their learning.
PRINCIPLE VIII: SCL Is About Enabling Not Telling
By simply imparting (telling) facts and knowledge to students, the initiative, preparation and content comes mainly from the teacher. The SCL approach aims to give students greater responsibility by enabling them to think, process, analyze, synthesize, criticize, apply and solve problems.
PRINCIPLE IX: Learning Needs Cooperation between Students and Staff
It is important that students and staff co-operate to develop a shared understanding of both the challenges experienced in learning, as well as their own challenges as stakeholders within their given institution, jointly proposing solutions that might work for both groups. Such a partnership is central to the SCL philosophy, which sees learning as taking place in a constructive interaction between the two groups.
The need to implement the SCL approach is very much in connection with the changes our world is undergoing. The rapid developments of technologies and infrastructures transform the philosophy of education, which should not merely prepare us for our future life, but should be a meaningful driver in our present life. SCL is that very model that empowers us to shape the world starting on from one’s learning path.
About the European Students’ Union
The European Students’ Union (ESU) is the umbrella organization of 45 National Unions of Students (NUS) from 38 countries. NUSes are open to all students in their respective country regardless of political persuasion, religion, ethnic or cultural origin, sexual orientation or social standing. Our members are also student-run, autonomous, representative and operate according to democratic principles. The aim of ESU is to represent and promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level towards all relevant bodies and in particular the European Union, Bologna Follow Up Group, Council of Europe and UNESCO. Through its members, ESU represents around 15 million students in Europe. ESU receives an administrative grant and runs projects funded by the European Commission.
Gohar Hovhannisyan – Executive Committee member, European Student´s Union.
1 European Students’ Union. Overview on Student-Centred Learning in Higher Education in Europe. Mar. 2015, www.esu-online.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Overview-on-Student-Centred-Learning-in-Higher-Education-in-Europe.pdf
Photos: AFP Karen Minasyan