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How Student Centered Is Your Classroom?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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A photo of an elementary-school boy in front of a green chalkboard, smiling.

In the education world, the term student-centered classroom is one we hear a lot. And many educators would agree that when it comes to 21st-century learning, having a student-centered classroom is certainly a best practice.

Whether you instruct first grade or university students, take some time to think about where you are with creating a learning space where your students have ample voice, engage frequently with each other, and are given opportunities to make choices.

Guiding Questions

Use these questions to reflect on the learning environment you design for students:

  • In what ways do students feel respected, feel valued, and feel part of the whole group?
  • In what ways do students have ownership of the classroom? Do they ever make decisions about resources, environment, or use of time? When? How often?
  • Do they have ownership in their learning? Do they have choices and options for projects, assignments, and partners for group work?
  • When are students comfortable with expressing who they are and their thoughts and ideas? When are they not?
  • When do you inquire about the needs of your students? How often do you do this? How often do you check for group understanding and adjust the instruction accordingly?
  • How are desks arranged? Are students facing each other? Do they have multiple opportunities each week to share with fellow classmates, and to share with a variety of classmates?
  • As the instructor, what is my "air time" each class session? How much direct instruction is there? How might I change some of that directing teaching to facilitating? (Here's a post I wrote on this topic, How to Transform Direct Instruction.)

Balancing Teacher Roles

So let's talk about that last question, and specifically, direct instruction versus facilitation. When considering various teaching approaches, balance is the key word. If we turn to the work of educational researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and their seminal book, Understanding by Design (UbD), they suggest educators reflect on the ways they balance the following three teaching roles:

  • Facilitation: open-ended questioning, problem posing, Socratic seminar, and guided inquiry
  • Direct instruction: demonstration, modeling, and lecturing
  • Coaching: providing feedback, conferencing, and guided practice

How do you decide on how much of one role and not enough of another? Well, when designing learning for your students, keep this is mind: There needs to be a healthy balance between student construction of meaning and teacher guidance.

In other words, yes, you need to tell them stuff and show them how to do things, but you also need to let your learners discover, experiment, and practice even if they miss the mark or target. Educational research tell us time and time again that all learners (young or old) need time to muddle through and make meaning of new content, ideas, and concepts with some coaching and guidance, but also independently.

In the comments section below, share with us your ideas and practices for fostering a learning environment that is student centered.

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Kerrice Henry's picture

Creating activities base on your learners is an interesting way of getting students actively engaged in lesson. When materials are preplanned for topics it aids the improvement of building child centered classrooms. Especially when activities tenured to students style's of learning.

arie95's picture

Ms. Alber,
I am currently a college student going to school to become an elementary school teacher, and have heard from several teachers the importance of student-centered classrooms. I have even completed classroom observations where teachers do not practice student-centered teaching and believe students learn better during direct instruction. I would have to say that a student-centered classroom needs a teacher to be a facilitator and coach at the same time. I believe in student desks being in groups rather than just facing the front of the room or teacher desk. Groups help students learn from their peers as well as allow them to problem solve on their own. I believe teachers should assist students every step of the way and allow them to make decisions as well. Especially since I am focusing on elementary school I feel that students needs should be the most important thing, and allowing them to have input on the activities they conduct can help students feel in charge. As mentioned above some students enjoy and learn better when they have a chance to feel in charge. I love this article and will keep it in mind when I finally obtain my degree.

Thank you!

Lori C.'s picture

I really enjoyed reading the above article. Providing a learning environment that is student-centered is essential to the student's academic achievement. When I was in middle school and high school, the instruction was mainly lectures that were so boring. I barely remembered anything that was taught to me. That is why student-centered learning environments are important. This type of learning encourages students to become independent learners which leads to them taking ownership of their education. Students will be more motivated to learn when they are actively involved in the learning at hand.
When I first started teaching five years ago, my students did not have much input in the classroom. I was the teacher, and they did as I said. I now provide a much different learning environment. I want my students to feel that the classroom is "ours" not "mine." I do this by giving them the options to make choices in the classroom. Sometimes I will override their request, but as long as they are not asking something that will cause a distraction, I usually allow them to freedom to make their choices. I arrange my students in groups of four to form partnerships with each other. This type of sitting is beneficial for cooperative learning. Also, when it is appropriate, I will often times allow my students to choose the book we will read, activity to complete or video we will watch. I usually do this by allowing the students to vote. Majority wins.
I love my students feeling as if they have a say in their classroom. I want them to feel comfortable, and I like to encourage them to let me know what they are thinking and how they feel about something. I like allowing them to make choices so they will feel more involved in their education. Ever since my classroom has become a more student-centered learning environment, my students have increased in academic success as well as grown and matured in more ways than when the learning environment was geared more towards a teacher centered classroom.

nyche's picture

I think that student-centered classrooms are vital to helping students achieve and experience belonging, positive self-esteem, and self-actualization, the upper levels of Maslow's Hierarchy. I agree with all of the comments about sitting students in groups to collaborate on activities. As a student myself, I am learning a lot about how self-guided discovery and group communication is essential to building meaningful learning experiences. I am wondering how best to implement this in the classroom, however. What classroom expectations are put in place to allow for this kind of engagement? How do teachers best support students in individual or partner work? What kinds of interventions are in place when students struggle with their motivation to collaborate with peers? Has anyone found that certain types of technology are best for student-centered learning? Thanks so much for all of your input! I'm looking forward to learning more about how to utilize these approaches to become an effective teacher.


Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

nyche, you may want to look at the practices at The College Preparatory School in Oakland, as they focus a lot on collaborative learning. You can find Edutopia's case study here:

Also, there's an entire topic page on Collaborative Learning. You're bound to find some interesting tidbits there as well:

naymuniz's picture

I did in fact enjoy the article above. I am a student in college with a degree in business and interdisciplinary studies. I may potentially get a teaching certification to teach in an elementary class. I have in fact learned a lot so far on how to be a good teacher and how to become a bad teacher as well. With this article to read not only made you think of how to take on a classroom, but how can we make the environment suited for the students. Having classrooms that are student centered is very important. We begin to focus on different individuals, and how we can work with them. We focus on providing a better environment, so that we can have positive attitudes.

CHONA's picture

In your article you brought up a lot of good questions that I never considered asking myself as an educator, what I thought was appropriate and engaging for my students. You questioned how students should be arranged in class and I find it that having them in a circle around me creates a safe environment where they feel comfortable enough to ask questions, share stories, and work together as a team. By doing so, my students gain a little more self esteem around their peers and in their work.

Yankee002's picture


In your article, the guiding questions that you provided were exactly what I needed to see. I love questions like that, because they give your thought process a direction and a purpose. Now I know what to think about when designing lessons and setting up my classroom for my students. The guiding questions are a perfect example of a characteristic of the student-centered classroom. I think of it as a blueprint for the students thoughts, as the facilitator of their learning it is sometimes a good idea to nudge them in a certain direction with a prompt. Good stuff. I'm currently working on certification through a graduate program, but I did teach for a year on a probationary certificate. I wish I had more opportunity to advance my pedagogoy before I stepped into the classroom, but live and learn. I love teacher forums like this, the influx of great ideas and suggestions is ideal for a young teacher.

DazzledBeauty's picture

When I hear the words student-centered classrooms, the first thing that comes to mind is student independence. Like you stated in your article student-centered classrooms are the best practice for all of our students. Although, we want our students to facilitate their own learning, we have to make sure that as teachers we do not let go too much and that we are still there to demonstrate and provide feedback when needed. When you have a student-centered classroom, this allows students to collaborate with their peers and analyze their learning along with being able to critically think, rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. This is very important when it comes to the student's academic achievement. I love the guided questions that you provided to ask teachers how student-centered their classrooms really are. It allows for teachers to go through these questions and ask themselves if their classroom can even be considered student-centered.

Ratatouille's picture

Your article was very eye opening. I am in college pursuing a teaching degree and appreciate finding articles that not only explain concepts that we hear about all the time in school but also break them down very easily. The questions that a teacher must ask themselves are so very important because having a student-centered class does not only mean that the instruction is open collaboration between teacher and student, it also means that a teacher must provide good strong stepping stones to help their students through the lessons. These questions are good for educators to recognize if they are doing that for their students. Thank you!

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