Dr Preman Chandran is an Assistant Professor and Deputy Director for the Global MBA and Masters in Global Business programs at SP Jain School of Global Management (Singapore Campus). Prior to this, he was an Assistant Professor at the University of Lancaster, United Kingdom. His teaching experience in Higher Education is comprehensive and international in scope, having taught management studies at all levels of study and in classrooms of considerable diversity whilst assuming leadership roles for modules and programs. As an educator, he is committed to the pedagogy of student-centred learning, reflective learning, and critical inquiry, and embeds this in all his teaching. Dr Preman holds a PhD in Leadership and Management and a Master of Arts in Management and Consulting from the University of Lancaster, United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Science (First Class Honours) in Business and Management from the University of Bradford, United Kingdom. He also holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice from the University of Lancaster and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, United Kingdom.
Higher Education institutions worldwide have increasingly been compelled to deliver novel learning solutions for students in response to contemporary challenges. Meanwhile, students today are rightfully more demanding than ever, and begin their studies seeking ‘value for money’ amidst expectations of how their learning needs ought to be addressed. In this context, educators need to consider pedagogies that will effectively meet student needs whilst offering creative and engaging solutions for curriculum design and delivery. Student-centred learning (SCL) is a pedagogical approach which offers much promise for meeting educators’ and students’ needs as such.
SCL is by no means new. It is premised upon the epistemological and/or theoretical discussions of several educational theorists, including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Maria Montessori. Albeit subject to some definitional problems, SCL essentially invokes a change in the delivery or organisation of teaching and the role of the educator in the classroom. Particularly, traditional teacher-centred forms of teaching (eg. lectures) are more didactic and may regard the learner as a (passive) receptor of knowledge. In contrast, SCL views learners as active agents involved in co-constructing their learning experiences. The educator facilitates this through the provision of learning resources, which learners use to make sense of the subject. SCL offers considerable value in several ways, some of which are discussed below.
Lively Classrooms, and Rich Discussions
The traditional lecture format typically requires minimal input from learners and allows limited opportunities for interaction. In contrast, SCL calls for more interaction – between the educator and learners, and between learners. In this context, for instance, the educator may initially provide some practical and/or theoretical context for the subject, before posing discussion questions, problem-solving activities, and other intellectual challenges for learners to explore individually and in groups. Learners are thus called to explore their understanding and experiences about the subject at hand and construct their own meanings about it. Subsequently, learners may be asked to share or present their insights – the educator may gently probe these or prompt other participants to raise questions, thereby stimulating wider dialogue and/or debate about the subject.
In the foregoing sense, SCL is an approach that can lead to lively classrooms and thought-provoking or rich discussions. Particularly, it is a means for drawing upon the rich stock of knowledge and experiences that all learners already possess and using this to facilitate learning. For instance, in business education settings including MBA and Executive Education classes, SCL can be extremely valuable as learners typically have considerable work experiences that can support the framing and development of learning encounters in the classroom for themselves and their peers.
Deep Learning, Not Surface Learning
Additionally, SCL can be regarded as an approach that promotes ‘deep learning’, rather than ‘surface learning’. Broadly, these terms refer to the degree of cognitive engagement learners experience during learning activities. Surface learning may be associated with the kinds of rote learning and memory work everyone has experienced at formative levels of education. Whilst this form of learning certainly has its place in instances, including in higher education, it may result in superficial learning encounters where the learner does not construct their own meanings about the subject.
In contrast, the kind of deep learning that is associated with SCL promotes conceptual understanding. It encourages learners to connect seemingly disparate strands of information, assimilate this with existing knowledge structures and develop their own interpretations about the subject matter. By emphasizing this depth of engagement, SCL has the potential for more positive student outcomes. Indeed, some research has suggested that through deep learning, students are more engaged in classes through activities emphasizing discussion and critique, demonstrate better retention of knowledge, and perform better in assessments.
Assessments – Developmental and Evaluative
Another valuable aspect of SCL is that is provides opportunities to assess learners in more holistic ways. For instance, reflective writing is a valuable assessment method that can be implemented to good effect in a SCL environment. Students may be encouraged to draw on a suitable experiential learning model (e.g., models by David Kolb, or Graham Gibbs) and mull over their experiences in writing to construct new understandings about subject matter. Aside from developing students’ ability to think reflectively, this sort of assessment can develop skills such as writing, critical thinking, and others – skills that are also essential from an employability perspective. Additionally, self and peer-assessment methods may be utilized, with students given adequate guidance to build their confidence and abilities in using these, and other more innovative forms of assessment may be considered to advocate for student choice in curriculum design.
Further, and to complement summative assessments, formative assessments may be utilised at regular intervals during a course. These assessments enable students to demonstrate their learning during a course and can take on a variety of innovative forms. Although formative assessments do not need to be graded, educators must provide prompt and constructive feedback for students to reflect on and develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities further. In the foregoing senses, SCL offers potential for complementing and going beyond the traditional exam format, to assess learners in ways that may be more meaningful for them.
A Culture of Learning
Last, but not least, SCL can facilitate the development of a culture of learning at different levels. For instance, this may occur within individuals themselves, as SCL can encourage learners to be independent and take responsibility for their own learning. As such, SCL may encourage a learner to be intellectually curious or inquisitive, open to inquiring about the world around them on an ongoing basis, and reflexive in the kinds of interpretations they choose to attribute to events they experience. Within collectives of learners, the implementation of SCL principles can encourage learners to collaborate more extensively in learning encounters – for instance, in the context of breaking down problems, evaluating these from different perspectives, and developing and identifying a range of solutions. This can be especially pertinent given the kinds of ‘wicked problems’ we increasingly face in many spheres of contemporary life, and for inviting students to critically interrogate and mull over solutions to these.
In summary, this article has outlined the premises of Student-centred Learning (SCL), focusing on some aspects of the value this pedagogical approach has to offer. There is considerable research in the area, and as such a rich knowledge basis exists to extract principles and strategies for classroom application. These resources may also benefit educators who, whilst grappling with online or blended delivery models, are seeking ways to further engage learners, who themselves may be fighting ‘screen fatigue’ or bemoan the lack of social interaction in virtual classrooms.
One caveat to lodge here is that SCL may potentially be more applicable in some subjects rather than others – for example, those in the areas of the humanities and social sciences, rather than STEM subjects. Nonetheless, it certainly should be regarded as an approach that will complement, rather than displace, more traditional and didactic forms of teaching. The traditional lecture and similar forms will always have their place in higher education but balancing these against other engaging modes of curriculum delivery will contribute towards further enhancing student experience in classrooms.