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Students at the Center of Their Own Learning



Principles of Student-Centered Learning  

"The learner-centered model reflects the necessity of a focus on both learners and learning," (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 9). Several features characterize student-centered learning. Students have opportunities and increased responsibility to identify their own learning needs, locate learning resources, and construct their own knowledge based on those needs (rather than having a standard or identical knowledge base imparted to all students).  McCombs and Whisler (1997) developed 12 major principles of student-centered learning that relate to the following areas:

  1. The nature of the learning process

  2. Goals of the learning process  

  3. The construction of knowledge  

  4. Higher-order thinking  

  5. Motivational influences on learning  

  6. Intrinsic motivation to learn  

  7. Characteristics of motivation-enhancing learning tasks  

  8. Developmental constraints and opportunities  

  9. Social and cultural diversity  

  10. Social acceptance, self-esteem, and learning  

  11. Individual differences in learning  

  12. Cognitive filters

1. The nature of the learning process: McCombs and Whisler (1997) defined the learning process as a natural one of pursuing personally meaningful goals.  This process is active, volitional, and internally mediated.  It is a process of discovering and constructing meaning from information and experience, filtered through each learner’s unique perceptions, thoughts, and feelings (p. 5).  Learning becomes an active process, in which the student is constantly engaged in a task.   Being so involved, the student seeks his/her own underlying meaning. One of the goals of active learning is to have the classroom activities focused on "reasoning and the evaluation of evidence, thus allowing the students the opportunity to develop the ability to formulate and solve problems" (National Center for Research on Teacher Learning,  1993, p. 2).

The INTIME Model addresses the characteristics of the learning process, especially in the sections of Active Involvement and Direct Experience. Active Involvement speaks about students' engagement in their learning tasks.  Active learning is "anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 4). Direct Experience from the INTIME Model also relates to learner-centered learning because learning is more effective when the students experience it directly.

 2. Goals of the learning process: McCombs and Whisler (1997) stated that “the learner seeks to create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge regardless of the quantity and quality of data available” (p. 5).

To accommodate the goals of the learning process, the INTIME Model stresses the concept of making meaning. This element of the INTIME Model is one of the most persistently honored goals of teaching (Blythe & Associates, 1998,  p. 10). "By focusing on in-depth understanding, the quality of learning is greatly enhanced. Teachers are more likely to see what students do know and understand" (Oldfather & West, 1999, p. 17) .

Helping students acquire understanding is difficult work. We commonly find that our students understand much less than we had hoped for.  That is why teachers employ different strategies to develop students' understanding. They strive to come up with clear explanations and open-ended tasks that call for and build understanding.  (Blythe & Associates, 1998, p. 10)

According to Stiggins (1997), "The most valuable lesson we have learned in recent years from those studying cognitive processes is that rote memorization does not ensure understanding, and thus is not a powerful way to promote learning" (p. 257).

The INTIME Model seeks to promote the "development of mature thinkers who are able to acquire, work together and use knowledge which means educating minds rather than training memories" (Adams & Hamm, 1996, p. 27). "Social constructivist teachers help their students understand that they are co-constructors of knowledge, that they can make sense of things themselves" (Oldfather & Dahl, as cited in Oldfather & West, 1999,p. 17).

 3. The construction of knowledge: This concept means that the learner links new information with existing and future-oriented knowledge in unique and meaningful ways (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 5). It also means that students need opportunities to do more than just receive information.  They need to confront new challenges using their past experience without the dominance of a teacher/giver of information (National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, 1999).  Although knowledge acquisition processes are needed to form the base, that knowledge is useful to the degree it can be applied or used to create new knowledge (Marzano, 1988, p. 33).

The INTIME Model refers to the construction of knowledge in the Information Processing section, which is divided into Interpretation, Pre-search, Search, and Evaluation.  The model stresses Information Processing approaches because these approaches

regard the human mind as a symbol processing system. This symbol converts sensory input into symbol structures (propositions, images, or schemes), and then processes (rehearses or elaborates) those symbol structures so knowledge can be held in memory and retrieved. The outside world is seen as a source of input, but once the sensations are perceived and enter working memory, the important work is assumed to be happening “inside the head” of the individual.  (Shunck, as cited in Woolfolk, 2001, p. 330)

Under Information Processing, Interpretation ties into construction of knowledge because “it is important for students to perform their understanding” (Blythe & Associates, 1998, p.10). “Interpretation requires the learner to identify the major ideas in a communication and understand how various parts of the message are interrelated” (Schurr, 1994, p. 48).

Patterns and Connections, a sub-element of the INTIME Principles of Learning section, is also related to the construction of knowledge.  Patterns and Connections mean that students are asked

 to examine the information they are studying, find relationships and build understanding based on them. These relationships can be as simple as seeing a pattern in rules for forming plural nouns to as complex as understanding how the Muslim domination of the Indian Ocean contributed to Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. (Slavin, 1997, p. 5)

4. Higher order thinking: This represents the higher order strategies for "overseeing and monitoring mental operations, facilitating creative and critical thinking and the development of expertise" (McCombs & Whistler, 1997, p. 5). The National Center for Research on Teacher Learning (1993) has focused its research on the "classroom discourse that promotes the active engagement with ideas that can lead students to make knowledge their own" (p. 2). Educational reformers wish to teach students how to ask questions, build their own interpretation and ideas, clarify and elaborate upon the ideas of others. "Such skills empower students to acquire a level of understanding that provides them with the flexibility to respond to new situations and serves as the foundation for a lifetime of further learning" (NCRTL, 1993, p. 2).

Higher-order thinking for the student at the center of his/her own learning encompasses several aspects of the INTIME Model (noted in italics below).  Empowerment is one major element of the model that focuses on how to empower students when they confront difficult situations.  It looks at how to help them develop the thinking skills to make conjectures about what the problem is and how best to approach it.

If students are to be independent learners at the center of their own learning, according to Berliner and Benard (1995), they need to develop a sense of their individual identity, to acquire the skills to act independently, and to have some control over their environment.

Power Sharing is a very important feature of today’s education because "sharing various interpretations of a material adds an extra dimension in the learning process as students not only learn how others perceive a certain issue, but also appreciate the various reasoning processes and life experiences that support different interpretations" (Adams & Hamm, 1996, p. 56).

This active engagement in learning also addresses the idea of Decision-Making, another component of the INTIME Model.  "Students need to determine whether or not an argument is reasonable and a conclusion well-founded," (NCRTL, 1993, p. 4). They need to possess the “ability to critically, creatively and reflectively make decisions" (Berliner & Benard, 1995, p. 30). 

Through Critical Thinking “learning involves not merely the acquisition of information, but also the development of critical skills for evaluating facts and the interpretation of facts" (Adams & Hamm, 1996, p. 56).

Thinking Together in problem-solving groups means that one student works on the problem while the others ask questions about what is being done.  They help each other develop a plan for the symbolic support of their thinking. The ability to recognize the implicit argument in the explanations of their partners helps all students in the group compare the similarities and differences among the various points of view (Adams & Hamm, 1996).

5. Motivational influences on learning: These influences reflect the importance of learner beliefs, values, interests, goals, expectations for success, and emotional states of mind in producing either positive or negative motivations to learn.

The depth and breadth of the information processed and what and how much is learned and remembered are influenced by (a) self-awareness and beliefs about personal control, competence and ability; (b) clarity and saliency of personal values, interests, and goals; (c) personal expectations for success or failure; (d) affect, emotion, and general states of mind; and (e) the resulting motivation to learn. (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 5)

Research also shows that when students make connections between their own identity and the school, these connections foster lifelong learning and development of important skills (McCombs, 1991; McCombs & Marzano, 1990).

Many components of the INTIME Model reflect these ideas concerning motivational influences on learning.  According to Woolfolk (2001), the motivation to learn has four dimensions: behavioral, humanistic, cognitive, and sociocultural.  Behavioral motivation is expressed through reinforcers, rewards, incentives, and punishers.  The INTIME Model illustrates the behavioral motivation in the sections on Classroom Management and Student Characteristics.  From a humanistic point of view, the motivation to learn is characterized by a need for self-esteem, self-fulfillment, and self-determination.  These are best illustrated in the INTIME sections on Student Characteristics and Principles of Learning. 

The cognitive motivation to learn is represented by learners’ beliefs, attributions for success and failure, and expectations.  In the INTIME Model, this dimension of motivation is primarily seen in Student Characteristics and Critical Thinking.  However, the cognitive aspect is present in most other areas of the model as well.

The sociocultural motivation to learn is realized through engaged participation in learning communities and by maintaining identity through participation in activities of a group.  The sociocultural motivation is best illustrated in the INTIME sections of Civil Involvement with Others and Student Characteristics.  Students learn to work together and to get along with others.  Part of this ability comes from an awareness and tolerance of cultural differences.

6. The intrinsic motivation to learn: The continuing impulse to learn  is characterized by "intense involvement, curiosity and a search for understanding as learners experience learning as a deeply personal and continuing agenda” (Oldfather, 1992, p. 8).  Intrinsic motivation to learn refers to the fact that “individuals are naturally curious and enjoy learning, but intense negative cognitions and emotions (e.g., feeling insecure, worrying about failure, being self-consciousness or shy, and fearing corporal punishment, ridicule, or stigmatizing labels) thwart this enthusiasm” (Oldfather, 1992, p. 8).

Creating classrooms that foster the continuing impulse to learn begins with seeing learning through children’s eyes. “A social constructivist teacher knows that what children understand now determines what they can learn next. An awareness of students’ understanding provides the information teachers need to scaffold or provide temporary support for their students’ learning and motivation” (Wood, Brunner, & Ross, as cited in Oldfather & West, 1999, p. 16).   To promote students’ readiness to learn, “social constructivist teachers are likely to focus their efforts on helping their students find their passions, discover what they care about, create their own learning agendas, and most importantly, connect what they are to what they do in schools” (Oldfather & West, 1999, p. 16).

7. Characteristics of motivation-enhancing learning tasks: These include curiosity, creativity, and higher order thinking, which are stimulated by relevant, authentic learning tasks of optimal difficulty and novelty for each student. “Curiosity is a skill that enables the learner to follow a hunch, question alternatives, ponder outcomes, and wonder about options in a given situation” (Schurr, 1994, p. 64). 

“Today’s and tomorrow’s complex problems require creative solutions. . . . Teachers are in an excellent position to encourage or discourage creativity through their acceptance or rejection of the unusual and imaginative” (Woolfolk, 2001, p. 121).  “Individuals who ultimately make creative breakthroughs tend from their earliest days to be explorers, innovators, and thinkers” (Gardner, as cited in Woolfolk, 2001, p. 121). 

The INTIME Model develops creativity in the Information Processing section on Search,  plus sections on Student Characteristics and Problem Solving.  “Encouraging creativity in a classroom means to accept and encourage divergent thinking, to tolerate dissent, to encourage students to trust their own judgment” (Woolfolk, 2001, p. 120).

8. Developmental constraints and opportunities: This refers to how individuals progress through stages of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development that are a function of unique genetic and environmental factors.  These factors make each individual different because “students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways” (Gardner, 1991, p. 7). The INTIME Model discusses the different learning styles in the section on Student Characteristics, focusing on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences and on Dunn’s Learning Style Model.

9. Social and cultural diversity: Learning is facilitated by social interactions and communication with others in flexible, diverse (in age, culture, family background, etc.), and adaptive instructional settings.  To stress the idea of social and cultural diversity, the INTIME Model promotes the ideas of Civil Involvement with Others, Communication, and Tolerance to emphasize the importance of developing students’ interpersonal skills and interactions.

Communication involves the relationships between students or between the teacher and the students. Cooperative learning is a teaching strategy that enables most students to communicate with each other while learning, and even to peer tutor one another.  Communication involves the cooperation of those who work in a democratic society.  “Schooling is one context for learning how to live in a democratic society. We stated that a democracy requires citizens who are dedicated to the worth and dignity of the individual, who recognize the need to balance individual rights against societal rights" (Ross, Bondy, & Kyle, 1993, p. 157). Tolerance is the element of the INTIME Model that shows that children “need to be friendly, cooperative, approving, affectionate, and willing to share" (Asher, Reshner, & Hymel, as cited in Ross et al., 1993, p. 148).  “Children in a democratic society need to develop compassion, cooperation, and the ability to accept responsibility for their actions" (Asher, Reshner, & Hymel as cited in Ross et al., 1993, p. 14). 

When talking about Civil Involvement with Others, the INTIME Model stresses an  “important strategy, which is to help the children create a collective identity, a sense of themselves as a group rather than a collection of individuals" (Ross et al., 1993, p. 157).  “The purpose is to foster social bonding; that is, to help children perceive their connections to one another"  (Ross et al., 1993, p. 157).

10. Social acceptance, self-esteem, and learning: Learning and self-esteem are heightened when individuals are in respectful and caring relationships with others who see their potential, genuinely appreciate their unique talents, and accept them as individuals. Social acceptance fosters interactive instruction because “in a social setting, skilled thinkers model critical and creative thinking, thereby exposing novices to what is normally invisible” (Ross et al., 1993, p. 202).  Thus, the “teachers have multiple opportunities to move students toward critical and creative thought” (Ross et al., p. 202). Learners have the opportunity to inspect, question, and experiment with cognitive activity to which they do not normally have access.

The INTIME Model relates to this principle of students at the center of their own learning through the idea of  Feedback.  “In an interactive setting learners receive feedback on their ideas, conclusions, judgments, and so on. Feedback can help refine their ability to think critically and creatively” (Ross et al., p. 202).

11. Individual differences in learning: Learners have different capabilities and preferences for learning modes and strategies. These differences are a function of environment (what is learned and communicated in different cultures or social groups) and heredity (what occurs naturally as a function of genes). “Individuals vary enormously across many different dimensions” (Moffett & Wagner, 1992, p. 20).

The Student Characteristics section of the INTIME Model deals with students’ multiple intelligences and Dunn’s Learning Style Model, which shows that students are different from one another, and thus, they reason and learn in different ways.

12. Cognitive filters: These consist of personal beliefs, thoughts, and understandings that result from prior learning and interpretations.  They become the individual's basis for constructing reality and interpreting life experiences. To construct their reality, "learners must spend the larger part of their time with activities that ask them to do thought-provoking tasks such as explaining, making generalizations, and, ultimately, applying their understanding on their own. And they must do these things in a thoughtful way, with appropriate feedback to help them do better" (Blythe & Associates, 1998, p. 10).

In numerous ways, the INTIME Model ties into this last major principle that defines student-centered learning.  The Student Characteristics section, as previously mentioned, discusses the ways students acquire personal beliefs and thoughts from either environment or heredity.  The INTIME Principles of Learning also relate to cognitive filters.  Under the Learning Principles, students seek direct experience and relate it to new ideas; they make connections to their prior knowledge and life experiences; they get frequent feedback from teachers and peers about the knowledge they’re working to understand; and they spend time reflecting in a thoughtful way about the learning taking place.  The Teacher Behaviors of the INTIME Model also come into play as the teacher makes use of different types of teaching strategies and tools to appeal to the many student learning styles and beliefs from prior learning and interpretations.

Student-Centered Teaching                    

According to Moffett and Wagner (1992), in a student-centered classroom learners must have three things for learning–individualization, interaction, and integration.

Thus a student-centered curriculum teaches each learner to select and sequence his own activities and materials (individualization); arranges for students to center on and teach each other (interaction); and interweaves all symbolized and symbolizing subjects so that the student can effectively synthesize knowledge structures in his own mind (integration). (Moffett & Wagner, 1992, p. 21)  

To achieve these things requires “pedagogical content knowledge,” which is the “understanding of how students think about the subject matter to be understood, including the ways they tend to misunderstand and forget it” (Wiske, 1998, p. 50).

The INTIME project discusses In-Depth Content Knowledge showing that expert teachers have elaborate systems of knowledge for understanding problems in teaching.  “It is clear that a teacher’s knowledge of the subject is critical for teaching” (Barko & Putnam, as cited in Woolfolk, 2001, p. 7).  “Part of the knowledge is pedagogical content knowledge, or knowing how to teach a subject to your particular students” (Shulman, as cited in Woolfolk, 2001, p. 7).

Woolfolk  (2001) offers at least three reasons why Classroom Management is important in a student-centered classroom.   Its  goals are to allocate more time for learning, to give more access to learning, and to help students develop their self-management. The INTIME Model of student-centered learning focuses on the idea of self-control because “through self-control, students demonstrate responsibility–the ability to fulfill their own needs without interfering with the rights and needs of others” (Glaser, as cited in Woolfolk, 2001, p. 439).  “Students learn self-control by making choices and dealing with the consequences, setting goals and priorities, managing time, collaborating to learn, mediating disputes and making peace, and developing trusting relations with trustworthy teachers and classmates” (Rogers & Frieberg, as cited in Woolfolk, p. 439).

Woolfolk (2001) further points out:

Encouraging self-management requires extra time, but teaching students how to take responsibility is an investment well worth the effort. When elementary and secondary teachers have very effective class management systems but neglect to set student self-management as a goal, their students often find that they have trouble working independently after they graduate from these well-managed classes. (p. 439)

Oldfather and Dahl (as cited in Oldfather & West, 1999) also discussed how teachers and their classroom management affect student-centered learning.

Social constructivist teachers help their students understand that they are co-constructors of knowledge, that they can make sense of things themselves, and that they have the power to seek knowledge and to attempt to understand the world. (p. 17)

“Teachers who respect multiple constructions in this way are ‘sharing the ownership of knowing' " (Oldfather & Dahl, 1999, p. 16).

Decy and Ryan (as cited in Oldfather & West, 1999) stated with student-centered learning students are more likely to become engaged in learning.  And Convington (as cited in Oldfather & West, 1999) noted with effective classroom management

students develop a sense of their active roles as producers – not only consumers of knowledge. They perceive themselves as competent knowers and learners. When students feel that they can succeed or that challenging enterprises will make them better at something, they feel a sense of self-worth. (p. 20)

Interpretative Assessment

Student-centered learning utilizes "authentic" assessments (rather than standardized assessments) that can evaluate each student's individual learning.  Such assessment is more formative than summative (e.g., it's an ongoing activity that drives instruction rather than a culminating event). Common methods of SCL include portfolio construction and assessment, collaborative learning and team projects, and learning contracts.

Students at the Center of Their own Learning and Technology

"As our world becomes more technologically advanced, schools need to understand and anticipate the changes produced by technology and its impact on how students learn." (Alonso, 1999, p.1).  


"From elementary schools to college campuses, computers have been incorporated into the educational programs, enabling students to have more freedom, flexibility, and individuality in the classroom. In addition, computers provide an opportunity for independent exploration, for personalized training, and for the opportunity to learn cooperatively."  (Alonso, 1999, p. 1).


"Selling the students on the idea of using the Internet has been a snap, as the crowds in the library at lunch can attest. But as teachers are finding uses for the new connection in the classroom, they're discovering that students are just as interested in using the Internet in class" (Parsons as cited in Doepner, Scott, & Mason, 1997, p. 2). The natural affinity between students and the Internet has resulted in more student-centered/student-initiated/student-directed projects (Doepner et al., 1997, p. 3).


One project developed at the University of Cincinnati, called "Learning Imperative," explores the relationship between the new technologies of learning and student development theory. This project promotes the belief of Arthur Chickering (Doepner et al., 1997), one of the original authors of student development theory, that "if new technologies are implemented to help students acquire more responsibility for their learning, greater self-confidence, and independence, then they are very consistent with accepted practices in student affairs" (p. 2). 


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