Learner-centered instruction

Using learner-centered practices in Learning Experience Design is needed for creating learning-centered educational cultures.

Nina’s Notes is dedicated to helping faculty and teachers to use learner-centered practices in their instruction.  I learned to teach with learner-centerd approach as a part of  my Learning Sciences and teacher education in University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and have been promoting it ever since in all levels of education.  Today, learner-centerdness is more important than ever before!

Learning and being taught are two very different experiences. In learner-centered education students are seen as subjects of their own learning instead of being the objects of instruction, thus emphasizing the voice and choice of students – which makes learner-centered approach the IDEAL one for deeper, permanent learning to happen.

IDEAL mini

Learner-centered ideology is not a new invention, it has been around for a long time.   Already in 1945 McKeachie wrote about education that empowers students to learn more, stating that a “further dimension upon which student-centered and instructor-centered classes differ is in the degree to which the student feels he can influence his own fate” (p. 145). Respecting learners’ autonomy is a good point to start learner-centered instruction.

Intrinsic interest in learning is the beginning.  We must support sudents’ engagment in their own learning processes because intrinsic motivation to learn (learning because we are interested in doing it) is much stronger predictor for future educational success than extrinsic motivation, which is associated with surface and strategic learning approaches. Learning engagement is generally more enjoyable experience than just being taught something. (There is a LOT of research published also why professional learning is so much better than professional development, but let’s not get too deep into that! Suffices to say that teacher agency is crucially important for learner agency. Here is a good link: REL Pacific)

Dispositions of teachers and faculty is the next building block because dispositions determine how we instruct and support students (Thornton, 2006,p. 63).  Believing that everyone can learn is one of the fundamental dispositions in contemporary education. This belief doesn’t always seem to fit perfectly with standardized testing, or labeling schools (and sometimes even students) as “failing”, based on a quantitative snapshot evaluation that tells very little if anything about the learning process (the learning quality). Learner-centered dispositions also focus on SEL: social-emotional learning. It is important for us to know and understand how to support our students as whole human beings. I tweet about SEL with my own images like the one below.


Learning environment is the next part. Acknowledging the individual and sociocultural factors in education is foundational for learner-centered learning environments. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is situated in the culture and environment, and based on the interactions between the student, instructor and materials, contextualized either in traditional or online learning environments. Decidecly build a learning environment that supports metacognition – the awareness and perceptions we have about our own learning. Explicitly teaching metacognitive knowledge and skills is an important part of supporting deep learning. We educators should have extensive knowledge and skill to embed metacognitive learning strategies into our learning experience design. Engaging in Professional Learning with colleagues to practice Self-Regulated Learning is a great idea!

Agency is the capacity for self-transformation, situated in the social structure (classroom, online learning environment).  Distinguishing engagement in learning experiences from the educational experience of being taught is essential for understanding learner agency. Individual judgment, self-determination, and problem solving skills are in high demand – and these can be fostered with learner agency by providing choices for students to support interest, agency and deep learning. Self-determination (Nemiec & Ryan, 2009) is a basic human need, so while designing learning experiences, please remember to include design elements that help students want to engage:

    • Autonomy – have choices and be an agent of one’s own life and learning
    • Competence – reach goals and move towards meaningful growth
    • Relatedness – connect and interact with others

We can empower students to learn by emphasizing ACRs. Alas, it is harder for students to learn to use their self- determination in compliance-driven learning environments.

Compliance demands also harm students’ Lifelong Learning interests. Bringing the individual learning experience to the forefront of discussions will help to make the shift in teaching and learning. An important question to ask is: how does this learning experience relate to students’ lives outside of the education system?  If students can’t find a clear connection between their lives and what they are learning at school, something is terribly wrong, and we are not helping them to become life-long learners, or preparing them for life in future societies.

It is important to note that a learner-centered approach is neither a curriculum nor an instructional design model.  It is a framework compatible with all kinds of curricula. American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted and gathered extensive research about educational psychology and learner-centered practices (APA, 1990, 1997), and created principles to guide educational decision making, both for faculty and the stakeholders. These principles are not a modern fad, but “consistent with more than a century of research on teaching and learning” ( APA, 1997, p. 2).

The collection of 14 psychological principles was created with research data gathered from over 20,000 students and teachers (McCombs, 2001).  We should use the data that has been gathered in classrooms and let it guide both education policies and instructional design. I have blogged about this in Notes From Nina, where the 14 principles are discussed more thoroughly.  In 2015, APA  updated their guidelines using  research about latest educational psychology and supporting deep learning in classrooms. This was published as the Top 20 principles for PreK-12.  It is a good read for anyone who aspires to teach, whether instucting in classroom or university settings, or training employees in business, because deep learning in all levels of education happens in similar ways. Here is a concise table I made of the 20 principles. Everyone who works in higher education should read the APA guide to College Teaching. It has excellent insight into how students learn and how we can support that learning.

Using learner-centered practices is needed for creating learning-centered educational cultures. Understanding that learning is an internal (cognitive) process leads to very different instructional choices than viewing learning as a defined product or (behavioral) outcome as proof that knowledge transfer and acquisition have occurred.

American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http:// http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf

American Psychological Association, Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/ed/governance/bea/learner-centered.pdf

Illeris, K. (2003). Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International journal of lifelong education22(4), 396-406.

McCombs, B. L. (2001). What do we know about learners and learning? The learner-centered framework: Bringing the educational system into balance. Educational Horizons, 182-193.

McKeachie, W. J. (1954). Student-centered versus instructor-centered instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology45(3), 143.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. School Field7(2), 133-144.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

Thornton, H. (2006). Dispositions in action: Do dispositions make a difference in practice?. Teacher Education Quarterly33(2), 53-68.

3C Framework for Deep Learning

This framework is built on understanding how learning and instruction are two separate processes.  Learning doesn’t always require instruction. Instruction doesn’t always lead to learning. In IDEAL situations these two processes balance each other.

The holistic view of learning considers learning to be a part of our everyday lives in a society, instead of being a function that only happens in the classroom.  The holistic view of teaching extends instruction beyond providing information and measuring retention, considering didactics, pedagogy/andragogy, and subject matter expertise being professionally combined to create an environment conducive for deep learning.

Learner agency is a central theme in the framework, and refers to the choices and degree of freedom students have about their learning. It is also the opportunity to perceive oneself as an actor and to “influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” (Bandura, 2008, p. 16). Agency is an integral part of our identity and social life.

Interest is the foundation of learning. We all have tried to learn something that doesn’t interest us. It is hard, very hard. Instructing without interest is even harder. Most common way to increase interest is to support meaningfulness of learning and instruction, often by creating connections to real life experiences. Intrinsic interest in learning can be supported by providing choices (for content, assignments, assessments, etc.) Every child born to this world likes learning, which is also a survival skill, and thus a necessity. Somewhere along the way we lose that enjoyment of learning, and start to do things because others ask or mandate us to do so.

Dispositions for learning and teaching are always present in instruction. It would be unwise to deny their existence, because the classroom practices, beliefs of learning, and the tone of interactions are all based on our dispositions. Do we as instructors have a perception of teachability – the idea of a model student? Or, do we as students have a perception of the ideal teaching method? Dispositions can become a group of invisible elephants in the room, because beliefs about learning have an effect in how classroom experiences are perceived. (Here is a PDF about teaching dispositions.)

Engagement goes well beyond reading the textbook. Today students have access to more information – and misinformation – than ever before. This abundance of choices presents new requirements for instruction and measurements of learning:

  1. Instructors’ role has changed from being the source of information to the facilitator of learning – we must teach advanced learning strategies.
  2. Learning is ongoing and formal education is just a small part of this journey – deep learning cannot be done just for a grade but for life.
  3. Finding ways to support students’ individual learning process is the key to keep them engaged and support transfer.
  4. Anyone who wants to teach must learn how to ask non-googlable questions.

Engagement in one’s own learning process is different from participation in classroom activities.  The difference lies between autonomous and controlled activity, as seen in the Deci and Ryan (1985, 2008) metatheory of self-determination.  Intentional engagement reflects student’s intrinsic motivation and goal orientation for determined involvement in one’s own learning (Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006; Appleton et al., 2008; Boekaerts, 2011; Upadyaya & Salmela-Aro, 2013).

Agency emphasizes students’ active role in their own learning process, providing a view into students’ perceptions of learning. This is why agency is so important for the 3C framework: People with agency are generally viewed as contributors to their life circumstances, not just products of their environment, and they make choices about their own life and learning (Bandura, 2006; Giddens, 1984). Development of learner agency depends on the experiences students have in the classroom and in the educational system in general.

Lifelong learning cannot be surface learning. Deep and deeper learning both refer to acquiring transferable knowledge through classroom experiences.  The instructional emphasis is in supporting students’ lifelong learning process.  The term “deep learning” resulted from the original phenomenographic research of Marton and Säljö (1976) where researchers found that university students had different approaches to learning.  These approaches describe how learners perceive tasks – either as disconnected pieces of information to be memorized in order to pass the exam (surface learning), or as knowledge to be constructed and understood in order to create new meanings (deep learning).  Deeper learning has been defined by American Institutes for Research as “a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job” (Huberman, Bitter, Anthony, & O’Day, 2014).

The theory for 3C framework is based on the works of Piaget (1952) and Kolb (1984), where the learning process is understood to be an internal procedure, enhanced by external events. The relational nature of learning process belongs to humanist socio-constructivist view where information is shared but knowledge is constructed. Most importantly, the experience of individual learning is vastly different from the experience of being taught. Most importantly, the experience of individual learning is vastly different from the experience of being taught.


IDEAL learning experiences




Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.  Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development: A research annual. Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues, Vol. 6, (pp. 1-60). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 164-180.

Boekaerts, M. (2011). What have we learned about the social context-student engagement link?. Teachers College Record113(2), 375-393.

Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Boekaerts, M., & Cascallar, E. (2006). How far have we moved toward the integration of theory and practice in self-regulation?. Educational Psychology Review18(3), 199-210.

Boss, S., Johanson, C., Arnold, S. D., Parker, W. C., Nguyen, D., Mosborg, S., … & Bransford, J. (2011). The quest for deeper learning and engagement in advanced high school courses. The Foundation Review3(3), 3.

Deakin Crick, R. E. (2012). Deep Engagement as a complex system: identity, learning power and authentic enquiry. In C., S. Reschly, & C. A. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Student Engagement. (pp. 675-694). New York, NY: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_32

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macro-theory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185. Doi: 10.1037/a0012801

Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: http://www.air.org/resource/spotlight-deeper-learning

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Linnansaari, J., Viljaranta, J., Lavonen, J., Schneider, B., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). Finnish Students’ Engagement in Science Lessons. Nordic Studies in Science Education11(2), 192-206.

Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology46(1), 4-11.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origin of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International Universities Press.

Skinner, E. A., Pitzer, J. R., & Steele, J. S. (2016). Can student engagement serve as a motivational resource for academic coping, persistence, and learning during late elementary and early middle school?. Developmental Psychology52(12), 2099.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000232

Upadyaya, K., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2013). Development of school engagement in association with academic success and well-being in varying social contexts. European Psychologist, 18 (3), 136–147.  doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000143

Wolters, C. A., & Taylor, D. J. (2012). A self-regulated learning perspective on student engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L., Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 635-651) Springer US. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_30