Master of Education

Complete Guide to Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Learning

Joseph Lathan, PhD

Joseph Lathan, PhD

Academic Director, Master of Education

Who’s in charge here? When it comes to utilizing a student-centered vs. teacher-centered educational approach, the answer is the same: the teacher. However, a student-centered vs. teacher-centered classroom may look and feel very different to the outside observer.

Educators know the difference and many are adept at integrating aspects of both approaches into their teaching. However, as with anything, it is often helpful to have a quick refresher.

In teacher-centered learning — the more traditional or conventional approach — the teacher functions in the familiar role of classroom lecturer, presenting information to the students, who are expected to passively receive the knowledge being presented.

In student-centered learning, the teacher is still the classroom authority figure but functions as more of a coach or facilitator as students embrace a more active and collaborative role in their own learning.

Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Education [Pros & Cons]

Benefits of a Teacher-Centered Classroom

  • Order in the class! Students are quiet as the teacher exercises full control of the classroom and activities.
  • Being fully in control minimizes an instructor’s concern that students may be missing key material.
  • When a teacher takes full responsibility for educating a group of students, the class benefits from a focused approach to research, planning and preparation.
  • Teachers feel comfortable, confident and in charge of the classroom activities.
  • Students always know where to focus their attention — on the teacher.

Drawbacks of a Teacher-Centered Classroom

  • This method works best when the instructor can make the lesson interesting; absent this, students may get bored, their minds may wander and they may miss key information.
  • Students work alone, missing potential opportunities to share the process of discovery with their peers.
  • Collaboration, an essential and valuable skill in school and in life, is discouraged.
  • Students may have less opportunity to develop their communication and crucial-thinking skills.

Benefits of a Student-Centered Classroom

  • Education becomes a more shared experience between the instructor and the students, and between the students themselves.
  • Students build both collaboration and communication skills.
  • Students tend to be more interested in learning when they can interact with one another and participate actively in their own education.
  • Members of the class learn to work independently and to interact with others as part of the learning process.

Drawbacks of a Student-Centered Classroom

  • With students free to interact, the classroom space can feel noisy or chaotic.
  • Classroom management can become more of an issue for the teacher, possibly cutting into instructional activities.
  • With less focus on lectures, there can be a concern that some students may miss important information.
  • Though collaboration is considered beneficial, this approach may not feel ideal for students who prefer to work alone.
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‘Sage on the Stage’ vs. ‘Guide on the Side’

Sometimes called the “Sage on the Stage” style, the teacher-centered model positions the teacher as the expert in charge of imparting knowledge to his or her students via lectures or direct instruction. In this setting, students are sometimes described as “empty vessels,” listening to and absorbing information.

Though the teacher-centered method is historically considered the more traditional approach, the education field has evolved to recognize the significant benefits of empowering students to be more active participants in their own learning. However, there continue to be countless examples of students being challenged and transformed by a teacher lecturing about a subject they have spent their entire life exploring.

Sometimes called the “Guide on the Side” style, the student-centered model builds in more equanimity between the teacher and student, with each playing a role in the learning process. The teacher still exercises authority, but is more likely to act as a facilitator, coaching students and assisting them in their learning.

This approach, which has grown in popularity over the past several decades, champions student choice and facilitates connections among students, embracing the philosophy that, for a student to truly learn, they must be actively involved in the process.

‘I Stood in Front of the Classroom and Told People Things’

Writing about her transition from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction for an article in Medium.com, educator Martha Kennedy recalls, “I began teaching as most young teachers do, unconsciously modeling my teaching style on that of the teachers I’d had. I stood in front of the classroom and told people things.”

But in the mid-80s, she said, a “new idea” called student-centered education began to gain traction. As a writing teacher, she was aware of “the essential difference between teaching a skill and teaching content,” believing that while “you can tell people content; people must practice skills.”

To learn a skill, like writing for example, “students must be directly involved,” she says. “No teacher can stand there and tell the students how to do something and expect the students to leave the classroom able to do it.” However, because the teacher must willingly relinquish some control of the process and count on students to produce, Kennedy says, “Student-centered teaching feels risky.”

She recalls occasionally having to convince supervisors that her methods were sound, with one dean describing what appeared to be “total chaos” after sitting in on a four-hour class where students were haggling over ideas, some listening to music, taking breaks at times of their choosing and basically owning their approach to the assignment. She was able to convince the dean that listening to music helped some kids focus and that letting them take a breather when needed was preferable to potentially disrupting their train of thought with a scheduled group break.

“Over the years I came to understand that the main virtue of the student-centered classroom is that it removes mastery from the sole province of the teacher and allows students to be masters, too,” she said. “It means I needed to — sometimes — leave them alone so they could learn. I understood that teachers can actually impede students’ learning.”

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Student-Centered Learning in the Online (M.Ed.) Classroom

Many teachers strive to implement a blend of teacher-centered and student-centered styles – sometimes within the same classroom – based on their own instincts, research and experience.

The student-centered approach to education also has relevance for teachers who choose to develop a deeper understanding of the art and science of education by pursuing a master’s degree.

For example, in contrast to the more teacher-centered approach that is common to on-campus programs, online master’s degree programs tend to place more emphasis on interacting with one’s fellow degree candidates across the country through the learning portals that are an essential component of the online academic experience.

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