Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers

O’Neill, G. and McMahon, T. (2005) Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers. In: Emerging issues in the practice of university learning and teaching I. Dublin: AISHE.


he term student-centred learning (SCL) is widely used in the teaching and learning literature. Many terms have been linked with student-centred learning, such as flexible learning (Taylor 2000), experiential learning (Burnard 1999), self-directed learning and therefore the slightly overused term ‘student-centred learning’ can mean different things to different people. In addition, in practice it is also described by a range of terms and this has led to confusion surrounding its implementation.The concept of student-centred learning has been credited as early as 1905 to Hayward and in 1956 to Dewey’s work (O’Sullivan 2003). Carl Rogers, the father of client-centred counseling, is associated with expanding this approach into a general theory of education (Burnard 1999; Rogoff 1999). The term student-centred learning was also associated with the work of Piaget and more recently with Malcolm Knowles (Burnard 1999). Rogers (1983a:25), in his book ‘Freedom to Learn for the 80s’, describes the shift in power from the expert teacher to the student learner, driven by a need for a change in the traditional environment where in this ‘so-called educational atmosphere, students become passive, apathetic and bored’. In the School system, the concept of child-centred education has been derived, in particular, from the work of Froebel and the idea that the teacher should not ‘interfere with this process of maturation, but act as a guide’ (Simon 1999). Simon highlighted that this was linked with the process of development or ‘readiness’, i.e. the child will learn when he/she is ready (1999).The paradigm shift away from teaching to an emphasis on learning has encouraged power to be moved from the teacher to the student (Barr and Tagg 1995). The teacher-focused/transmission of information formats, such as lecturing, have begun to be increasingly criticised and this has paved the way for a widespread growth of ‘student-centred learning’ as an alternative approach. However, despite widespread use of the term, Lea et al. (2003) maintain that one of the issues with student-centred learning is the fact that ‘many institutions or educators claim to be putting student-centred learning into practice, but in reality they are not’ (2003:322).

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