Learner Centered Teaching

From UBC Wiki

What is it?

Being learner entered in your teaching, basically represents a shift in thinking away from "what will I teach" to "how will students learn?"

Maryellen Weimer, professor and author of Learner Centered Teaching - 5 Key Changes to Practice suggests that being learner-centered means: Being learner-centered focuses attention squarely on learning: what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning.[1]

Weimer suggests that learner centeredness requires 5 additional considerations at the heart of teaching:

1.    Balance of power: The social justice role in education means students need more opportunities to challenge myths and power structures and not just be socialized into the dominant ideals of the institution. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire was influential in her thinking. Shared power means negotiating power in the classroom and being clear about intentions.

2.    Function of content: Content is the means to knowledge and understanding, not the end. Constructivism suggests that students can be provided the tools and guided in the process of discovering meaning for themselves.

3.    Role of Instructor: The instructor’s role shifts toward guide and curator rather than the arbiter of all knowledge.

4.    Responsibility for learning: As students take more responsibility for their learning and outcomes - they often need specific instruction and support for becoming self-directed in their learning - this falls to the instructor.

5.    Assessment: The role and function of assessment is to support learning. The who, how and why of assessment needs to be aligned with course goals and learning needs.

The core of a good learning environment

From a learner's perspective, there are some basic requirements for an effective learning environment that go beyond academic considerations and get to the core of the learning experience: belonging, relevance/authentic work, honouring diversity of experience. These appear (under slightly different terms) in a recent project to explore the link between student wellness and teaching practices at UBC.

Caulfield's core values in open education.

These requirements happen to be core values underpinning open pedagogical practices. In a recent blog post about New Directions in Open Education, educator and technologist Mike Caulfield[2] identified the "human core of open" as serving these three important needs. I suspect any great learning environment attends to these.


Having a sense of belonging is important to well being. When students are uncertain about whether they belong, they are vigilant for cues in the environment that signal whether or not they belong, fit in, or are welcome there. They may also be concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about their group. This hypervigilance and extra stress uses up cognitive resources that are essential for learning, diminishing their performance and discouraging them from building valuable relationships.[3]

  • Students' sense of belonging shapes their responses to adversity.[3]
  • Recent well-being study at UBC finds that belonging and community are key aspects of student well being and there are many ways to address belonging in the learning environment - learn names, having students work in study groups, etc.
  • Feeling of “not belonging” can be even more of a barrier for socially stigmatized “minority” students. Article in Science in 2011 that reported that when a program related to social belonging was introduced to college freshman - it made a huge impact on the GPAs of African American students - over 3 years - effectively cutting the acheivment gap by half - in addition to improving overall health and well being of that group. [4]

Implications for teaching:

  • Modify and customize course readings and materials to reflect students' contexts.
  • Collect (anonymously) and share fears/hopes of students with regard to their learning - students need to see they are not alone.
  • Reflect/share sense of place and direction: where did you come from (foundation)? Where are you going (goals)?
  • Create/make space for learning circles or study groups that work together during the term.


Relevance is the perception that something is interesting or worth knowing[5]. Students are motivated when they are supported to see connections between what they are learning and their lives or experiences. They want to be able to answer the questions "what am I going to use this for?" and "what does this have to do with me?". Opportunities to do coursework that means something is particularly motivating. Often this means something that students produce for an authentic audience - beyond the instructor. An example of how instructors have integrated authentic learning experiences at UBC include Wikipedia projects. More relevant than a term paper to many students, Wikipedia projects make an authentic contribution to an accessible, publicly available body of knowledge on a topic such as the examples below.

Implications for teaching:

  • Create space for students to create real things for authentic audiences (open publishing, use of open data, building, contributing, remixing).
  • Offer opportunities to work on real problems/challenges in the world.
  • Link course goals to big ideas, challenges and broader context.
  • Provide opportunities for students to generate their own links between course concepts and their everyday lives.

Diversity of Experience

Students come to us with varied experiences, strengths, skills, perspectives and biases. It's through working together that students learn to navigate different beliefs, approaches and world views. As it applies to research, when we consider scientific research as group problem-solving, instead of the unveiling of individual brilliance, diversity becomes key to excellence.[6]

Implications for teaching:

  • Acknowledge that the diversity of student strengths and knowledge requires an "ecosystem of many explanations, not just the “textbook” explanation" (Caulfield).
  • Involve students in setting group guidelines for respectful dialogue.
  • Be thoughtful in your approach to setting groups. See: How Can I Compose Groups?: Eberly Teaching Centre: Carnegie-Mellon University.
  • Consider how belonging, relevance and diversity of experience work together to impact student success.
  • Consider how you might create a classroom climate to foster learning and mutual respect. See Classroom Climate Series - CTLT


  1. Weimar, M. (2013) Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. https://hapgood.us/2016/10/10/new-directions-in-open-education/
  3. 3.0 3.1 Romero, Carissa (July 2015). "What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research" (PDF). The Mindset Scholars Network. Retrieved October 17, 2018.
  4. Walton, Gregory M. ; Cohen, Geoffrey L. (March 2011). "A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students". Science Magazine. Retrieved Oct 17, 2018.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. Roberson, Robin (September 2013). "Helping Students Find Relevance". Retrieved October 17, 2018.
  6. Gibbs, Kenneth (September 10, 2014). "Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters". Scientific American.