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Learner-Centered Experiences

A goal for all educators is to identify and implement ways to maximize EACH student’s opportunities to learn. 

American College Personnel Association (2013) characterizes a college educated person as having:

  1. complex cognitive skills such as reflection and critical thinking
  2. an ability to apply knowledge to practical problems encountered in one’s vocation, family, or other areas of life
  3. an understanding and appreciation of human differences
  4. practical competence skills (e.g., decision making, conflict resolution)
  5. a coherent integrated sense of identity, self-esteem, confidence, integrity, aesthetic sensibilities, and civic responsibility

Learner-Centered ultimately means individualized learning. This takes planning and time. Instructors should work towards incorporating more individualized learning experiences into their courses. Learner-centered experiences empowers all students to learn as much as they can during a course experience. This means students in the same course and at any point in time, will be working at different rates and engaging in different learning experiences. Course designs that best facilitate the learner-centered experience are:

Learner-Centered Image

What is Learning

Learning is a relatively permanent change in the capacity for behavior.

  • An ever-evolving process
  • Requires attention
  • A change in the way a person can potentially function:
      • Engages; Feels; Interacts; etc.
      • Frames/contextualizes; Thinks; Relates/connects; etc. 
      • Creates; Behaves; Expresses; etc.
  • Relatively permanent
  • Contextual
      • Shapes the learner’s perspective
      • Directs the learner’s attention
      • Adds meaning and purpose
      • Context is critical, especially in how it reflects actual/real world applications
  • Nonlinear
      • Can progress and regress as the individual engages with the topic/idea/concept/problem
      • E.g. Piaget's Constructivism
  • An instance of biological adaptation (Piaget)
  • Experience. Everything else is just information (Einstein)
      • The result of practice and/or experience
          • Plenty of pertinent and purposeful practice
  • Higher orders of cognitive functioning (different)
      • Think, create, analyze, and engage, in different ways
      • An irreversible change (threshold concepts)
  • Challenging
      • Causes certain degrees of confusion, difficulty, and frustration
  • Multi-faceted
      • Can emerge in multiple ways
      • Multiple components, skills, qualities
      • Contextual (not always transferable to new situations)
  • Individual and social
      • Creative
  • Active
  • A degree of or progress towards mastery

How We Learn

  • It is individualized as all learners bring to the learning experience, different:
      • knowledge, skills, and capabilities
      • motivations and interests
      • ways to engage in learning in any given context
  • Quality of engagement is critical (see Student Engagement Strategies)
  • Seven Principles of Learning: (Ambrose, et al., 2010)
      1. Students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
      2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
          • Context is critical and impacts a learner’s ability to apply & transfer knowledge and skills
      3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
      4. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
      5. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
      6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
      7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Learner-Centered Experiences

  • Instructors acknowledge that each learner is distinct and unique and join a course with a different set of biases, perspectives, skills, knowledge and capabilities
  • Are individualized/personalized
      • Move the locus of control to the students
      • Learning experiences are adapted to best meet the needs of the learners
      • Developmentally appropriate (uses a series of progressions from more simple to more complex)
      • Participatory pedagogy (Simmons, Barnard & Fennema, 2011)
  • Are meaningful and relevant to the individual students
      • Contextualized
      • Authentic
  • Utilize multiple methods of instruction 
  • Offer student choice of how to
      • Engage
      • Express and share what has been learned
  • Are typically experiential in nature
  • Are more process, inquiry and/or concept-oriented in approach (rather than content)
  • Use technologies and other resources to differentiate learning opportunities
  • Assessment is multi-formatted and is both formative and summative
  • Emphasize metacognition and learning reflection
  • Tend to involve individual, small group and other modes of collaboration to facilitate learning experiences

Universal Design for Learning and Instruction, is the ultimate learner-centered approach and philosophy for designing and implementing learning experiences.

  • Offering multiple means for engagement; multiple ways to represent the course material, skills and capabilities; multiple ways for the students to express what they have learned from these experiences; utilizing assessment approaches that can appropriately assess what the students have learned
  • Providing many opportunities for student choice
  • Using technologies to adapt to the varying learners
  • Providing developmentally appropriate authentic (real-life) experiences
  • Supporting the varying needs of all students

More on Learner-Centered Experiences


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., and Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Simmons, N., Barnard, M. & Fennema, W. (2011). Participatory pedagogy: A compass for transformative learning?Collected Essays on Teaching and Learning 4, 1-7

TEAL. (2010). Student-centered learning. The Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy Center, US Department of Education

May 26, 2022