The Benefits of Learner-Centered Teaching

Jaclyn E. Welles
Cell & Molecular Physiology PhD Candidate
Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine

In the US, Students at Still Facing Struggles in the STEMs

Literacy in the World Today:
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are approximately 250 million individuals worldwide, who cannot read, write, or do basic math, despite having been in school for a number of years (5, 8). In fact, UNESCO, is calling this unfortunate situation a “Global Learning Crisis” (7). The fact that a significant number of people are lacking in these fundamental life skills regardless of attending school, shows that part of the problem lies within how students are being taught.

Two Main Styles of Teaching – Learner or Teacher-Centered

Learning and Teaching Styles:
It was due to an early exposure to various education systems that I was able to learn of that there were two main styles of teaching – Learner-centered teaching, and Teacher-centered teaching (2). Even more fascinating, with the different styles of teaching, it has become very clear that there are also various types of learners in any given classroom or lecture setting (2, 6, 10). Surprisingly however, despite the fact that many learners had their own learning “modularity” or learning-style, instructors oftentimes taught their students in a fixed-manner, unwilling or unable to adapt or implement changes to their curriculum. In fact, learner-centered teaching models such as the “VARK/VAK – Visual Learners, Auditory Learners and Kinesthetic Learners”, model by Fleming and Mills created in 1992 (6), was primarily established due to the emerging evidence that learners were versatile in nature.

VARK Model of Learners Consists of Four Main Types of Learners: Visual, Auditory, Reading and Writing, and Tactile/Kinesthetic (touch)

What We Can Do to Improve Learning:
The fundamental truth is that when a student is unable to get what they need to learn efficiently, factors such as “learning curves” – which may actually be skewing the evidence that students are struggling to learn the content, need to be implemented (1, 3). Instead of masking student learning difficulties with curves and extra-credit, we can take a few simple steps during lesson-planning, or prior to teaching new content, to gauge what methods will result in the best natural overall retention and comprehension by students (4, 9). Some of methods with evidence include (2, 9):

  • Concept Maps – Students Breakdown the Structure or Organization of a Concept
  • Concept Inventories – Short Answer Questions Specific to a Concept
  • Self-Assessments – Short Answer/Multiple Choice Questions
  • Inquiry-Based Projects – Students Investigate Concept in a Hands-On Project

All in all, by combining both previously established teaching methodologies with some of these newer, simple methods of gauging your students’ baseline knowledge and making the necessary adjustments to teaching methods to fit the needs of a given student population or class, you may find that a significant portion of the difficulties that can occur with students and learning such as – poor comprehension, retention, and engagement, can be eliminated (4, 9) .

Jaclyn Welles is a PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the Pennsylvania State University – College of Medicine. She has received many awards and accolades on her work so far promoting outreach in science and education, including the 2019 Student Educator Award from PSCoM.

Her thesis work in the lab of Scot Kimball, focuses on liver physiology and nutrition; mainly how nutrients in our diet, can play a role in influencing mRNA translation in the liver. 

One thought on “The Benefits of Learner-Centered Teaching”

I support the general thrust of this post, as well as most of the specific recommendations. However, my understanding is that the “learning styles” framework has been pretty well debunked over the last decade. Daniel Willingham has an excellent “Learning Styles FAQ” web page on this, and Robert Bjork emphasized his skepticism about learning styles in his APS ITL keynote last summer.

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