Learner-Centered Teaching

Start Small
Here are a few quick-to-learn and easy-to-implement ideas that will help you move your class toward a more learner-centered classroom, without having to perform a major overhaul of your course. Try a few of these activities in your next class meeting. Even small changes and brief opportunities for activity can make a big difference in student engagement. We’ve divided these into three categories:

  • Setting Expectations: Activities that help students prepare for class.
  • Student Engagement: Activities that help students build understanding, retain information, and get the most out of class-sessions.
  • Assessment: Activities that help students self-monitor their learning, develop the skills stated in the learning goals, and connect course material to the world at large.

(Some of these are adapted from the following sources: National Teaching and Learning Forum http://www.ntlf.com, Teaching at It’s Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, The Authentic Assessment Toolbox http://jonathan.mueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox.)

Setting Expectations: Class time is most productive for all students when everyone begins with the same level of preparation. These exercises will help you shift review of the textbook outside the class, so you can use class time for student activity.

  • External Brain: Susan Verschure asks students to find and process the information they will need before each class session. This activity helps students develop information literacy and eliminates the need to rehearse the textbook during class. See a more complete explanation of the external brain and samples of student work here.
  • Reading Response/Journal: Ask students to bring a Reading Response to class. This piece of informal writing helps students process the readings before they enter the classroom; the process of writing about the text forces them to develop opinions and questions. It’s best to structure these assignments by providing specific prompts and questions that direct students to consider the reading in context. Instead of asking students to “respond to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish,” you might ask students to “describe the similarities and the differences between Foucault’s image of the Panopticon and the article we read last week about the increasing number of surveillance cameras in public spaces.”  For more ideas about how to develop valuable reading response questions, take a look at the critical thinking tasks outlined in Bloom’s taxonomy.
  • Blackboard Reading Quiz: Blackboard allows you to build quizzes (short answer, essay, multiple choice) that can be taken online before the class session. Students can be allowed multiple attempts and, if you are using multiple-choice, you can require that they get all the answers correct for full credit before the class session begins. Even if you only give credit for participation, the exercise requires students to review (or read for the first time) the textbook and other class readings. As an instructor, you can also view the most frequently missed questions to know what ideas need further explanation.

Student Engagement:
These short in-class activities help students stay alert and focused. They also help the instructor know if students comprehend the reading and how they are progressing in terms of skill development. Any of the activities that require writing can be used to help evaluate participation and attendance; ask students to turn in their notes from these exercises in place of a roll call. They are also great activities to open and close the class session. At the start of class, they help students to settle and focus on the purpose of the day. At the end of class, these activities help students retain information by asking them to reflect on new concepts before they rush out the door.

  • Think Pair Share: The instructor poses a question, students think (or write) about an answer, then they share in a small group of one or two other students, and finally share with the whole group. This method works because it allows students to contemplate their answer and practice articulating in a small, low-stakes group before sharing with the larger group.
  • What’s The Application? After discussing an important theory, principle, or procedure, ask students to write down at least one real-world application for what they have just learned to determine how well they can transfer their learning into practice.
  • Big Picture Check In: Before class begins, tell students the general topics for that day then ask them to write a few sentences about how they imagine these topics will fit into the larger context of the course: How does this topic relate to what you have discussed previously? How might this topic help us answer important questions?  What have we already learned about this topic? What questions do you have about this topic? At the end of class, have students answer the same questions, then turn the answers in to you.
  • Build Your Own: Review your plan for each day of class. Take note of the concepts or skills presented that day that have been challenging for students in past terms. Is there a question or activity that would help students practice applying these concepts/skills to real life situations? Is there a problem that requires students use these skills to solve it? Allow students a few minutes to pause during class and use new information on their own, or in groups.


  • Group Mini Quiz: Create a short multiple-choice quiz that requires students to use recently acquired skills. After students complete the quiz individually, and before you reveal the answers, have them re-take the quiz working in small groups. Students discuss the discrepancies between their results and come to consensus about a group answer. Often these are more accurate than the individual answers.  This activity can be done for credit, with clickers, or as a no-stakes self-assessment for students.
  • Authentic Assessment: Make your assessment reflect the real challenges of your profession. Authentic assessment uses real-world tasks to evaluate student learning and development. A student in an economics class might select the best home loan for their circumstances, or devise an economic stimulus package. Physiology students might diagnose an ailment and develop a treatment plan. Art History students might design a gallery show that represents a particular period. These tasks require students to apply concepts and use information to solve real problems.
  • Integrate Assessment: If assessment represents the tasks that students ought to be able to complete at the end of the term, why not use these tasks throughout the term to teach the required skills. For example, if students will be asked to write essays at the end of the term, it benefits everyone to practice essay writing throughout the term. It also helps to spend class-time reviewing excellent examples of assessment tasks and talking about how the examples meet the criteria defined in the rubric.