Learner-Centered Techniques

Online learning provides a vast array of options for customizing learning to the needs of individual learners. Sometimes termed student-centered learning, learner-centered techniques focus on student interests, learning preferences or styles, and needs. This differs from traditional instructor-centered teaching styles, which are typically dominated by the instructor’s preferred teaching methods and content.

Online courses, webinars, collaborative spaces, social learning, and blended learning offer myriad opportunities to customize instruction. In the traditional classroom or training room, customization can range from difficult to impossible with large classes, but technology offers easy ways to determine what learners need to know and to provide that content in ways that work best for them.

Regardless of format, interactivity is essential to learner-centered education. The goal is active learning, in which learners assume greater responsibility for their own learning. Retention of material increases when learners take responsibility for their own success.

Adaptive learning is a learner-centered technique increasingly used in online learning as well as in the physical classroom. An opening survey or diagnostic test assesses each learner’s preexisting knowledge and/or aptitude, after which content is adapted to the learner’s needs. In online courses, programming directs learners to adjust the screens relevant to them, allowing advanced learners to skip over introductory material. In periodic knowledge checks, successful answers take a learner to the next concept, while unsuccessful answers trigger additional explanations or examples.

In webinars, the polling or survey function can be used to assess group preparedness, interests, and backgrounds so that instruction can be calibrated to meet group or individual needs. Survey tools provided in all major webinar programs offer an immediate breakdown of responses so an instructor or facilitator can tailor content to group needs and interests. For example, a lecture on the Vietnam War might begin with a multiple-choice question asking learners to self-assess their knowledge of the war or choose which content areas interest them most. If learners rate themselves as having at least moderate knowledge, the instructor can skip over basic material. If protests and women’s issues are areas of high interest, focus can be given to those.

In synchronous discussions, where all learners participate at the same time, an instructor might use the chat function to elicit opinions or questions. Drawing tools can be enabled to allow learners to highlight or circle information relevant to them. Where more than one instructor conducts the webinar, learners might be divided into multiple chatrooms so that groups can simultaneously work on projects most relevant or most interesting to them.

Personalization is another valuable learner-centered technique. Learners enter their names on the opening screen of an online course or learning game, enabling personalization of online text and feedback. A student might see “Great job, John!” after a knowledge check, or “Try this one, Angela” in a learning game.

In threaded discussions and chats, having each learner upload a photo or icon to represent them personalizes the discussion, increases engagement, and fosters collaboration. This is particularly important in classes that are entirely online, where students may not be able to associate people with posts.

Effective learner-centered techniques recognize varying preferences for social interaction. Some learners require social interaction to process information. Others prefer quiet, independent work. Learners who rarely participate are often comfortable doing so in online formats, such as discussion boards. Those uncomfortable sharing creative projects face-to-face may be comfortable posting them on social media sites, such as Pinterest, Flickr, or Facebook, or a corporate site. These allow learners to share projects, media, and documents.

Wherever possible and practical, learner-centered techniques encourage learners to apply their unique strengths and interests to assignments. Instructors review proposals for assignments to ensure that each will meet the core objectives. Research papers, videotaped presentations, workplace projects, and even dramatic performances might achieve the same goals.

Not all learners process information at the same speed, and some need extra time to be confident before participating. Asynchronous online education, where learners participate at different times rather than at a scheduled class hour, naturally accommodates these learners. Threaded discussions can be set up to allow multiple days for participation. For synchronous online education, such as webinars or collaboration sessions, an instructor might provide a minute to write down thoughts before opening the floor to discussion. This learner-centered technique can dramatically expand participation.

Assessments can be more demanding where multiple paths or assignments are offered. Determining how well an assignment meets instructional objective(s) or workplace needs is key. A sculpture of landforms might receive an A in geography if the variations are correctly presented, but a D in art, if the techniques are flawed. A history teacher might grade a fictionalized courtroom scene based on historical accuracy and period-specific courtroom procedures; an English teacher might focus on character development and writing skills.

Peer assessments are another effective learner-centered technique. While the instructor is the final authority on grading, peer reviews can guide learners in revising and brainstorming. The review process is itself a learning experience that helps learners understand specified criteria and best practices. In many cases, peer review helps the reviewer more than it helps the learner receiving the comments.

Learner-centered techniques are particularly effective in workplace learning. Whereas younger learners may not know how a course will help them later in life, adult learners are more likely to seek practical connections. They respond best to content they consider relevant to workplace or personal needs.

Learner-centered techniques require more work for learners as well as instructors and instructional designers, but the advantages well outweigh the costs. Motivation and learner engagement increase, as do retention and skill levels.

See alsoAdaptive Learning; Asynchronous Online Learning; Webinars

Terry Mackey

Further Readings

Blumberg, P. (2008). Developing learner-centered teachers: A practical guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Henson, K. T. (2003). Foundations for learner-centered education: A knowledge base. Education, 124(1), 516.
Knowles, M., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (
6th ed
.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.
O’Neill, G., & McMahon, T. (2005). Student-centered learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers? In G. O’Neill, S. Moore, & B. McMullen (Eds.), AISHE readings: Emerging issues in the practice of university learning and teaching (pp. 27–36). Dublin, Ireland: AISHE. Retrieved from http://www.aishe.org/readings/2005-1/oneill-mcmahon-Tues_19th_Oct_SCL.html
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