January 12, 2022

5 Tips for Designing a Student-Centered Learning Environment

Cristen Magaletti
Cristen Magaletti headshot

In many middle and high schools, professional development opportunities focus on project-based learning and initiatives that ask students to engage in higher-order thinking skills to deepen learning outcomes. Also known as student-centered learning and inquiry, this type of instruction offers students the opportunity to have agency over their learning. It may also encourage intrinsic motivation, spark their curiosity, and encourage life-long learning. 

What does it look like?

In an effort to increase differentiation, educators may offer students a subject to explore with a menu of options for how to demonstrate their knowledge. Further, by framing assessments with open-ended, essential questions, students have the chance to answer prompts in a way that challenges them at a developmentally appropriate level, in a modality that is most meaningful to them. 

But how do teachers ensure these exercises are effective? 

Student-centered learning doesn’t begin and end with the students — when teachers provide guidance by clearly communicating expectations and learning objectives, students can engage in flexible learning while achieving the desired outcome. Here are five helpful tips for enhancing the impact of student-centered learning:

1. Amplify learning objectives through guided inquiry. 

In an effort to promote project-based learning, some educators assign projects and let students fly, believing that it is best for educators to get out of the way of student learning. While this mindset may enliven student inquiry initially, in some cases, this may run the risk of enabling somewhat shallow demonstrations of learning. However, when inquiry is guided by explicit skill scaffolding and clear expectations, learning objectives are amplified. 

For example, a teacher may assign a project and offer students the choice of filming a video, presentation, writing an essay, or creating an alternative demonstration of learning. Students need the opportunity to explore examples to understand what high-quality videos or other artifacts look and sound like, and they need to learn the specific skills required in order to replicate or improve upon these models. 

2. Plan backwards to show you where you need to go.

Backwards planning involves starting from the desired outcome and navigating backwards from there — moving from point B to point A. Not only does this method help teachers frame their curriculum design and instruction, but it can also encourage student engagement and critical thinking skills throughout each unit as students become engaged in the designing of their own learning. 

By keeping the end of a unit in mind, teachers can map out essential content, as well as how they might weave in ways to teach explicit skills that are needed to deepen learning outcomes. Educators can include students in both their long and short-term vision for their class by framing lessons with open-ended essential questions or by posting a daily learning objective to highlight expectations for students through each lesson.  

3. Offer a variety of assessment opportunities.

Rather than assessing students on standards that are hard to determine, such as effort or creativity, students are better served when teachers define what a creative artifact looks or sounds like or a minimum standard for what each piece should contain. The Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a great framework to assess whether assessments are inclusive to all learners

Some students with learning differences may struggle with executive functioning and time management or they might not appear to have focus, and using the qualities as grading criteria based on observation alone can be somewhat subjective. Instead, educators can redefine criteria to be more explicit about what they are looking for within an assignment. For example, are students collaborating in a way that both contributes to the group and encourages others to participate effectively? Are students creating outlines and timelines prior to submitting final work? 

As teachable moments arise in a classroom and the pacing of class materials may shift in response to student needs, expectations may inadvertently become unclear to students. These checkpoints can be used as formative assessments for both students and teachers to see where they are in their learning and the extent that they are remaining on track or achieving desired learning outcomes. These guidelines and assessment for learning strategies can help both students and teachers identify and communicate the learning and performance goals as they examine three important questions: 1) Where are we trying to go? 2) How can we get there? 3) Where are we now? As students receive feedback on transparent objectives throughout their learning process, they are better able to self-assess their growth and move closer to becoming independent learners.

4. Support transparent scaffolding through simplified, single-point rubrics. 

Sometimes students may become overwhelmed with the amount of information that is presented visually throughout rows and columns of rubrics. This is where it can be helpful to provide a single-point rubric using student-friendly language to clearly explain each standard for students to master in a given task or assessment. A blank column on each side of the chosen standards can be used to take notes on places where students fell below or improved above the standard. 

Students can also benefit from links to additional supportive resources. For example, if one expectation of writing an essay is to create a complex thesis statement, linked course documents or other resources could help them review this process. This might take some time to create on the front end, but could save time grading and repeating similar feedback during the grading process. 

Students can also use rubrics to grade past student samples and exemplars prior to submitting their work, as they are often more critical of work produced by their peers than they are of their own. By using this rubric to grade other students, they will become more familiar with how the rubric works in relation to the assignment — allowing them to be more reflective about how their own work might compare to the rubric.

5. Create a collaborative culture of curious thinkers. 

Speaking protocols and thinking routines can help foster a comfortable and collaborative learning environment for students. The goal of these protocols is not to limit speaking or thinking, but to provide a framework that offers explicit strategies for teaching collaboration and enables each student to feel seen, heard, and valued in the classroom. 

By working with speaking protocols to create norms for engaging in debate and discussion in class, teachers can provide students with support for how they might question each other's perspectives in a manner that encourages out-of-the-box thinking. Similarly, frequently prompting students with thinking routines can spark student curiosity by asking them to move beyond seeing content at face value. This encourages them to articulate their process, wonderings, connections, and how their ideas regarding content might have changed or remained the same.

Transparency for Goals and Growth

By setting clear expectations and fostering transparency for learning goals, teachers and students can work together to create impactful student-centered learning experiences that help enhance learning outcomes. As teachers focus on developing content and explicit skills throughout the learning process, students are given the opportunity to develop an iterative and growth-oriented mindset as they build toward long-term goals. The end result: they can grow as critical thinkers and reflective learners.