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Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Pedagogy

If you have been teaching for any length of time, you have probably heard the phrases “student-centered” pedagogy or “teacher-centered” pedagogy.  The use of these strategies (positively or negatively)  can affect student learning, teaching evaluations, or even tenure and promotion decisions.

Last week, I had my first peer-to-peer teacher observation as a new assistant professor.  After teaching at the college level for 10 years, I felt my teaching and pedagogy were sound, so I wasn’t too concerned about being observed by a colleague.  In a debriefing after the observed session, my colleague noted that the class seemed to be “teacher-centered.”  This was not offered as a critique, but simply as a statement.  The statement, however, surprised me.  I had always seen myself as a “student-centered” type of teacher.  Since I teach composition, which is typically a student-centered discipline, I was confused.  I wondered if we’d been in the same classroom and witnessed the same interactions or if we were using the same definitions of those often-used terms.

Maryellen Weimer offers good definitions of the two terms in her book Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. She notes that in student-centered teaching, student learning is the focus of the class.  On the other hand, in teacher-centered approaches, teaching practices are the focus of the session.  Since I was teaching a course to pre-service (early childhood and secondary education) teachers, this might have resulted in a teacher-centered pedagogy.

Weimer explains that in order to be learner-centered, instructional practice needs to change in five key areas:  the balance of power, the function of content, the role of the teacher, the responsibility for learning, and the purpose and processes of evaluation.  In this, however, she assumes that student-centered pedagogy is the most appropriate.  Maybe it is.  Maybe it isn’t.  Many variables come into play when we try to determine which teaching style is “best”:

  • discipline
  • class size
  • subject within the discipline
  • room layout
  • environmental factors in the room (temperature, for example)
  • teacher personality
  • classroom dynamic (between students)

Teaching strategies can become a complicated issue, and teaching effectiveness can affect student learning, teaching evaluations, or even tenure and promotion decisions.  Many university campuses have teaching centers, sometimes called Teaching and Learning Centers, Centers for Teaching Excellence, Faculty Renaissance Centers (as it’s called on my campus).  These are resources to learn about and understand what type of pedagogy might be appropriate for your classes or your discipline.  On-line resources are also available.  POD (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education) is an organization devoted specifically to teaching and learning in higher education.  (The listserv is a wonderful resource of information.)

Over the next several weeks, ProfHacker will devote columns to the practice of teaching and learning.  If you have questions or concerns about this issue, please leave those in comments below.  If you have resources that you’d like to share, please leave those comments as well.

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