G.I.F.T. ~ Moving from Teacher-Centered to Learner-Centered

Great Ideas for Teaching (G.I.F.T.) is an occasional series featuring Stetson faculty. To submit your G.I.F.T., contact the center staff

by Alicia Slater

There have been very few moments in my life when I’ve read something that permanently changed my teaching philosophy. Here is one of them (from Huba & Freed 2000):

“The individuals learning the most in teacher-centered classrooms are the teachers there. They have reserved for themselves the very conditions that promote learning.”

  • Actively seeking new information
  • Integrating it with what is known
  • Organizing it in a meaningful way, and
  • Explaining it to others

After I read this, I reflected on how much I had learned preparing lectures as an assistant professor at Stetson, and knew it was time for me to create those same experiences for my students. Thus began my efforts to shift my courses from teacher-centered to learner-centered.  In a learner-centered classroom, the students are actively engaging with the material, and the teacher becomes the expert ‘guide on the side’.  This practice recognizes that in order for students to develop the higher order cognitive skills we value most, such as thinking critically, asking questions, and generating examples, they need practice. Indeed, expecting students to do this without adequate practice is like expecting a musician to perform a piece they’ve never seen.


A lot changes when a classroom becomes learner-centered.

  • The role of the teacher changes from telling students what they should know and be able to do to promoting learning through the acquisition of knowledge.
  • The balance of power shifts as responsibility for learning transfers to the students and they become autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners.
  • The function of content changes; teachers use content instead of covering it.
  • Finally, the purposes and processes of evaluation change. In addition to certifying mastery of material, assessment experiences give students an opportunity to explore and develop their self-assessment skills.

How then, does one make the shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered courses? First, seek out colleagues who are modeling the pedagogy you would like to adopt. If there aren’t any on your campus, seek them out at professional conferences and meetings. Seek out professional development workshops, such as Stetson’s Brown Innovation Fellows Program, webinars, or conference sessions on teaching and learning. Finally, read as much as you can on the topic! Two very good resources are listed at the end of this article—although one is calledScientific’ Teaching, the methods can be used in any discipline.

Learner centered teacher is grounded in constructivist theory, which asserts that knowledge can’t be given to students; instead, students must construct their own meaning in order for learning to occur. Constructivist theory is evidence-based; numerous studies have shown that learner-centered teaching facilitates deep rather than surface learning, and learning that lasts.

Huba ME & JE Freed. 2000. Learner-Centered assessment on college campuses: shifting the focus from teaching and learning. Pearson. 286 pp. 2006
Handelsman, S. Miller & C.Pfund. 2006. Scientific Teaching. W.H. Freeman. 208 pp.

About the Author

alicia_schultheisAlicia Slater is professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biology and Department of Health Sciences at Stetson University. She is also the director of curriculum and assessment, a role that supports institutional effectiveness efforts through consultation with faculty on curriculum design and assurance of student learning.

Prior, she served as  Provost Faculty Fellow for Faculty Development and Program Design and Learning Assessment Coordinator. Her interest in teaching has focused on learner-centered teaching. Dr.  Slater was instrumental in the development of Stetson’s SCALE-UP classroom and led the inaugural Brown Innovation Fellows Institute in summer 2014 during which faculty from across the University learned how to develop learner-centered course components. As Provost Faculty Fellow, she co-developed yearlong workshop series aimed at teaching, learning and other professional development. In her newest role as 2016-17 Lynn and Mark Hollis Chair of Health and Wellness,  Dr. Slater will focus on successful intervention and proactive actions to improve student retention.

Professor Slater  studies freshwater invertebrates and endemic siltsnails as well as Plecoptera (stoneflies)and conducts research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL).  Dr. Slater received  both her Ph.D. and M.Sc. In biology from  Virginia Tech and a  B.S. in biology from Georgia Tech. She enjoys exercising, reading, and going to the beach.