Student-Centered Learning in Online Courses

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Online Education / Teaching Methodology

Student-Centered Learning in Online Courses

Student-centered learning can be traced as far back as the theories of Hayward in 1905, and Dewey in 1956 (O’Sullivan, 2003). Piaget’s (2013) theory on constructivism also provides a foundation because it posits that learners produce knowledge and meaning from experiences, encouraging teachers to function as mentors, coaches, and consultants asking students questions so they can reach those understandings.

Harden and Crosby (2000) claimed that teacher-centered learning positions the educator as the expert of the shared content whose role is to reinforce learned knowledge, while student-centered learning involves what students do to achieve that.

Lea at al., (2003) shared the tenets of student-centered learning as “the reliance on active rather than passive learning; an emphasis on deep learning and understanding; increased learning and accountability on the part of the student; an increased sense of autonomy; an interdependence between the teacher and student; mutual respect between student teacher relationship; and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning approach on the part of both teacher and learner” (p. 28).

This learning practice evolved into new ways to communicate, collaborate, and reinforce learned knowledge instead of treating students as receptors of information.

Student-centered learning practices became evolutionary in several ways. Instead of students listening to a teacher deliver notes for hours, course curriculum was now delivered in a modularized style (O’Neill & McMahon, 2005)

Students were now able to select what module they wanted to study, notes were accessible at any time, and pacing oneself during the learning process was common.

The teacher’s role is vital by creating a context that inspires students to learn, providing resources and constructivist-styled activities (Schreurs & Dumbraveanu, 2014). Student-centered learning is evolutionary because it then builds from the principal that students can construct their own knowledge, participate in collaborative learning activities, self-regulate their own learning, and make text-to-world connections about real world problems (Schreurs & Dumbraveanu, 2014).

The evolution of student-centered learning has allowed students to benefit from online courses. Because online courses afford students the luxury of no longer needing to attend classes in-person, they can complete a degree while utilizing a variety of online alternative learning resources and instructional technologies to have a successful experience (Kinshuk et al., 2016).

The evolution of instructional technologies has allowed colleges to increase their online degree programs and courses, while companies like Apple have continued to design educational products like the iPad with compatible software (Fingas, 2018).

Additionally, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have permitted an unlimited number of students from around the world to enroll in an individual course through specific platforms (i.e. edX or Coursera) while providing free access to an open education environment (Kinshuk et al., 2016). This has proven to be an opportunity for students who are interested in completing a single course, or shopping for an academic experience at a particular and prominent university.

Student-centered practices that one can implement in the classroom also have the potential to translate more successfully into an online modality. For example, when teaching college-level writing courses, one of the most beneficial experiences for a student’s growth is the peer review process.

Sharing one’s rough draft is an excellent way for a student to pause from their own work and collaborate to review that of their classmates with a fresh perspective on the given assignment for specific criteria in this guided activity. However, what happens when that in-person course suddenly pivots to an online or emergency remote modality, as many experienced when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020?

How can peer review be crafted into an engaging and successful activity using instructional technologies that are beneficial to all? Reiber (2006) reported that students are often more positively respondent to peer commentary than that of their professor. Jensen (2016) also found that students surveyed in college writing courses at the University of Utah preferred student-centered peer review activities in an online modality vs. in-person classes because they felt less rushed to complete them online, enjoyed having more time to provide commentary, appreciated more in-depth feedback on their own drafts because of the time and flexibility an online modality provides.

While Jensen’s (2016) research revealed some limitations of conducting peer review in an online modality, including less in-person interaction when explaining feedback, that is easily remedied by organizing Zoom breakout sessions with student groups in a modification of this important activity throughout the semester. 

Finding a way to transition many of these student-centered in-class activities into my online courses was a welcomed and encouraged move for those who had experienced in-person peer review in a 50-minute class before the pandemic, and then online for the second half of the semester during the spring semester of 2020. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive in what was a very unpredictable time of our lives.

Due to my fluency in instructional technologies, I am more than ready for any challenge, as the educational technology specialist that leaders at my institution turn to when it matters. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, universities retained my services to train faculty in course redesign, emergency remote teaching (ERT) practices, and various instructional technologies in an effort to benefit student learning and the academic communities they serve. 


Overall, when teaching online, research provided here has demonstrated that offering ongoing student-centered learning experiences can enrich the learning experience for students enrolled in any course. Although some faculty may desire the practice of a teacher-centered lecture format and may have grown accustomed to this style of teaching over the years, it is important to recognize the audience that online learning serves, which is not the traditional student who can sit in a physical space on campus in a classroom for specific hours each week.  Students taking online courses must be capable of self-regulating their own success for the role they play as an active learner and participant in obtaining their own education.

While not all students are capable of such self-regulation practices, research conducted by Seaman et al. (2018) is proving that a significant number of students increasingly are with enrollment in online courses and degree programs growing exponentially. 


Fingas, R. (2018). A brief history of the iPad, Apple’s once and future tablet.” 

Harden, R. M. and J. Crosby (2000). AMEE Guide No 20: The good teacher is more than a Lecturer the twelve roles of the teacher. Medical Teacher, 22(4), 334–347.

Jensen, E.B. (2016). Peer review writing workshops in college courses: Students’ perspectives about online and classroom-based workshops. Social Sciences, 5 (72), pp. 1 – 18. 

Kinshuk; Nian-Shing, C., I-Leng, C., & Sie W.C. (2016). Evolution is not enough:

Revolutionizing current learning environments to smart learning environments. Int J Artif 

Intell Education. 26: pp. 561-581. 

Lea, S. J., D. Stephenson, and J. Troy (2003). Higher Education Students’ Attitudes to Student 

Centered Learning: Beyond ‘educational bulimia’. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), 321–334.

NCLB (Oct. 2020). No Child Left Behind: Review. Education Week.

O’Neill, G. & McMahon, T. (2005). Student-centered learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers? Emerging Issues in the Practice of Teaching and Learning. pp. 1-10.

O’Sullivan, M. (2003). The reconceptualisation of learner-centered approaches: A Nambian case study. International Journal of Educational Development.

Piaget, J. (2013). The construction of reality in the child (Vol. 82). Routledge.

Reiber, L. J. (2006). Using peer review to improve student writing in business courses. Journal of Education for Business, 81(6), 322-326.

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Wellesley: The Babson Survey Research Group, MA, USA. DOI: 10.1080/1097198X.2018.1542262.

Schreurs, J. & Dumbraveanu, R. (2014). A shift from teacher-centered to learner centered approach. State Pedagogical University, 4 (3) pp. 37-41.

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