What is Learner-Centredness?

OK, I have to admit that I am guilty.  I work for an institution that describes itself as learner-centred, and I teach a course on University Teaching in which I aspire to create a learner-centred environment.  Until this point, I don’t think I have taken the time to ACTUALLY articulated (yes, I would say that I have reflected upon it!) what I truly mean by this term that seems to be used so elusively in higher education today.  So, here goes…and as a disclaimer, I truly hope that this personal exploration continues to evolve!!

A learner-centreded approach clearly places the learner at the centre of their education, by supporting student development & autonomy, and creating a shared-climate for learning (Newmaster et al., 2006; Weimer, 2002).  Learner-centredness puts a clear focus on the outcomes of learning, and recognizes that, “students must be active discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge” (Barr and Tagg, 1995, p.21).  Learners are guided by a philosophy of self-efficacy and autonomy, where they develop the knowledge and abilities necessary to embrace learning challenges, to succeed, and to continuously improve.  Learner-centred environments facilitate active, enduring, integrated and authentic experiences that, “…enabl[e] the learner to remodel and revise ongoing theories in a manner that makes sense to them” (Newmaster et al., 2006, p. 108).  Simply stated, learner-centred environments provide students with an opportunity to actively engage with and to take ownership of their own learning.

Weimer’s (2002) 5 Key Changes to Promote Learner-Centredness (LC) provide an effective framework upon which to articulate a LC approach to higher education:

  1. The Balance of Power: Key decisions about learning are shared between the instructor and student (e.g. course activities, assignments, setting a climate for learning)
  2. The Function of Content:— Content is used to develop learning skills, to promote self-awareness, and to develop a sense of self-efficacy in their ability to solve learning task
  3. The Role of the Teacher:—  To guide and facilitate the process of learning; and to create and maintain conditions that promote student development, autonomy, and a shared-climate for learning
  4. The Responsibility for Learning: Students take responsibility for their own learning and are motivated to succeed; students do the discovering. Activities and assignments become the vehicles for learning.
  5. Evaluation Purpose and Process:—  Generate grades AND promote learning (what I like to refer to as “active assessment”). Aside comment: As there has been a fundamental shift in higher education from passive to active learning, I think there is an evolving shift from active learning to active assessment currently occurring in higher education.  As we all know, assessment has an incredible impact on What, When and How students learn!!

Perhaps even more concisely stated, Paris and Combs (2006, p. 576) simple meanings of learner-centredness resonate clearly with me:

  1. The student is the starting point for curriculum making
  2. The instructor and students are co-participants in the learning process
  3. The instructor strives toward intense student engagement with the curriculum

Like I said at the beginning,  I am quite certain that my personal reflections regarding learner-centredness will continue to evolve!


Barr, R.B. and Tagg, J. 1995.  From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.  Change.  Nov/Dec: 13-25.

Newmaster, S., Lacroix, C.A., and Roosenboom, C. 2006.  Authentic learning as a mechanism for learner centredness.  International Journal of Learning 13(6): 103-112.

Paris, C. and Combs, B. 2006.  Lived meanings: what teachers mean when they say they are learner-centered.  Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 12:571-592.

Weimer, M. 2002. Learner-Centered Teaching. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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