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The learning-centred approach

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For the chattering classes of higher education, the lecture is out, and active, self-managed learning is in. But what does this mean, and what are the implications for teaching?

In this article, we look at some definitions of active/self-managed learning/learning-centred approach, and then at the implications of this for the skillset of the university teacher. Finally, we describe some methods which teachers have used.

What is active learning?

There are a number of terms – active learning, self-managed learning, learning-centred – which all mean approximately the same thing, but with subtle distinctions. First, it is necessary to look at some of the background questions asked by academics and the reasons for asking them. A lot of these turn on a perception that the knowledge acquisition processes relevant to today's student have changed.

Much university teaching over the last 100 years has been by lecture, tutorial, assignment and examination. Behind this is the belief that the student needs to learn a given syllabus covering a broad subject area such as English literature, and that such knowledge can be transmitted best in presentation by lecture (one to many) and tutorial/seminar (group discussion – one to few or occasionally one to one).

However, the philosophy behind that approach is changing, for both external and internal reasons. External reasons are the growth in consumption of higher education and the perceived need to produce employable students. Students no longer constitute an elite group studying narrow specialisms which they are motivated to pursue with minimal help; and the transferable skills they need to acquire are a whole range of social and intellectual ones that will help them in the world of employment.

The internal reason, which is partly a result of the external factors mentioned above, is that many in higher education have begun to think deeply about what learning actually means. A good place to start is andragogy (Knowles, 1984) – as opposed to pedagogy. In other words, students are adults not children, and have their own methods to learn, which are about being involved with the learning process, and are able to make connections with their own experience.

Successful learning is about taking responsibility, and many writers contrast what goes on in deep as opposed to shallow learning. The latter is about "lazy" learning – when the student makes notes without much thought and regurgitates them in an exam. Deep learning, on the other hand, happens when students think actively about what they learn, for example by discussing and disputing it; when they deliberately seek out information as opposed to being "spoon fed"; when they reflect on what they have learnt, challenge it and integrate it into other contexts (Phillips, 2005).

Traditional learning, with its reliance on the syllabus and the lecture, is input- rather than output-driven. The focus instead is on outcomes – that is, what the student should be able to do on completing the course. (For more on this topic, see Outcomes-based courses and assessment criteria and Learning styles and the nature of learning.) Outcomes are best achieved by active learning.

Other commentators take a more epistemological view of knowledge and contrast the post-war behaviourist view of learning (1950s and 1960s) that saw it as being acquired, as opposed to the constructivist model, which assumes that students construct their own meaning and arrive at knowledge through a thinking process. Phillips (2005) also contrasts the idea of knowledge as an objective reality that can be transmitted by lectures and reproduced under exam conditions, with that of constructivism. He also contends that for effective learning to occur in a tertiary environment, it must be:

  • contructivist
  • the product of deep learning
  • student centred and
  • outcomes based.

(For more on the nature of learning, see Learning styles and the nature of learning

According to Allan (2003), for active learning to take place learners must develop learning-independence, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, understanding of their own learning processes, ability to select appropriate learning strategies, judgement and the confidence to use knowledge flexibly and creatively. As many forms of active learning involve working in a group, students also develop interpersonal and active listening skills.

What are the skills needed to "teach" active learning?

Needless to say, the pedagogical style required to enable active learning is different from that for lecturing, which calls for clarity, organization and, some would say, a fondness for the sound of one's own voice. The "sage on the stage" needs to be replaced by the "guide on the side", the teacher as transmitter by the facilitator. (It is interesting that commentators frequently assume conflate teaching with a didactic approach, which secondary or K12 teachers would be somewhat surprised at!)

Good teaching should be about being able to create and manage tasks and activities which will empower student learning, both inside and outside the class. Facilitation skills are key and involve being able to motivate students to learn on their own, to use initiative, and to test out and apply what they have learnt.

A key facilitation skill is to enable the right level of dialectic in the class, to get beyond "speaking to fill the silence" and to have a real discussion. The tutor needs to be able to stimulate such discussion by asking questions, by summarizing what has been said so far and moving the discussion on to a higher level or closing it down as appropriate. Watching out for the group process is also important, so as to enhance students' social skills.

Active and student-centred learning does not mean that the teacher can abrogate responsibility; it is important to go to the session well prepared, with activities well chosen, cases carefully researched, etc. Technical knowledge is just as essential, as with lecturing the teacher will be doing a lot of thinking on their feet! Physical preparation is important, too, as the traditional lecture room organization with its "theatre" approach is not really appropriate for shared learning (Harvard Business School actually has curved lecture theatres to make discussion easier.)

Patience is also a quality that teachers need – the patience to wait for the dialogue to get going, not to correct students when they say things that are wrong, as one can also learn through mistakes. But perhaps most important is the ability to give learners confidence by creating a relaxed and accepting environment where they can try out new ideas, say something controversial or radical, etc. Effective learning can best take place when the learner does not feel under any threat.

The benefits of following an active learning approach are that the teacher can actually see the learning process as it happens and not just as the result of an assessment, while students can benefit from hearing different viewpoints, and seeing different ways of presenting information – which they may prefer to their own!

Some active learning methods

Lectures and their use, and large class teaching

Large lectures and class sizes, often an institutional given, present particular challenges to the active learning process. Here are some
ways of making it work.

  • Asking students to do presentations to the class.
  • Ask students questions – preferably ones that are open-ended, probing and evaluative. (On the other hand, avoid asking complicated questions with several subquestions.)
  • Use quizzes to test students' understanding of your lectures and to determine whether or not you need to adapt your teaching. (In WiFi enabled lecture theatres students can respond with their mobile phones or PDAs.)

Lectures will inevitably continue to play a part in the learning landscape, although some believe that they are best confined to some form of expertise, for example that of a visiting lecturer, or to expound a particular method or theory (Phillips, 2005).

A postgraduate course in publishing invited a number of visiting lecturers who held posts in the industry to come and share their experiences. Lecturers would talk about, for example, carrying out market research, commissioning or running publicity campaigns for well-known authors, or selling rights, and students valued these expert insights into the industry from experts.

Student-centred learning

This is learning that puts the student at the centre. Perhaps even more than active learning, student-centred learning often involves choice of topic as well as carrying out an activity.

The University of Portsmouth Department of Information Systems and Computer Applications developed a student-centred learning module on project management, using a full-time MSc cohort as guinea pigs (Allan, 2003). (Incidentally, the part-time students refused to participate, believing that the approach would require too much work!) Given that project management is an essentially practical activity taking place with live people and events, the one-sided communication environment of the lecture did not seem appropriate. Instead, students were asked to research particular subjects and prepare a one-page summary. These were presented in the first part of the teaching session, the middle part was taken up with discussion, and in the last part students would decide on points for investigation and clarification and hence the priorities for the next week's work and presentations. For the MSc students, the exercise also involved discussion of the syllabus and content of the sessions.

Innovative coursework was also developed with the specific objective of helping learners think what they did and didn't know, how they would select and judge their sources, and how they would evaluate their knowledge once they had carried out the research. The second part of the assignment, which involved applying their learning to a specific company scenario, was only given once the first part had been completed.

Virtual learning environments (VLEs) and resource-based learning

Some commentators have claimed an almost automatic link between e-learning and active learning. However, there is little of the latter
involved in downloading the lecturer's PowerPoint notes, which is all that some VLEs are used for. More imaginative uses include:

  • Promoting access to course material out of hours.
  • Enabling discussion to occur out of hours, and/or to continue without
    the student having to be at the place of learning.
  • Posting resources.

The University of Portsmouth Department of Information Systems and Computer Applications (see above – Allan, 2003) pioneered the use of a VLE on an undergraduate project management module. They provided resources in the form of journal papers, book chapters and websites, as well as a WebCT discussion board, some drill and practice sessions, and PowerPoint slides to help the weaker students. On evaluation they found that students valued the opportunity to have a discussion forum outside course hours.

Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning is the learning which is derived from understanding, analysing and resolving a particular problem. It was first developed in the 1950s to help teach health sciences, where it is still widely used. It has also been used in the teaching of management education, where its ability to mirror the sort of dilemmas faced by practitioners has obvious benefits.

At the University of Portsmouth, an accounting lecturer used problem-based learning to help students approach accountancy problems. He provided a problem statement from a newspaper or cartoon, and got students to discuss the problem in groups.

A lecturer from Liverpool John Moores University used the problem-based approach on a couple of modules (information systems and strategic issues analysis) on a BSc Business Information Systems course. Problems were presented by an external client; students then analysed the problem and presented solutions, developing problem solving and consultancy skills.

Case-based learning

This is to all intents and purposes a variant of the problem-based approach. Students are introduced to a case, and discuss it. Shellard (2002) provides a useful account of the case study, including an extensive literature review, and maintains that it is mostly used for the higher learning skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

The most famous use of the case-based approach is at Harvard Business School (HBS). It was first pioneered in the 1920s as a way of incorporating business reality into the classroom, and now constitutes 80 per cent of HBS teaching. Read more about this method on http://www.hbs.edu/case/ Note that students are motivated to participate by having 50 per cent of their mark allocated for class participation.

A lecturer in real estate at the University of Singapore (Christudason, 2003) uses the case-based method in her courses. She presents the material facts, throwing in some red herrings, and then the class discuss. Students also need to prepare for their sessions by doing the necessary reading.

Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning is the learning which is derived from understanding, analysing and resolving a particular problem. It was first developed in the 1950s to help teach health sciences, where it is still widely used. It has also been used in the teaching of management education, where its ability to mirror the sort of dilemmas faced by practitioners has obvious benefits.

Games, simulations and role play

All these methods are used extensively in business education (Sutcliffe, 2002). Economics and business games, for example those which simulate buying and selling of stocks, have a clear set of rules and an element of competition. Simulations provide a simulated environment of a real life situation, usually of something fairly abstract (they are often used in economics). The competitive element is missing and the simulation is affected by the user's actions.

Role play occurs when a person, either as themselves or as someone else, is placed in a particular situation, which may be contrived but which is based on real life. The person then has to act out according to that situation. Successful role play depends very much on the extent to which the person "buys in" to the role and its chances of success are increased with very clear guidelines. Sometimes the role play is semi-scripted with participants being given an order of speaking and a summary of what to say, or a particular "attitude" is attributed to a character (unhelpful receptionist, etc.). Debriefing is important to give the chance to reflect on what has been learnt.

The above examples are no doubt only a few of the ways in which lecturers can introduce more active, student-centred methods into their teaching. In so doing, they will place more demands on their students, who may be taken out of their comfort zone of taking notes and revising for their exams. However, learning, like most important things in life, requires thought and effort. The rewards are habits of independent thinking which will provide invaluable transferable skills for the workplace.


  • Allan, G. (2003), "An extension to student-centred learning to incorporate an interactive coursework and a virtual learning environment", downloaded August 2007 from http://www.business.heacademy.ac.uk/publications/misc/occasional/extension
  • Christudason, A. (2003), "A case for case-based learning", Ideas on Teaching, Vol. 1, 2003, downloaded August 2007 from http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/Ideas/iot24.htm
  • Knowles, M. (1984), Andragogy in Action, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
  • Phillips, R. (2005), "Challenging the primacy of lectures: the dissonance between theory and practice in university teaching", Journal of University Teaching, Learning and Practice, Vol. 2 No. 1, downloaded August 2007 from http://jutlp.uow.edu.au/2005_v02_i01/phillips003.html
  • Shellard, E. and Lane, A. (2002), "Developing a case study to teach information technology and management accounting", downloaded August 2007 from http://www.business.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/reflect/conf/2002/shellard
  • Sutcliffe, M. (2002), "Using role-play to teach undergraduate business students: challenging the teacher, supporting the learner", paper given at the BEST conference, Edinburgh, downloaded August 2007 from http://www.business.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/reflect/conf/2002/sutcliffe