SAGE Musings: Moving Toward a Student-Centered Classroom

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Dec 13, 2018 10:22am

Students learn more in student-centered classrooms (e.g., Lawson et al., 2002; MacIsaac and Falconer, 2002). Furthermore, student-centered teaching reduces achievement gaps across student sub-populations (Teasdale et al., 2017, and references therein). But what, exactly, makes a classroom "student-centered"? And what can you do to move your classroom further toward the student-centered end of the spectrum?

One measure of the "student-centered-ness" (not a real word) of a classroom is the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP). As the name implies, this is an observational protocol, and it comes with a rubric for observing what happens in a classroom. Just as students can use a rubric to self-assess their coursework, you can use the RTOP rubric to self-assess your classroom teaching. And, just as students can use a rubric to make adjustments to their work before turning it in to you, you can make adjustments to your classroom teaching based on the elements of the RTOP rubric.

There are five components of classroom teaching addressed in the RTOP rubric. You can think of each of these components as a lens for examining classroom teaching practices, on a spectrum from teacher-centered to student-centered practices.

Lesson Design and Implementation

Teacher-centered lessons are notable for their independence from the identities of the students in the room. If you could walk into your classroom and conduct your entire lesson without any students being present (for example, by delivering a lecture), your lesson plan is 100% teacher-centered. In contrast, a student-centered lesson plan engages students in the learning process. Moreover, in a student-centered classroom, the instructor makes in-the-moment adjustments to the lesson plan according to student input, including their questions. It would be impossible to walk into a classroom and conduct a student-centered lesson plan without any students. For specific suggestions on how to make your lesson plans more student-centered, read the Classroom Observation Project's page on lesson design and implementation.

Propositional Knowledge

Propositional knowledge is simply content knowledge. In a student-centered classroom, the instructor's approach to teaching content is informed by student perspectives. An instructor with a student-centered approach will build on students' prior knowledge and will use familiar, real-world examples to illustrate new concepts. He or she will connect new content to previous course topics and to topics from other disciplines, explicitly. When appropriate, he or she will provide a conceptual framework to help students organize new information. For specific suggestions on how to use a more student-centered approach to convey propositional knowledge, read the Classroom Observation Project's page on propositional knowledge.

Procedural Knowledge

I think of procedural knowledge as an understanding of the nature of inquiry and thinking within a discipline -- in this case, within geoscience. There are many ways to build students' procedural knowledge in geoscience. These include having students make predictions, estimations, or hypotheses and designing ways to test them, as well as giving them time to reflect on their own learning process. When we build students' science identities or their metacognitive skills, we are supporting their procedural knowledge. For specific suggestions on how to incorporate building students' procedural knowledge in your courses, read the Classroom Observation Project's page on procedural knowledge.

Student-Student Classroom Interaction

In a teacher-centered classroom, students interactions with each other are minimal. In a student-centered classroom, students interact with each other often, giving them opportunities to practice using the language of the discipline, discuss their understanding of course topics, work together to answer questions or solve problems, and to learn from each other. For specific suggestions on how to incorporate more student-student classroom interactions, read the Classroom Observation Project's page on student-student classroom interaction.

Student-Instructor Classroom Interaction

In a teacher-centered classroom, most interactions between students and instructors take the form of the instructor posing a question to the whole class and then calling on the one or two students who always raise their hands to answer. In contrast, in a student-centered classroom the instructor finds ways to interact with all, or almost all, of the students over time. There are many ways to structure these kinds of interactions, where students have ample time to "think about concepts, receive feedback, and/or participate in discussions that may guide the direction of the lesson" (Classroom Observation Project website). For specific suggestions on how to incorporate more student-teacher classroom interactions, read the Classroom Observation Project's page on student-instructor classroom interaction.

Making Your Classes More Student-Centered

I don't think any classroom is 100% teacher-centered or 100% student-centered, and any course you teach may vary from day to day in how student-centered it is. However, knowing that students learn more in student-centered environments, it behooves us to move toward the student-centered end of the teaching spectrum. I heard about a great example of this from a SAGE 2YC Change Agent, Dave Voorhees, in his talk at the 2018 GSA meeting: Improving Science Identity Through Videos. Dave has taken the idea of using biographical sketches of diverse geoscientists (c.f. SAGE Musings: Geoscientist Biographical Sketches or Develop Students' Science Identity) and turned it around, making a student-centered learning activity out of it. He invites his students to earn extra credit in his courses by developing, writing, and producing a short video about a counter-stereotypical geoscientist.

While it is not without its limitations, the RTOP rubric is a useful tool for reflecting on one's own teaching practices. If you want to push yourself to make changes to your teaching, one strong strategy is to engage your colleagues in conversations about it (Iverson, 2016). It is particularly effective to talk with colleagues who are teaching the same course(s), or at least the same content. If you don't have colleagues at your own institution who teach the same courses as you do, there are 2YC faculty across the country teaching the same or similar courses. Having a network of colleagues to talk to about these topics is one of the benefits of participating in the SAGE 2YC project.

What changes have you made to move your courses toward more student-centered teaching? What changes do you want to make in the near future?


Classroom Observation Project: Understanding and Improving Our Teaching. Available online at

Iverson, Ellen A. R. 2016. Understanding the Factors that Support the Use of Active Learning Teaching in STEM Undergraduate Courses: Case Studies in the Field of Geoscience. Available online at

Lawson, A. E., Benford, R., Bloom, I., Carlson, M. P., Falconer, K. F., Hestenes, D. O., Judson, E., Piburn, M. D., Sawada, D., Turley, J., and Wyckoff, S. (2002). Evaluating College Science and Mathematics Instruction: A Reform Effort That Improves Teaching Skills. Journal of College Science Teaching, 31(6), 388-93. Quoting from the abstract of this paper: "Results reveal that those [learner-centered] teaching reforms lead to substantial improvements in student achievement."

MacIsaac, D. and Falconer, K. (2002). Reforming Physics Instruction Via RTOP. The Physics Teacher, v. 40, pp. 479-485.

Teasdale, R., Viskupic, K., Bartley, J., McConnell, D., Manduca, C. A., Bruckner, M., Farthing, D., and Iverson, E. (2017). A Multidimensional Assessment of Reformed Teaching Practice in Geoscience Classrooms. Geosphere 13 (2): 608-627.

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