Student-centred education: a philosophy most unkind

Well-meaning initiatives that prioritise student satisfaction over educational objectives deny students access to the type of rich learning experience that universities were designed for, argue Rebekah Wanic and Nina Powell 

April 28, 2022
Girl sitting on large ball in shape of planet with other ball looking planets to illustrate Give students the ed ucation they deserve
Source: Getty (edited)

Student-centred learning is intended to promote a more inclusive environment and to democratise the classroom. It is a broad philosophy, but its fundamental principle is the belief that education should involve a partnership between student and educator. Further, it advocates that education should be personalised to meet students where they are, with curricula design and course structure based on their individualised learning preferences. 

Such an approach is increasingly hailed as the gold standard in higher education and is ostensibly well-meaning. It embodies the idea that education, as a route to social mobility and desirable careers, should be accessible to as many people as possible. We have no argument with that view. And there may indeed be some value in student-centred learning if the practical constraints of delivering a personalised education – such as class sizes – are considered, particularly if students’ ambitions align with the educational goals that deliver the best opportunity for their long-term growth, development, thinking and citizenship. But these conditions are not often met in today’s marketised mass higher education.

Many will contend that technology and online learning offer a solution to the personalisation issue, giving students the ability to self-pace using asynchronous content or dynamic tests that adjust to prior mistakes. However, such hopes are often belied by the messy reality of how students actually engage with such content. As for the issue of education goals, universities have in essence given up trying to tell students what is good for them. Fuelled by the shift towards student-centred learning, student satisfaction is widely accepted as the primary indicator of educational success. But this does undergraduates a disservice because student satisfaction bears no necessary relation to true educational objectives.

Take assessment, for example. Students find exams stressful, so we are told to reduce the number of exams. Neither do students like to read, so we are told to assign easier and shorter readings. Students find it hard to concentrate, so we are told to break down lectures into small chunks and intersperse activities in between. Students enjoy media content and are happy to engage with YouTube and social media, so we are told to incorporate more videos and make course material and assessments more creative and interactive. Some students don’t like to speak in class, so we are told to make sure there are myriad ways students can participate without having to actually speak.

Such well-meaning educational initiatives – alongside grade inflation, flexible deadlines, warm language in feedback – deny students access to the type of educational experience that universities were designed for. They short-change students by appealing to their immediate wants and feelings rather than their potential for greatness, their capacity for reason, and their fundamental need to leave university better than when they arrived. The student-centred mindset has led to a dumbing-down of curricula and a constant pressure on educators to motivate students, rather than a pressure on students to take ownership of their own success and failure. This is because it appears mostly to have been adopted without a principled questioning of what a university education is for.

Two people falling off flat planet to illustrate you can't have it all
Getty (edited)

The result is that student-centred education leaves undergraduates in a state of constant busyness but also constant worry about the value of these low-stakes endeavours. Students complete more and more simple and straightforward tasks – worksheets, projects, quizzes and so on – without the opportunity to think about what they are doing or learning. It is no wonder they lack motivation: they are denied the life-affirming pride that derives from achieving something genuinely meaningful and built on hard work. And without critical feedback on the work they do undertake, students are not given the necessary guidance they need to improve. In this sense, meeting students where they are keeps them where they are.

A transformative educational experience is supposed to be the point of a university education. Students deserve opportunities for challenge so that they develop the necessary strength of mind and character to meet the myriad challenges they will inevitably face in the higher-stakes contexts of post-university life. Such strengths will also equip them potentially to rise above their personal and social circumstances and pursue the life they want.

If we decide that making courses less intellectually and emotionally demanding equates with making education accessible, that is an unkind assumption. We are in effect saying that students attending university lack the necessary ability to withstand an education that is intellectually and emotionally demanding. Students deserve to be taken seriously and to be seen as capable – both in terms of their capacity to improve and in their capability to find resolve against momentary unhappiness.

The guise of a student-centred education is also, at its core, dishonest. It tells students that they are uniquely skilled and uniquely talented – often touted as “empowering” their individuality. However, unless you are paying for a private tutor, education takes place in groups alongside several – if not several hundred – others. Moreover, in an era of mass higher education, staff-to-student ratios are falling rather than rising. There is no way that an individual educator can tailor lessons or assessments to each individual student’s needs and preferences.

Nor should they. Endorsing the perspective that each student should be treated as unique and offered personalised accommodations would fail to push them to develop a healthier mindset that connects self with surroundings. Specifically, if part of a university education is about preparing students for post-university life, they must begin to recognise that their uniqueness is situated in a shared environment that requires adjusting the self to the situation and not the other way around.

We should not disempower students by telling them to expect the problems they face to be resolved by the people around them recognising and catering to their needs. Doing so takes away individual agency and results in a sense of entitlement generally not viewed positively by employers, partners, family, friends or colleagues. We should empower students by motivating self-efficacy and self-regulation, rather than fostering an approach to social life where expectation leads to passivity and victimhood.

Furthermore, the push for a student-centred education seeks to position students as equals in the classroom, such that their individual desires should be given equal weight with the expertise of the educator in determining what occurs in their courses. While designed to promote inclusivity through removing all presence of a privileged voice, such misguided democratisation once again harms students. Students need an appreciation and respect for accumulated knowledge, and instilling it does not entail a misuse of power in the classroom. There will always be situations in life where power is shared unequally, but that does not necessarily mean that something unjust is taking place. Yet many educators now encounter students who feel insulted, offended or threatened when their ideas are disputed or their essays corrected.

Similarly, invoking “lived experience” as the correct lens through which to process information means that subjective opinions are given the same, if not greater, weight as facts and established theory in classroom discourse. A push to see beyond one’s own narrow viewpoint is interpreted as a critique of self, rather than an intellectual exercise designed to promote critical evaluation.

We don’t mean to imply that students should not be given the opportunity to question what they are being taught or to disagree with their instructors. In fact, we encourage this. But it is most beneficial when students are open to learning that their perspective might not be correct and that others, with many years of experience, might know more than they do as novices.

Taking a student seriously is to not pander to their ego or, worse, to falsely flatter them in pursuit of their approval or in fear of their complaints. Taking them seriously means treating them as capable of receiving genuine feedback about their limitations, in an effort to see them improve.

They must be taught how to appropriately and effectively debate controversial topics and engage with those with whom they disagree, working through the discomfort of having their perspectives challenged. Engagement in society sometimes requires individual compromise to larger group goals and the recognition that one’s unique position might not always be supported by others. The problem is that students unchallenged in their assumptions about their own uniqueness and value will be ill-equipped to respond appropriately within environments that require this recognition.

We all lose when educators can no longer assist students in developing an understanding of citizenship and respect of expertise. Would any of us want to live in the high-rise building designed by the architect whose professor was told that they could not correct a student’s error? Would any of us want medical care from the physician who decided that the best medical school was the one that provided its students with the least rigorous course load?

Increasingly, businesses are saddled with new employees who do not want to do entry-level work, who feel that any negative feedback is insulting, who do not respect the need to put in hard work to move up the hierarchy, and who do not respect the knowledge of those with many more years of work experience. Similarly, managerial training is increasingly becoming an exercise in developing skills to manage employees’ self-esteem instead of to develop them through challenge. These situations exist because universities are failing to do their job in providing students with a demanding education that would foster self-motivation and risk-taking.

If the expertise and guidance of an educator were not necessary, students would be able to educate themselves with the myriad resources available today (not least by reading books). Rather than worrying about obfuscating the power dynamics between a lecturer and students, we should embrace the experience, knowledge and range of perspectives that inform educators’ practice. We should set the stage for students to accept failure and confront personal shortcomings on a path of continued self-growth, valuing the long-term gains that derive from effortful engagement with what is hard.

It is also important to recognise that part of the shift towards student-centred education is not driven by a desire to promote inclusivity per se but to disguise the desire simply to get students through university. Graduation, not education, is the desired consumer outcome at the myriad “pay-for-a-degree” institutions that compete for the many students whose pursuit of a university education is motivated solely by a perception that it is necessary even to land entry-level jobs, let alone promotions. That perception – promoted by employers and universities alike – leads students to see higher education as a chore: a stumbling block or a check-box on the way to something else. They are unwilling to put in the necessary work and want the easiest path to recognition.

When students’ behaviours and goals are in conflict with what is necessary for the learning that underlies a transformative education, it is especially important to turn to the educators rather than the students for direction. And even when students have the right goals for their education, it is short-sighted at best to expect them to know how to design and structure curricula, syllabuses and assessments. At worst, it is cruel. In addition to their deep knowledge of their disciplines, most university educators also have years of experience of developing pedagogical techniques that effectively educate. It is incongruous to expect that students would have more – or more accurate – knowledge of how their educational experience should be structured. 

When we adopt a student-centred educational philosophy, irrespective of how well meaning we may be, we short-change students. Rather than succeeding in empowering them, we fail to equip them with the skills to deal with the challenges they will invariably confront as their life after university unfolds. When we see these consequences and choose to do nothing, we perpetuate this unkindness.

Instead, let us respect students’ potential to access the transformation that a rigorous university experience can offer. Only then can we claim to operate in a student-centred fashion: by providing students with the education they deserve.

Rebekah Wanic and Nina Powell are both senior lecturers at the National University of Singapore’s department of psychology, where Dr Powell is also deputy director of undergraduate studies.


Print headline: Give students the education they deserve

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (27)

What a great article, it encapsulates the reasons for increasing frustration amongst staff and the ongoing issues with graduate quality. I am so glad that someone has written this coherently because sometimes I think that I feel the same way just because I am a grumpy staff member near retirement. It is refreshing to see that this is not completely the case!
An absolutely excellent article, expressing in eloquent and indisputable terms, what I and others have been saying for years. Sadly I think university bosses are unlikely to respond appropriately.
This is the best analysis I have read of this pernicious HR-inspired nonsense. The problem is: the idea of student-centred learning sounds so good and so worthy, that arguing against it makes it seem like you are some old bore wanting to go back to the bad old days. This article convincingly makes the case against student-centred learning that most of us has thought about, but haven't really articulated properly. Thank you!
I agree, an excellent article which shines a light upon the latest fad in higher education. It devalues the professionalism and extremely long education and training of academics to assume that students can meaningfully co-produce their education, if it is to genuinely be higher education. No other profession would do that and confidence in that profession would be seriously undermined if they tried. Professionals may offer choice – this treatment may be more effective but has greater side-effect risks, that treatment has a lower success rate but fewer side-effects… That is not the same as saying to the patient ‘what do you think is your medical diagnosis, how do you think I should treat you?’. An exaggeration, I know, but it is very frustrating that current HE fads are often driven by senior administrators who would be outraged at the equivalent devaluation of their jobs.
The problem started when we replaced grants with fees, in the name of rep;lacing a narrow meritocratic participation with a much wider bought'n'taught one. That gestated another issue, employers could then begin to replace on-job training (at their cost) with degrees (at employee cost). Why, for example, do we need degrees in Nursing? Many entry level jobs now demand a degree when they never did 30 years ago. Obviously if you have just incurred a 5 figure debt to get that degree you do want what you paid for. Sadly for students it's the 'Indian Well' issue - one farmer installs an electric pump and can get water much deeper when all his neighbours are in drought, but then everyone gets a pump and nobody is any better off, in fact they are all worse off as now no farmer can get water without the cost of a pump. A degree used to confer an advantage nbut now almost everyone has one it doesn;t, but not having one makes it a lot harder. About time the Govt encouraged employers to reinstate on job vocational training, and degrees were only relevant for more research-oriented posts again.
I agree completely with this well-argued and excellent piece!
This is a great article and relates directly to how I feel regarding teaching in HE. Certainly accommodating students to some extent is good practice, but the fact is that students should have to work for their degree and we should not be dumbing down content or assessments. Unfortunately some students will fail, but if assessments are provided based on the work expected to be undertaken in relation to reading and understanding, then the students should do well. I recently had a group of students who were so needy, I was concerned, not only about them, but also for my own health. Not a good situation and I am hoping that this is not a trend but a one cohort issue.
hear! hear! about time this was put forward in such a well-reasoned and clear manner.
Lots of massive assumptions and lack of rigour in using of educational terminology (I'm sorry but student-centred learning is NOT what you imply in this article, please read the literature). I am sympathetic with the argument that 'student experience should not be the sole driver of our teaching choices', but I fail to agree with the rest, and critically, so does the evidence and the vast literature out there. I am a fan of reducing exams in a programme (possibly not completely), but not because they are rigorous, rather because they are not aligned with authentic practice. I am a fan of improving how we word feedback, but not because we have to sugar coat it, rather because expert-centric feedback means little to a learner. And so on... Yes, we have to discontinue the "students as clients" mentality that the sector has installed. But it's not by going back to a lecture-obsessed, teacher-centric style that we will achieve this. To give an analogy: the current status of liberal democracies needs addressing quickly, but not by going back to absolute monarchies...
Great article, whether the practices being discussed are called student-centered learning, or something else. The main point is that students should be exposed to authoritative teaching that provides a certain amount of support but also demands that they take responsibility for themselves and learn to meet standards rather than expecting standards to be adjusted to make their academic lives easier. What is going on in higher education these days is akin to permissive parenting, which predictably unsatisfactory results. [See Bernstein, D.A. (2021). Teaching styles and troublesome students. Canadian Psychology, 62 (4), 367-376.]
Sorry Gabriel, but I agree with this article and have been through several sessions of being taught how to teach in a student centred context . I look at the course design standards being pushed on us by the experts in student centred learning and the above article pretty much summarises what is recommended. And this student centred learning is usually trotted out by someone who thinks that the alternative that people are following is the 'sage on the stage' model or that we do not understand the 'digital native' (as if we do not have children). In reality I have yet to meet an academic who was not student centred in their approach, but it is the tools and approaches that are being pushed as 'student centred learning' that this article has correctly targeted. Student course evaluations determine promotion and in some cases jobs in the real world of a university. University administrators, in response to government pressures hassle us about 'retention rates' ie if we have failed them what are we doing wrong? Government funding only pays out fully when a student successfully completes, not on failed students. This leads to an argument that if students are not enjoying your class and are not passing then you are doing it wrong - you are not student centred in your approach. Hence student centred learning becomes synonymous with students being happy and successful, and the tools to help achieve this are largely the ones set out in the article. For example, online learning design standards to retain the interest and participation of students suggest not having more than a page of written material to reduce the need to scroll, use semi-conversational tone, and any video clips (which are encouraged) should be no longer than 10 minutes. Kahoots tests and self-checking tests are encouraged, but exams not so. I am in favour of exams because in my field you are expected to know certain information without needing to look it up and be able to apply knowledge to problem solve in tight, high-pressure timeframes without assistance - my exams are open book and mimic what is often required on the job, but do only comprise 40% of the course grade. To be fair, even 20 years ago we were being told to not write our comments in red ink as that would put students off, green or black was preferred, and that oral feedback must start with a complement (this is now also common practice at conferences). In the workforce, employers complain that graduates (not specifically ours) are unable to take notes because they are so used to having information given to them in a fashion that suits them (as a computer file or powerpoint or because they assume that 'someone' will have taken a recording or drawn the diagram- and this will be available to anyone who did not attend), that new graduates lack the ability to concentrate for long periods at a time (ie longer than an hour), and that they they stress out when their work is rewritten or rejected.
Before ditching the dirty water maybe we should look if we're not by any chance ditching the baby with it too. Is THIS really student-centred education, or a false interpretation of what it originally and fundamentally means? I totally agree with the damaging attitudes outlined above, but that is not my understanding of student-centred education. The authors propose we should think again what higher education is supposed to be about. I propose we should think again about how we define student-centred education before demolishing it. Maybe we're demolishing the wrong thing.
My point precisely!
A wonderful exposition of what many of us have thought, but have been unable to put into words nearly as effectively. Could not agree more.
My thought is what I always stated to new groups of students which was 'if there is no chance of failure there is no achievement or value in success'. Being a student centered educator, along with like minded colleagues, well before the term and concept was introduced let alone dominant, failure was not a common outcome since our demanding but supportive approach to education did indeed bring out the best in our students. So, if student centered means supportive, I am all for it. If it means pandering to individual wants and preferences, then it does everyone a disservice. As to the article, I think it makes many important points and, taking student centered to have the meaning attached to it by the authors, it makes an inarguable case against the concept and the practices associated with applying that meaning. For me though, providing a demanding education is student centered as it comes from caring about the individual student and their development. We cannot help and facilitate students' expanded behavioral and life choices by pandering.
A long overdue article. Students are there to be taught and to learn and not to direct what is taught or how it is taught. We do them an injustice by asking their opinion when they look to us, the academics, for guidance as well as learning.
Wanic and Powell highlight many of our current frustrations as professors. Rarely in my 25 years of teaching have I heard a student tell me: "I need a B+, I want a B+" as if I could deliver a mark on command. This term I had one of those, so the article hits a chord. I have to remind myself, that I only had one student out of the 100 I teach, which I know, is not as many as most of those who are leaving comments teach. I have the luxury to take students where they are when they arrive in my classes. They are all evaluated the same way, but I can propose more challenging assignments (topics) for those who are ready. I retain from the piece that we need to challenge our students. We should not treat them as fragile beings who can not take constructive criticisms. I do take the time to identify when they do something properly (faint praise they authors might say), I do it not to create the "sandwich effect" (good, bad, good comment) but because sometimes they don't even know they have instinctively done something well. I want them to think about the mechanisms of writing an essay. The article has succeeded in making me want to read their research. What type of experiments have they conducted to arrive at their conclusions? My question is not meant to dispute their findings. That I will be able to judge only after I read their work. It is possible that they can substantiate their claims. It is not because I do not have the same experience at my university that it does not exist somewhere else. And if other universities have dumbed down their curriculum with their own understanding of student-centred learning, we have to take note not to duplicate! Thank you for an excellent thought provoking piece.
Long overdue. No doubt it will be met with outrage and stereotyping of what 'traditional' educational was. That's really the point though -- can we agree to discuss what might be effective practice in HE beyond the allegiance to simple ideologies?
Although Gabriel makes a reasonable point, Hamish certainly has a University similar to mine that is pushing the agenda in the article. This may suggest that the pandering that is advocated isn't even an accurate representation of student-centred learning. Whether the interpretation is correct or not, the fact stands that this article and the comments illustrate that this is is going on it at least some universities, mine included. This combined with turning Higher Education into a business has resulted in preposterously low standards (in some, not all cases). I was relieved to see the article and to know that I'm not alone in thinking it is wrong to treat students as customers.
Really interesting, but also a demonstration of how nuanced language can raise significant challenges. I recognise and agree with a lot of the issues the authors raise, but these are not issues with student centred learning. I think the authors have a flawed working definition of student centred learning and so their meta-analysis is off the mark. One of the big challenges of student centred learning (at least as I understand it) is that it demands students to engage at a much deeper level than traditional didactic approaches. Far from dumbing down, the risk is that it becomes too challenging for students. What I think the authors are criticising is not student centred learning, but student centred learning done badly. If we respond to the burden that student centred learning places on students by acting to reduce that burden too far, then we will be dumbing down. But then we will have removed the student-centredness from the student centred learning.
Brilliant piece! Back to the days of 'tough love' I say. This is how we were taught in law school.
Very persuasive article, and yet. It would be more convincing if Nina and Rebekah offered some empirical evidence to support their views. Else, it is virtually impossible to fight those who remind us of not being student centered.
I agree that it would be nice to see some hard evidence, but my own observations (N = 1) are in full agreement with the authors' arguments. We do a disservice by (over)emphasizing the need to go to college in order to be successful in life. We do a disservice by pushing -implicitly or, quite often, explicitly - STEM over other disciplines. And we do a disservice by depriving students of an environment in which they will learn and develop both discipline- and transferable-skills, rather than simply perform.
I wonder what the authors mean with "emotionally demanding". If it is something along the lines "if you stress them, they will work better", it is simply untrue. I work badly under stress. My response to adrenaline seems to be mostly of the "flight" type, and believe me, you don't want to work with me when this happens, extremely frustrating experience. It was true when I was 20, it remains true now that I'm 30; the difference is that I'm now way better at articulating it, and at reducing the stress level so that I can use my brain properly. I understand that there are people who love being personally challenged and for whom this unleashes additional "brain power". Just, for me it does not. I don't think that one particular type of response to stress is necessary for academic or professional success. How is this love of challenge necessary, for instance, to obtain reliable results in an experiment, present these results, and engage into a constructive discussion over the next steps? Intellectually demanding - oh, yes, please, it's awesome. Emotionally demanding, as in: stamp on my nerves and shout "perform!" - no, thank you, I will go and find another teacher.
I agree wholeheartedly with this article: criticisms about whether the authors are really referring to student-centred teaching are largely irrelevant. I consider these arguments the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy. It is irrelevant whether the authors of this article are referring to what student centred instruction should be about - what is relevant is that these authors are pointing out how and what student centred education has been implemented.
Excellent article. Whether the "student centred learning" definition is agreed or not, my main takeaway generally, in terms of learning or the general student journey through university is the one about students needing to "take ownership of their own successs or failure". This is less and less evident as students do not seem to be engaging with the simplest of housekeeping tasks of university life, such as read your emails fully, all the way through and take the action requested. And when there is a negative consequence from their lack of engagement, there is an expectation that the University should be "flexible" and fix for them the impact generated by their lack of attention and action. This is combined with top down pressure to keep students and parents "satisfied" by hook or by crook, and the drawdown of staff time, effort, and stamina to constantly put in retrograde fixes for issues that were due to the students own lapse is soul crushing.
As other commentators have noted, I feel there are a few conflations here which are confusing what are in fact distinct arguments. Certainly, student-centred education (SCE) in its more cynical forms, i.e., admissions-speak, is something to be strongly resisted, especially when it comes down to offering a 'lite' version of business as usual. When, however, it is a theory of learning, or a critical perspective on the educational status quo, that's quite different, and will be implemented differently. There appears to be some slippage between these two ideas. There are other inconsistencies, for example, the authors say that SCE is impractical in the era of mass university education but then go straight on to say that it denies the full university experience to students - as if this had somehow remained in-tact despite the changes they themselves eluded to. At this point I have to ask what, or when, was this high point of the university experience (and what political conditions did it exist under)? University has always been and will always be a contested idea. It seemed to be quite contested within this article. On the one hand the authors say that education should be a transformative experience that makes the individual student reach beyond the confines of their narrow lives, on the other they imply that it should fit them to take their position within a hierarchical work place environment (personally, I would be quite pleased if my students rejected the sort deference presented here as characteristic of working life). The authors argue, fairly, that it is impossible to tailor the learning experience on large courses. Sure, but it is possible to alter the design of these courses to include elements of problem-oriented or inquiry-led learning models. These are long-standing, well established techniques, with reasonably solid evidence bases, which manage to synthesise lived experience with knowledge rich and discovery learning effectively. On the topic of experience, few student-centred educators would see their role as merely reinforcing the student's existing perspectives. Rather, lived experience offers a point of departure that helps build a certain level of engagement. In short, I strongly agree with the need to resist or at least strenuously defend the class room space from the arbitrary and often reactive edicts of senior management teams and so on, but that shouldn't mean resorting to a defence of a single, and largely apocryphal, model of academic life.


Featured jobs