Learning-Centered Learning: Theory Into Practice

by Jim Reynolds

from Inquiry, Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 2000

© Copyright 2000 Virginia Community College System

Return to Volume 5, Number 2

Reynolds outlines a student development class that puts learning-centered learning into practice.

The field of education, like many other fields, continuously works with ever changing ideas and methods.  Education, however, seems unique in the way new ideas, theories and strategies are tried, used, and, in some cases, abandoned.  It is not unusual to hear the question: What is the current fad in education?  The assumption is that current educational practices and/or strategies will give way to new ones.  For example, one can remember the focus on the “open classrooms” in the early 1970s or the recent debate over the use of “phonics” versus “whole language” strategies for learning to read.  Similar types of debates have also occurred in higher education.  A prominent debate now in higher education is the examination of learning versus teaching as these concepts relate to the learning process.

The concern over learning versus teaching is not a new debate.  One can see roots of this debate in the progressive education movement of the early 1900s (Pulliam & Van Patten, 1999) and the work of Carl Rogers (1969) in the mid- and late 1960s.  The thread of this learning versus teaching debate can also be seen in the writings of influential educators and learning theorists.  K. Patricia Cross, writing about the learning process, makes the point “that we cannot transfer our knowledge ready-made into student minds” (Cross, 2000, p. 10).  Howard Gardner (1999) captures the concern for differences in learners when he writes, “human minds do not all work in the same way, and human beings do not have the same cognitive strengths and weaknesses” (p. 166).  This focus on the learner and the learning process is at the heart of the learning versus teaching debate.

This debate in higher education is further described by Barr and Tagg (1995) as a need to shift from an instructional (focus on teaching) model to one where learning is the major concern (focus on learning).  At the community college level, Boggs (1996) supports this shift by suggesting that “we need a new paradigm for community colleges, one which defines the colleges as learning rather than teaching institutions” (p. 25).  The mission for community colleges is viewed as not simply to offer instruction but instead to produce learning as an outcome. 

This article reviews the background of the learning versus teaching debate.  The concept of learner centered learning is described with supporting theory.  The author outlines a “theory into practice” effort where the theory of learning centeredness was used to design a Web-based student development course.  This article is intended to support the idea that successful learners assume a certain degree of responsibility for their own learning.


The Learning Versus Teaching Debate

It might seem odd that there is a debate on the importance of learning versus teaching.  One might assume that learning would be a product of teaching and that the purpose of teaching would be for learning to occur.  If one looks at the process, learning and teaching can each be defined in its own way.  We know that humans are learning animals and that a great deal of human learning occurs outside of teaching activities.  We know that learning can occur without teaching and that teaching does not ensure learning.  That is not to say that learning cannot or does not occur from teaching activities.  The debate is not over the need or value of teaching activities, but over the need to focus and concentrate more on all the factors related to learning.

Barr and Tagg (1995) see the teaching model as one where the purpose is to provide and deliver instruction through courses and programs.  A typical example could be where the teaching is structured around classes (50-minutes lecture and 3 unit courses), covering course content and the use of an end-of-course assessment.  In this type of model, little concern may be given to learning outcomes or how that learning is produced.  The teaching model is further described by Wagner and McCombs (1995) when they write, “teachers decide for the learner what is required from outside by defining characteristics of instruction, curriculum, assessment, and management to achieve desired learning outcomes” (p. 32 emphasis mine).  The teaching model seems to place much of its energy on the process or ways of teaching and less concern on what is learned or how it is learned.

In contrast, the learning model paradigm is to produce learning and to create effective learning environments.  Barr and Tagg (1995) describe the learning model as one that “frames learning holistically, recognizing that the chief agent in the process is the learner.  Thus, students must be active discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge” (p. 21).  Carl Rogers’ book, Freedom to Learn (1969), further supports the need for learners to take control over their learning.  Rogers (1969) believed that learners must be trusted to develop their own potential and encouraged to choose both the way and direction of their learning.  Learning-centered assumptions suggest that learners should have meaningful control over what and how things are learned, plus how the learning outcome is measured.  This concern for the learner acquiring meaningful control of the learning process has been called “student centered” or “learner centered” but more appropriately should be called learning-centered learning.


Learning-Centered Learning


The support for learning-centered learning comes from many quarters and is not a new concept.  Its roots date back to the progressive education movement of the early 1900s; that movement based some of its ideas on learners having more control over the learning process (Pulliam & Van Patten, 1999). Carl Rogers’ work in the late 1960s supported the idea of giving learners more control of their learning environment (Rogers, 1969).  Currently, an advocate of learning-centered strategies is Terry O’Banion, past president of the League for Innovation in the Community College.  In O’Banion’s book, A Learning College for the 21st Century (1997), six key principles are suggested that can be used to form a learning college.  One of the six principles is “The Learning college engages learners as full partners in the learning process, with learners assuming primary responsibility for their own choices” (O’Banion, 1997, p.47).  Learners accepting the responsibility for their own learning is the cornerstone of learning-centered learning.

The learning-centered concept is also supported by a study begun in the early 1990s by the American Psychological Association (APA).  The APA issued a report in 1993 that identified twelve learner-centered principles.  In 1997, the APA revised the report, identifying fourteen learner-centered psychological principles.  The fourteen principles were sub-divided into the following four groups:  (1) Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors; (2) Motivational and Affective Factors; (3) Developmental and Social Factors; and (4) Individual Differences.  Even though the APA (1997) report advises that no one principle “should be viewed in isolation” (p. 6), this article uses the first principle as a foundation for the theoretical support for learning-centered learning.  All fourteen of the principles are used to deal holistically with the learning-centered concepts.

The first principle under the Cognitive and Metacognitive factor in the APA (1997) report deals with the nature of the learning process.  This principle states that “successful learners are active, goal-directed, self-regulating, and assume personal responsibility for contributing to their own learning (APA, 1997, p.7).  The psychological principle that learners need to take responsibility for their own learning is the cornerstone of learning-centered learning.

Theory into Practice

How does one take the principle that learners need to take more control and responsibility for their own learning and put that principle into practice?  The author developed a Learning Choices course (Reynolds, 1999) that uses strategies for implementing this principle.  The Learning Choices title was selected to help convey the idea that learners were going to have some control over their own learning. Learning Choices is a Student Development course (STD-195) at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) and meets the requirement of the college’s STD-100 Orientation course.  All the Student Development (STD) courses at NVCC are built around the following four major learning goals developed by the college’s counseling staff:  (1) Learning about Learning; (2) Learning about Self and Others; (3) Learning about Academic and Career Goals; and (4) Learning about Information Resources.  The Student Development (STD) courses are designed in different ways depending on the instructional approach and method of delivery selected by the counseling staff.

The Learning Choices (STD-195) gives learners an opportunity to select topics that would support each of the four major learning goals.  For example, a student might select to learn about her or his learning style characteristics, which would support the Learning about Learning goal.  If the student used the Internet to learn about learning style characteristics, this would support the Learning about Information Resources goal as well.

The Learning Choices course was designed to give participants significant control over WHAT is learned, HOW it is learned, and how the learning outcome is MEASURED.  These three areas of the learning process (What, How and Measurement) have been traditionally influenced and controlled by faculty.  In a more traditional education environment, faculty has generally been given the control over course goals and/or learning objectives.  In a learning-centered environment, the learner is typically given some choice over the course’s learning objectives.  Tasks such as learning strategies and doing assignments have been the responsibility of the student.  In this area, faculty may want to work more collaboratively with learners to develop more effective learning strategies for a particular course or subject.  As with course objectives, the measurement of learning outcomes has generally been the domain of the faculty.  In a learning-centered environment, learners may use a variety of ways to measure their learning.  Faculty can develop a number of measurement instruments so that learners may select the assessment that emphasizes their strengths.  Learning-centered environments hinge on the ability of faculty members to see themselves as facilitators of learning and not solely as subject area experts.

WHAT is learned, HOW it is learned, and how the learning outcome is MEASURED are three critical ingredients in the learning process.  The author searched for a way to capture these three elements so learners would not lose the concept of how these elements are connected.  A metaphor was created to emphasize the three learning elements; it was called the Learning Tree Metaphor.  The Learning Tree Metaphor is designed to give the learner some practical insight into the learning process.

The Learning Tree Metaphor

Metaphors have generally been used to give structure and meaning to an idea or concept and are often found in literature.  Gordon Parks’ (1963) novel entitled The Learning Tree is a good example.  In one part of the book, Parks writes about a mother’s advice to her son, where she describes their hometown as being like a fruit tree; some of the people are good and some are bad.  The metaphor is that a fruit tree with its good and bad fruit can be compared to a town that has good and bad people and that one can learn from both the good and the bad.  Parks highlights his metaphor and the title of his book when he writes “let it be your learnin’ tree” (p. 36).  Parks’ metaphor was instrumental in the choice of a tree as a metaphor for the Learning Choices course.

The Learning Choices course uses the metaphor of a tree to help give structure to the learning process.  In the learning tree metaphor, the three systems of a tree (roots, trunk and leaves) are used to represent three major elements in one’s learning process.  In this metaphor, the first system is the tree roots that provide pathways for water and nutrients from the soil.  The second tree system is made up of the trunk and branches.  This system provides pathways for nutrients to reach the leaves.  The leaves make up the third system, which is the site for food production and growth for the tree.

In the learning tree metaphor, the roots of the tree represent the learning goals and objectives, where the need for learning starts.  The tree trunk and branches represent all the learning strategies/tasks needed to produce the learning outcome.  The learning outcome is represented in the tree’s leaves where the tree’s growth is representative of the human growth enhanced through learning.  Students in the Learning Choices course are asked to view their learning topics as having the three Learning Tree elements:  (1) learning objective; (2) learning strategies; and (3) measurable learning outcome.


Learning Choices Course Process

An important feature of the Learning Choices course is its support of learning-centered principles and strategies both in the course content and process.  Learners are asked to select or create Learning Trees that support all four of the course’s learning goals.  The author has developed a number of Learning Trees that support one or more of the learning goals.  A student can select some of the existing Learning Trees or create his or her own.  For example, a student might select the Learning Tree that has learning about one’s study skills and strategies as the focus for the learning experience.  The Learning Tree would have a learning objective, one or more learning strategies, and a way to measure the learning outcome.  Learners may collaboratively work with the author to modify or refine any of the three elements of a Learning Tree.

The overall goal of the Learning Choices course is to have each student select or create enough Learning Trees to support all four of the course goals.  Each learner is asked to include two Learning Trees:  (1) a Learning Tree that creates the learning contract between the learner and the instructor; and (2) a Learning Tree for the learner to participate in an online Learning Journal using the software program Allaire Forums.  Each learner is asked to document the time spent on each of the selected Learning Trees with the total time averaging between 35 and 40 hours of learning experiences.  One of the designed goals of this course is to help learners learn about learning and move toward accepting more responsibility for their own learning.


There have been a number of changes in higher education over the past decade.  Emerging technologies and the focus on distance learning have fueled some of these changes.  There seems to have been less change in learning strategies or the learning and teaching process even with the use of new technologies.  The debate over learning versus teaching is really not a new debate and the concern about giving learners more control over the process has a long history in educational movements.  The debate over the level of learner control and the best way to put these controls into practice will continue into the future.

Technologies like the World Wide Web are now available to make a greater impact on learners’ control of their own learning.  The Learning Choices course described in this article is but one step to put some of the learning-centered learning principles into practice.  Lifelong learning is influenced by how learners interact with their own world and their own learning experiences.  The hope for the future should be for individual learners to be empowered to direct and control their own learning experiences.


American Psychological Association (APA), (1997 Revision).  Learner-centered psychological principles:  A framework for school redesign and reform.  Washington, DC:  APA Presidential Task Force on Psychology in Education.  [On-line] Available:  http://www.apa.org/ed/leg.html


Barr, R. B., & Tagg. J. (1995).  From teaching to learning.  Change, 27(6), 13-25.


Boggs, G. R. (1996).  The learning paradigm.  Community College Journal, 66(3), 29-27.


Cross, K. P. (2000).  Cross paper #4:  Collaborative learning 101.  Mission Viejo, CA:  League for Innovation in the Community College.


Gardner, H. (1999).  Intelligence reframed:  Multiple intelligences for the 21st century.  New York:  Basic Books.


O’Banion, T. (1997).  A learning college for the 21st century.  Washington, DC:  American Association of Community Colleges and American Council on Education Series on Higher Education and the Oryx Press.


Parks, G. (1963).  The learning tree.  New York:  Fawcett Crest Book.


Pulliam, J. D., & Van Patten, J. J. (1999).  History of education in America.  (7th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Merrill.


Reynolds, J. (1998) Learning Choices (STD 195) Course.  Alexandria, VA:  Northern Virginia Community College.  [On-line] Available:  http://www.nv.cc.va.us/home/nvreynj/


Rogers, C. R. (1969).  Freedom to learn.  Columbus, OH:  C. E. Merrill.


Wagner, E. B., & McCombs, B. L. (1995).  Learner centered psychological principles in practice:  Designs for distance education.  Educational Technology, 35(2), 32-35.

Jim Reynolds is a Counselor and Professor at Northern Virginia Community College.  The author would like to express his appreciation to the members of the Counseling Services at the Alexandria Campus for their support and especially the thoughtful feedback on the article from Thomas Morra.