9 Student-Centred Learning: Possibilities and Challenges – by The MacPherson Institute

MacPherson Institute

McMaster has an institutional history of teaching innovation, with students figured centrally in the pedagogical practices, assessments, and outcomes of learning. The formation of problem-based learning in the health sciences in the 1970s (and other pedagogies considered disruptive at the time) may seem like standard practice now. This history illuminates McMaster’s robust legacy of student-centred learning as an approach rooted in the belief that students are not passive subjects, but rather that they share the responsibility of learning with teachers and other students.

Writing from the perspective of a teaching and learning center, we have seen some of the promise of what student-centred learning can bring. We have seen instructors shift the balance of power within their courses, partner with students to co-create curriculum, and express a genuine commitment to developing a more equitable teaching and learning environment. We recognize that student-centred learning, in its focus on outcomes, has the potential to offer meaningful impact for equity-seeking and historically marginalized students. We have also seen students challenge instructors or institutional hierarchies and demand better learning experiences. We believe the university should be a space where learning deeply matters, and we are committed to supporting teaching and learning communities that seek to enhance and enrich the student learning experience.

And yet, we have seen, participated in, and replicated some of the challenges of student-centred learning. In this piece we explore some of these challenges in an effort to open a conversation on the complexities of student-centred learning and the risks of assuming that it is a universal good. We cannot give each of these challenges the full treatment in the context of this essay, but we welcome additional conversations on these topics within the campus community.

Many of the challenges of student-centred learning are outside of the influence of individual instructors or McMaster as an institution. At the provincial level, students tend to be seen as consumers and workers in the renewed interest in standardization, metric analysis, and funding, which are founded on student employability and student perceptions of marketable skills. In this vision, the revolutionary impulses of student-centred learning—the focus on student agency, participation, and partnership—are at risk. Instead of seeing the purpose of university education as fostering curiosity and exploration, this model of education prioritizes metrics and jobs over inquiry. That is to say, student-centredness becomes conflated with employability. This conflation dilutes student-centredness of its potential for equity, instead replacing this potential with a focus on transferable skills, job readiness, and work-integrated learning. This is not at all to say that these employability intentions are themselves a problem; rather, the concern is that, in shifting the meaning of student-centredness from one of emancipatory potential to one of employability, the power of the pedagogy for transformative change is, if not lost, then compromised.

Some of the challenge comes in how the ‘student’ in student-centred learning is imagined. Often, the ‘student’ is imagined as a universal person who is a white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied settler. We know that many instructors actively challenge this conceptualization, and we urge everyone to think carefully about who is excluded when a universalized ‘student’ is offered in the idea of student-centredness. This is not simply a problem of language; it also has implications for classroom practices. Take, for example, active learning: heralded and evidenced as a best practice in student-centred learning, this approach, if it is not coupled with a nuanced understanding of the rich diversity inherent in ‘student,’ can pose unique physical and social barriers for some students—English language learners, students with disabilities, and racialized, Indigenous, and 2SLGBTQ+ students, for example, who may be excluded from classroom group work dynamics. The imperative within student-centredness is to recognize the unique background and experiences of every student; the risk is in forgetting this diversity and instead teaching—even while following absolute best pedagogical practices—as though all students will benefit equally from an active learning approach.

While the nuances of student-centredness in classroom practice may be one for individual instructors to take up, there are distinct challenges to student-centredness for programs and the institution. For an academic program, meaningfully integrating student-centred approaches requires comprehensive program design and continual adaptation to learning conditions and student needs. For the institution, rather than simply highlighting student-centredness in marketing materials and strategic documents as a way to signal to students, taxpayers, and government the responsiveness of the institution, the institutional community must couple these claims with policy, practice, and cultural change. Together, we must also reward and recognize instructors for taking up the possibilities of student-centredness and acknowledge the labour required to realize these learning conditions. Without sufficient faculty supports and meaningful recognition for all categories of instructors, student-centred pedagogies not only add to the over-taxation of instructors but may also preclude instructors from benefiting maximally from the germ of possibility inherent in student-centred learning.

Finally, in our roles we often hear faculty concerns about the relationship between student-centred learning and ‘student entitlement’; that is, there is sometimes faculty resistance around the power that student-centred learning affords students and the potential that this power could diminish rigour and standards. In this way, student-centred learning places students and faculty in opposition to one another, with a real risk that those most impacted by this conflict may be students from equity-seeking groups who are seeking access to legislative entitlements or genuinely accessible learning environments. Instructors, too, are at risk when students feel they can evaluate teachers against certain student-centred benchmarks and then use their experiences against the instructor (e.g., through biased course evaluations). We also recognize that not all instructors experience power in the classroom in the same ways. For instructors from equity-seeking groups, student-centred learning may hold greater risk, increase demands for care labour, and diminish the recognition of knowledge.

Our thinking in this piece has shifted from the question “Can one truly promote student-centred learning in a standards-based world?”, which implicitly celebrates student-centred learning as all-good, to one that recognizes its complications. In the same way, standards are not all bad and so too are complicated. For example, the “standards-based world” language may have a negative ring to it, but some of these standards are what have contributed to the ability of various equity-seeking groups to access post-secondary education in the first place.

What we need, then, is much greater specificity about what we mean when we say ‘student-centred,’ who we include in our vision of ‘students,’ what counts as ‘learning,’ and how we imagine student-centred learning should take place in the context of courses, programs, and at McMaster. This specificity would afford us, as a campus community, the confidence to take up student-centred pedagogical approaches with a clear rationale and a deliberate anticipation of what risks must be mitigated in doing so. Specificity about student-centred learning would ask us to think about the implications of this meaning on policy and practices, and whether and how we are collectively willing to make change. We invite you to ask yourself what student-centred learning means to you: what it promises, what it risks, who it includes, and who it forgets.

In this call for specificity, we want to end with an acknowledgement of all those instructors and students at McMaster who have and are taking seriously the challenge of student-centred learning—a pedagogy that asks for equity, for a disruption of power in teaching and learning, and for shared responsibility. We are inspired and hopeful because of these instructors and students, and we see the work they do. Our work at the MacPherson Institute is to see that all programs and instructors at McMaster are afforded the opportunity and support to realize a vision where teaching and learning deeply matters. We want to hear from you: mi.mcmaster.ca.


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