7 Student-Centred Learning Theories for Educators

A powerful way to design your course is to consider which learning approach you will use.

Learning approaches are ways of addressing the knowledge and skills you want your course participants to develop. Your approach would depend on the objectives and outcomes of your course and the student experience you want to create.

Here is a helpful glossary of student-centred learning approaches you can use in your next online course.

Note, many of these learning approaches overlap as they share the same underlying assumption — that learning is an active process of creating and building meaning.


Active Learning

An active learning approach involves engaging participants in a broad range of activities that enable them to generate and build their own understanding of the concept or topic.

These activities involve students using their own words to explain a concept, connecting new and established ideas, unpacking information and building their own conclusions.

Activity examples include brainstorming, discussions, reflective activities, using case studies and role playing.

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Example of active learning from Introduction to Ecotourism


Case-Based Learning

This approach uses real-world examples or case studies as a way of learning about key concepts and principles.

These examples or case studies often present a relevant issue or challenge to which students apply their skills and knowledge, determine cause and effect and recommend alternative courses of action.

This approach is useful for learning about concepts in the context of the real world where the answers are not always black and white but subject to various factors in the environment.


Collaborative Learning

A collaborative learning approach involves participants working in pairs or groups to solve a problem, complete a task or create a product.

These group activities are often designed to reflect real-world professional scenarios where participants practice real skills and learn to work with others effectively.

The added benefit of collaborative learning is students become exposed to different work styles and needs which will go towards developing their social and emotional intelligence.


Experiential Learning

Rather than have students read or watch a video about their topic of study, experiential learning involves students experiencing it first-hand, making observations and learning from their experience.

David Kolb, who popularised experiential learning, described this approach as a four-stage cycle that involves:

  1. Concrete experience - where students actively experience their learning
  2. Reflection - where students reflect back on their experience
  3. Abstraction - where students create a conceptual model or theory of what they have learned
  4. Active experimentation - where students test their theory or model

Examples include involving role-play, scenario play, field trips and experiments.

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Example of reflecting on experience from Instructional Design for Effective Learning


Inquiry-Based / Problem-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning takes place over several weeks. Participants are presented with a complex problem or question and direct their own learning by asking further questions

Students are supported to do their own research, discover relevant information and come up with their own informed conclusions.

Inquiry-based learning is particularly useful for developing scientific thinking, communication and problem-solving skills.


Productive Failure

The productive failure approach is characterised by students exploring a problem with little direct instruction followed by an intervention of direct instruction that allows students to correct their misunderstandings and reinforce key principles.

This early exploration phase is designed for students to develop their own ideas, methods and reasoning for solving complex problems, which will help them to succeed in the long run; hence the name 'productive failure'.


Project-Based Learning

In project-based learning, students work independently or in groups to create an end-product or present findings for a key project.

Like collaborative learning, these projects often reflect real-world challenges and the participant will need to use their thinking and management skills to produce something that is relevant and meaningful. 

Participants are supported to do their own research, gather information and generate their own ideas, similar to inquiry-based learning.

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Example of project-based learning from AR VR The Promise of Sci-Fi


We hope this list has been useful! Which approach do you use or would you use for your course? Share your ideas or experience in the comments below!

Topics: Course Design Tips

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