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Teaching in Higher Education Vol. 12, No. 1, February 2007, pp.


Student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments: what students think

Jan Elen*, Geraldine Clarebout, Rebecca Leonard and Joost Lowyck
K. U. Leuven, Belgium

This contribution explores the relationship between teacher-centred and student-centred learning environments from a students perspective. Three different views with respect to this relationship can be retrieved. The balance view suggests that the more teacher-centred a learning environment is, the less student-centred it is and vice versa. The transactional view stresses the continuous renegotiation of teacher- and student-roles. The independent view argues that teacher- and studentcentredness are independent features of learning environments. Results from three survey studies of higher education students conceptions of quality education are discussed. While the practiceoriented literature regularly seems to adopt a balance view, factor analyses did not reveal evidence for the balance view in any of these studies. In students minds student-centredness and teachercentredness seem to be mutually reinforcing features of high quality education. From a curricular point of view, and especially with regard to teacher training, the results warrant to argue for the development of so-called powerful learning environments rather than for the transition from teacher-centred towards student-centred learning environments.

Introduction With the advent of constructivism, the educational jargon has been enriched by the notion student-centred learning environment. This notion is used to describe curricula and instructional settings in which students learning activities are focused upon. Student-centred learning environments may take different forms. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1996, pp. 499500) for instance, distinguish between messing around, hands-on learning or guided discovery, learning through problemsolving, curiosity driven inquiry, and theory improvement inquiry. While student-centred learning environments differ in form and purpose, they also share interesting features. In most so-called student-centred learning environments learners are confronted with an authentic task in order to induce relevant learning experiences (see Grabinger, 1996). Rather than presenting information on water
*Corresponding author: CIP&T, Department of Educational Sciences, K. U. Leuven, Vesaliusstraat 2, 3000 Leuven, Belgium. Email: ISSN 1356-2517 (print)/ISSN 1470-1294 (online)/07/010105-13 # 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/13562510601102339


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pollution to students in a texture-based format, students are asked to make a report on the water quality in their own region. Attempts to replace a test-culture with an assessment-culture are also characteristic of most student-centred learning environments (see Birenbaum & Dochy 1996). Various authors have attempted to systematically describe the features of student-centred learning environments by contrasting them with other types of instruction. In their introduction of Theoretical foundations of learning environments, Jonassen and Land (2000) present a list of no less than 30 aspects on which student-centred learning environments differ from what they call traditional instruction. Whereas instruction is characterized by adjectives like objective, stable, fixed, well-structured, decontextualized, and compliant, for student-centred learning environments other adjectives are used such as subjective, contextualized, fluid, ill-structured, embedded in experience, and self regulated. The list clearly suggests that the theoretical background as well as the practice of learning and instruction have dramatically changed. These changes also affect learners and teachers roles in designing and developing instruction as well as in the actual interactions. In recent literature, student-centred learning environments are portrayed as more adequate than teacher-centred learning environments (see Kember 1997). A teachercentred learning environment, which is similar to traditional instruction, is said to discourage students from adopting a deep approach to study (Entwistle, 2003). Gow and Kember (1993) reported that a student-centred learning environment is less likely to induce surface approaches. Consequently, many researchers claim that a transition in curricular and instructional approaches is needed: from teacher-centred to student-centred learning environments (see Prosser et al., 1994; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999). Such a transition, however, will only be successful when the main actors, i.e., teachers and students, understand and agree with the underpinnings of so-called student-centred learning environments. In other words, a smooth transition requires a mutual adaptation of students and teachers instructional conceptions (Lowyck et al., 2004). Most research on instructional conceptions has been done with teachers and lecturers (see for instance the literature on pedagogical content knowledge of teachers (Schulman, 1986) and on the knowledge of teacher education students about particular instructional interventions (see Lawson et al., 2002). This contribution reports on the results of three studies with students. Each study explored the relationship between teacher-centred and student-centred learning environments, as conceptualized by university students. In each study, students were asked to specify their ideas about features of quality university education. Survey items invited students to express their ideas about quality features irrespective of their actual experiences with and perceptions of the academic programs at their university. In other words, survey items addressed instructional conceptions. The results may yield some empirical backing to the different views that can currently be found in the literature on the relationship between teacher-centred and studentcentred learning environments. Gaining insight into students conceptions of this relationship is important since students conceptions moderate students perceptions

From teacher- to student-centred?


of learning environments and hence may influence students adaptation to a specific learning environment (Lowyck et al., 2004). Three views on the relationship between student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments The literature reveals three views on the relationship between student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments and more specifically on the implications of an evolution towards student-centred learning on the role of the teacher (or, more generally, the instructional agent): a balance view, a transactional view and an independent view (see Figure 1). The balance view seems to dominate the practice-oriented literature that calls for a paradigm shift in education (see for instance the discussion on new learning in the Netherlands; Vermunt, 2006). Basically, the proponents of the balance view argue that a transition from a teacher-centred learning environment to a student-centred environment implies handing over responsibilities and tasks. Responsibilities and tasks previously assumed by the teacher are transmitted to the learner. In this balance view, students and teachers can have the same tasks and responsibilities, such as selecting the goals, designing the environment, do the assessment, but never at the same time or in the same instructional context. Either the student or the teacher assumes the responsibility and executes the task. At a particular moment or in a specific context, tasks and responsibilities are neatly distributed. The more responsibilities and tasks are handed over to the students, the less responsibilities and tasks are left for the teachers. The balance view implies a clear-cut opposition between teacher-centred learning environments such as direct instruction (see Creemers, 1994), and student-centred learning environments such as discovery learning (Bruner, 1961). Whereas in direct instruction knowledge is imparted by the teacher, in the latter knowledge is actively constructed by the learner. Similarly, whereas in teacher-centred learning environments goals are externally selected and imposed on the learner, in a student-centred learning environment goals are

Figure Learning environment designed by Same tasks Same tasks at same time Factors of factoranalyses Factor loadings Correlation Study

Balance view T S T or S

Transactional view T S T and S

Independent view T S T and S

Yes No Same Opposite / / Same Same /

Yes Yes Different / Yes 3

No / Different / No 2

Figure 1. Three views on the relationship between teacher-centredness and student-centredness


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negotiated and selected by the learners. Moreover, whereas direct instruction offers a designed environment to the learners, learners become the designers of their own learning environment in truly student-centred environments (Lea et al., 2003). Protagonists of both direct instruction (see Rosenshine & Meister, 1995) and radical constructivism (see von Glaserfeld, 1989) seem to adopt the balance view. A second view, the transactional view, is more eclectic and hence less clear-cut or transparent (see Cooper & McIntyre 1994). Similar to the balance view, proponents of the transactional view claim that students and teachers may execute the same tasks and assume similar responsibilities (see Shuell, 1988). The transactional view also accepts that learning is an active and constructive process and hence puts students learning at the core. However in contrast to the balance view, an evolution towards a student-centred learning environment does not result in radically handing over responsibilities. Rather, teachers and students are regarded to be jointly responsible for the success of the learning process while the teacher continuously compensates for problems learners might experience. From a transactional perspective a studentcentred learning environment entails a continuous interchange between students and teachers responsibilities and tasks. Who takes the lead and what kind of tasks are executed by whom, is decided interactively by monitoring the learning process itself and more specifically the capabilities and willingness of students to regulate their own learning. From this transactional view, students are expected to gradually assume more responsibilities (Vermunt & Verloop, 1999). The teacher continuously monitors and coaches the gradual growth of responsibilities. The teacher or instructional agent assesses the self-regulation skills and goal-directed motivation, acting as a metacognitive agent and offering the learner direct support wherever or whenever needed (Collins et al., 1989). More help might be needed when learners lack domain-specific prior knowledge or when previously learners self-regulation capacities have been insufficiently called upon. The clearly interrelated notions of powerful learning environment, cognitive apprenticeship and zone of proximal development all express this idea of interaction (see Brown et al., 1989). Each of these notions stresses the joint responsibility of teachers and students in view of achieving learning outcomes. From this transactional view and considering the findings of recent research, student-centredness does not necessarily mean a reduction of teachers responsibilities or tasks, but a continuous reassessment and reorientation of these responsibilities and tasks. In alignment with the balance and the transactional view, the independent view acknowledges that students and teachers may have the same tasks and responsibilities. In contrast to these views, however, the independent view claims that in educational settings teachers and students have fundamentally different roles. Whereas it is the students role to actively engage in learning processes, it is the teachers role to actively engage in supporting that learning. This implies that changes in the tasks and students responsibilities do not affect the nature of teachers tasks and responsibilities but only alter the nature of their interventions. What teachers do in order to support learners to achieve particular learning outcomes, changes. For instance, as long as students remain in an educational or instructional

From teacher- to student-centred?


setting, teachers assume the responsibility for monitoring students activities and carefully adapting their interventions (Merrill, 2002). Empirical analyses Confronted with this diverse set of opinions about the relationship between teachers and students tasks and responsibilities, results of three survey studies were reanalysed. The reanalysis aimed at comparing university students conceptions about quality education and more specifically about the role of teachers and learners with the three views mentioned above. Each of these views has clear implications on what to expect from a factor analysis on questionnaire-data about students and teachers roles in quality education. A balance view suggests that such factor analyses will reveal one or more factors, each referring to a different type of tasks and responsibilities with respect to the establishment of quality education. Typical for the balance view is that items referring to students or teachers appear on the same factor(s) but have factor loadings with opposite signs. In other words, they correlate negatively. For instance, a factor analysis that supports the balance view, may show that students who express the opinion that it is up to the teacher to determine the goals, also indicate that selecting goals is not a role of students. In opposition signs would indicate that the more a student assumes responsibilities and executes tasks in a high educational quality setting, the less the teacher does so or vice versa. Or putting it differently, the more student-centred a learning environment is, the less teacher-centred the learning environment becomes or vice versa. A transactional view equally suggests that factor analyses will reveal one or more factors. Similarly to the balance view, items referring to students and teachers responsibilities and tasks may have high loadings on the same factor. Different factors refer to different types of tasks and/or responsibilities. However, in contrast to the balance view, factor loadings also will have the same sign. It means that in view of establishing high quality education, students and teachers have similar responsibilities and execute similar types of tasks. Such a result might indicate that students regard the establishment of clear goals as an important aspect of high-quality education and that both teachers and students are responsible for it. The independent view, finally, gets confirmed when items referring to students responsibilities and tasks load high on other factors than items referring to teachers responsibilities and tasks. Such a result would imply that for students there is no continuum from teacher-centredness to student-centredness or, in other words, that student-centredness and teacher-centredness are independent and co-exist. When determining the nature of quality education, the independent view suggests that students can simultaneously give high scores to teacher-centredness and studentcentredness factors. Teacher-centred and student-centred factors do not correlate. In the remainder, three studies are presented that aimed at identifying the factor structure, and hence finding evidence for one of the views mentioned above.


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Study 1 In a first study (Elen et al., 1998), 162 students from two different Belgian universities completed a questionnaire The questionnaire invited students to rate features of three prototypical universities with clearly different curricular orientations: the first one was a problem-based oriented university, the second a technologyoriented university and the third one a theory-oriented, lecture-based university. In order to make the differences clear to the respondents, each prototypical university was described in a short vignette (see Figure 2). Students described the features of each university by rating on a 5-point Likert type scale (from 1, strongly disagree, to 5, strongly agree) a set of 20 statements. Students specified to what extent a specific feature was typical for each of the prototypical universities. This set was identical for each university and addressed issues like focusing on skills, factual knowledge, searching and processing of information. Based on a factor-analysis with varimax-rotation on the 60 statements, six scales were constructed (for details, see Elen et al., 1998). Five of theses scales had high reliability (Cronbach alphas ranging from .73 to .84). One scale had a rather low reliability of .58, but given the possibility of a clear interpretation it nevertheless was used in further analyses (descriptive statistics, see Table 1). The following scales were retrieved. Items that relate to higher-order goals such as application of knowledge, and deep understanding as well as items that refer to creating facilities for social contact among students or between students and professors have high factor loadings on three factors. Each of these factors refers to a particular type of university. Factor 1 for instance contains items that refer to higher-order goals and social contact for the lecture-based university. When pertaining to the problem-based university or the technology-based university, these items load high on respectively Factor 3 and Factor 4. A second group of statements refers to the need for students to work independently in the learning environment (e.g., Students have a lot of responsibility at this university; This university encourages students to work independently). For both the problem-based and the technology-based university these items load high

An institution of higher education is located in California where they teach mainly excathedra. The students take courses in large groups. During the courses students receive information in a clearly structured way. Students decide themselves how they deal with this information. In addition to the courses, there is a textbook for each subject. Depending on the lecturer, the textbook deals with exactly the same content as the lectures or a completely different content. On the exam, students get tested on their insight in this information. They receive mostly literal questions. A small amount of the instruction consists of solving problems or completing tasks that are mainly theoretically oriented.

Figure 2. Vignette of theoretically-oriented, lectures-based learning environment (translated from Dutch)

From teacher- to student-centred?

Table 1. Descriptive statistics for scales in Study 1 No of subjects Lecturing higher order goals*/interaction Technological/problem-based: independent work Problem-based higher order goals*/interaction Technological higher order goals*/interaction Technological/problem-based: knowledge transmission Lecturing*/independent work 160 161 161 160 162 160 No of items 15 14 14 6 4 3 M SD Min. Max.


Cronbach alpha .84 .83 .83 .76 .58 .73

38.33 57.39 44.01 21.09 10.13 7.68

7.34 6.15 7.79 3.52 2.47 2.60

20 14 14 6 4 3

75 70 69 30 16 15

on the second factor. For the lecture-based university these items load high on the sixth factor. Finally, items that refer to lower order cognitive skills, such as the instructional goals of information-provision or knowledge transmission (This university focuses on factual knowledge; At this university transmission of knowledge is stressed) have high factor loadings on the fifth factor if they pertain to the problem-based or technological university. When these items refer to the lecturing university, they do not load high on any of the factors. In general, these results indicate that in their assessment of features of prototypical universities, students clearly differentiate between a lecture-based university on the one hand and technological/problem-based universities on the other. Furthermore they also differentiate between (a) higher order goals, which are linked to intensive interaction; (b) lower order goals; and (c) independent work. With respect to the research question raised in this contribution, this study does not directly support any of the views. The close interrelations between goals and context are striking. The results also suggest that working independently and having a lot of responsibility does not exclude the possibility of a traditional view on imparting knowledge. Although very indirectly, the results suggest that*at least in the students view*a student-centred learning environment and a teacher-centred environment can exist together. It can be concluded, therefore that the balance view is not supported.
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Study 2 In a second study (Elen et al., 1999), 414 second year higher education students from four different Belgian institutions (two university colleges and two universities) estimated for higher education in general the importance of 20 instructional goals and quality features by using a 5-point Likert-type scale. Respondents rated the


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Table 2. Descriptive statistics for scales in Study 2 No of items M (Min. 1.00Max. 5.00) 4.15 3.40 SD Cronbach alpha .75 .67

Providing ample support for learning Encouraging independent learning

9 2

.41 .75

extent to which a particular instructional goal or quality feature was typical for high quality higher education. Factor analysis of all the answers on these statements resulted in the construction of two scales (see Table 2). The first scale contains nine items. All items on this scale pertain to the role of the instructional environment to support the acquisition of meaningful and applicable knowledge. Students with a high score on this scale expect to acquire applicable knowledge and skills and, at the same time, they want the learning environment to assume major responsibility in supporting students to achieve that goal. They indicate that providing clear information, a good balance between theory and practice, direct instruction and, a good relationship between teachers and students are essential quality features of higher education. The scale was labeled as providing ample support for learning. The second scale contains only two items. The two items pertain to a learning environment in which students are encouraged to be active and self-responsible. Students scoring high on this scale especially value the importance of an environment that induces learners to work on their own. This scale is labeled encouraging independent learning. As opposed to the first study, this study documents more clearly that in students conceptions providing ample support and encouraging independent learning go side by side. Or, more precisely, if the first scale is regarded as an indicator of a teachercentred environment and the second scale of a student-centred one, this study prompts the conclusion that from the students perspective student-centredness and teacher-centredness are two independent dimensions to describe a learning environment. Interestingly, students give high ratings to both scales (see Table 2). This clearly supports the independent view. For students, a particular learning environment can be, at the same time, student-centred and teacher-centred. Study 3 Given the intriguing results of the first two studies a third survey study was initiated to analyse more deeply the relation between a student-centred and a teacher-centred environment. A questionnaire with 41 items referring to features of learning environments was administered with 2132 students at one Belgian university. Students were enrolled in different programmes and study years. Students were asked to use a 6-point Likert-type scale to rate the extent to which each of the 41 features characterizes high quality higher education.

From teacher- to student-centred?


Factor analysis with varimax rotation revealed that -similar to the results of Study 2 but even more extreme*40 items, i.e., all items except one, loaded high on only one factor. The one remaining item referred to the need for memorizing a lot of information. A scale with 40 items was constructed and labeled as a safe and challenging environment. In order to gain more insight in the results, all 40 items of this scale were submitted to a new factor analysis with oblique rotation. This second factor analysis revealed 6 factors. Considering the results, six highly correlating scales (for correlations, see Table 3) were constructed. Table 4 contains the descriptive statistics of the two scales and the six sub-scales. The first subscale (nine items) refers to a student-directed learning environment. Students in this environment are responsible for their own learning. They work independently, raise personal questions, and actively prepare teaching sessions. Assessment is continuous and exams follow the open book format. The second scale (five items) relates to a challenging learning environment. Students in this environment are encouraged to solve authentic problems, to give presentations and to prepare papers. Students decide autonomously how they learn and lecturers assume that students have ample prior knowledge. A third scale (two items) refers to a differentiating learning environment in which students are heavily supported and differences between students are explicitly taken into account. The fourth scale (two items) relates to a co-designed learning environment. Students here co-decide on instructional goals and regularly discuss problems. The fifth scale (one item) pertains to intensive practice. Students have to invest a lot in practical exercises. The sixth scale (6 items) describes a teacher-centred learning environment. Lecturers in a teacher-centred learning environment decide on instructional goals and the provision of support. When studying or making exercises students follow precise guidelines and explicit instructions. Most exams occur in a multiple-choice format and the use of reading materials during the exam is not allowed. The results of the first analysis of this third study suggest that students describe higher education as having a high quality when the environment provides safe challenges. The second analysis on these data reveals a high correlation (.70) between a student-directed and a teacher-centred environment. These analyses

Table 3. Correlations between subscales in Study 3 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 1.00 .64 .66 .58 .51 .70 2 */ 1.00 .51 .48 .43 .60 3 */ */ 1.00 .46 .43 .58 4 */ */ */ 1.00 .36 .45 5 */ */ */ */ 1.00 .42 6 */ */ */ */ */ 1.00

Legend: 10/student-directed learning environment; 2 0/challenging learning environment; 30/ differentiating learning environment; 40/co-designed learning environment; 50/intensive practice; 60/teacher-centred learning environment.


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Table 4. Descriptive statistics for (sub)scales in Study 3 No of items M (Min. 1.00Max. 6.00) 4.41 2.25 4.43 4.47 4.55 4.26 4.52 4.23 SD Cronbach alpha .96 .87 .76 .73 .73 .80

Safe and challenging environment Memorizing Student-centred LE Challenging LE Differentiating LE Co-designed LE Intensive practice Teacher-centred LE

40 1 9 5 2 2 1 6

.70 .94 .80 .82 1.03 1.05 1.12 .86

suggest that, from the students perspective, teacher- and student-centredness are mutually compatible and are both seen as characteristics of high quality education. In other words, this analysis supports the transactional view on the relationship between teacher-centredness and student-centredness. Student-centredness and teachercentredness are not the extremes of a continuum but are dimensions. The dimensions teacher-centredness and student-centredness are not independent but closely related. Students indicate that the establishment of high quality higher education implies a learning environment that offers safe challenges or is at the same student-centred and teacher-centred. Discussion and conclusion The transition from teacher-centred towards student-centred learning environments is regularly argued for. Multiple studies can be found in which student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments are sharply contrasted (Kember, 1997; Jonassen & Land, 2000; Samuelowicz & Bain, 2001). When introducing innovative curricula and educational approaches, teachers are often uncertain about their role (Fullan, 2001), especially when the need for students to be active is stressed. Because in this literature student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments are portrayed as the opposite poles of a continuum, or*in line with the distinctions made above*because a balance view is adopted, teachers may get the impression that the introduction of more student-centred learning environments implies a reduction of their own responsibilities and tasks. In a student-centred environment, learners are claimed to become their own teachers. Students must select learning goals, select appropriate support, and monitor or assess their own learning. The gradual elaboration of a student-centred environment results in the denial of the role of the teacher. In contrast to this balance view on the relationship between student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments, two other less radical views are also present in the literature, namely a transactional and an independent view. Whereas the transactional view stresses the continuous mutual adaptation of teachers and
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students responsibilities and tasks, the independent view is based on the argument that students and teachers roles can be clearly distinguished. The empirical survey studies discussed in this contribution provide evidence that, at least in the mind of higher education students, student-centredness and teachercentredness are not the opposite poles of one continuum. Conversely, the studies provide some evidence for the independent view (Study 2) and more direct support for the transactional view (Study 3). Study 3 clearly shows that according to students, student-centredness and teachercentredness are not conflicting but mutually reinforcing features of a learning environment. When properly combined they jointly contribute to its quality. A high quality-learning environment is an environment that provides challenges with proper safeguards; it encourages students to work independently while concurrently providing ample support. This view of the students is in line with the transactional view, a view that emphasizes the constructive nature of learning and stresses that both students and teachers aim at realizing the same goals. According to students, the distribution of responsibilities of the learning process is decided interactively. In this process*as stipulated in the independent view*the teacher or instructional agent seems to have a specific meta-monitoring role. While the learner may codevelop the learning environments, it remains the task of the teacher to design the environment that enables this co-development. Clearly, the studies highlight that students do not support the balance view. While teachers and learners may execute the same tasks and assume similar responsibilities the evolution towards a student-centred environment does not result in a reduction of teachers tasks but in a revision of their nature. For instance, at the start of an instructional process the instructional agent may provide the information. Later on in the process the instructional agents will mainly monitor the use made by students of information resources that are put at their disposal. Given these results on the one hand, and the confusion regularly created when student-centred and teacher-centred learning environments are portrayed as opposing poles of one continuum on the other, it seems indicated to refrain from talking about the transition from teacher-centred towards student-centred environments. In line with the results of these studies and in view of the establishment of sufficient mutual adaptation between teachers and students instructional conceptions, a more subtle message needs to be conveyed. The need for developing powerful, i.e., challenging and safe, learning environments in higher education should be stressed. In a powerful learning environment, students assume full responsibility for the construction of their knowledge. They do so in a comfortable context that offers targeted support from teachers to render their activities as effective as possible. According to students and to ensure challenges the nature of that support gradually evolves from providing a clear and well-structured basis*a sort of safe knowledge foundation that can be built on*to a more distant monitoring of the learning process. Hence, the development of high quality university curricula cannot be limited to the elaboration of sound, well-sequenced research-based content, but also implies a systematic deliberation of the support needs of students. For students, a
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high quality learning environment at universities confronts them not with missions impossible but with safe challenges.

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