Applying Learner-Centered Principles in teacher education

Applying Learner-Centered Principles in teacher education

Jean W. Pierce

Applying the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles (LCPs) in teacher preparation programs and courses provides teacher educators with opportunities to model effective learner-centered practices and promote student motivation and learning. This article addresses issues related to the application of the LCPs in higher education, specifically, the promotion of self-regulated learning and the importance of examining preservice teachers’ beliefs regarding students, learning, and teaching. Learner-centered instructional practices in teacher education courses are suggested for each of the four LCP factors/domains, including strategies for promoting teacher reflection and knowledge construction, offering students choices, encouraging collaboration, and accommodating individual differences through criterion-referenced mastery grading.


TRADITIONALLY, LEARNER-CENTERED practices have been most evident in early childhood settings. Recognizing the needs and strengths of the whole learner–social, emotional, and physical, as well as academic–has been a hallmark of the education of young children. Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness that learner-centered beliefs and practices are equally important in higher education, and particularly in teacher education.

Learner-centered practices in higher education are defined by factors similar to those identified through elementary and secondary assessments. All levels consider educators’ efforts to (a) establish positive personal relationships, (b) honor students’ ideas and opinions, (c) facilitate higher order thinking, and (d) address students’ individual needs and beliefs (McCombs & Lauer, 1997). However, in higher education, the identified practices focus more strongly on expectations that students will take responsibility for self-regulated learning (McCombs, 2002; McCombs & Pierce, 1999).

The increased emphasis on self-regulation poses some interesting challenges when students have not previously experienced this learner role. Learner-centered educators in higher education who are aware of students’ preferences realize that many of them feel threatened when student self-regulation is a course expectation. In fact, students who have not previously taken responsibility for their choices and decisions in courses may not perceive that such a course is learner-centered at all. This means that instructors need to be prepared to scaffold the students’ progress toward self-regulation. Some of the techniques described in this article have been structured specifically to prepare students in higher education to take responsibility for self-regulated learning.

In addition to the increased emphasis on self-regulation, there are other unique aspects about efforts to implement learner-centered psychological principles (LCPs) (APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs, 1997) in higher education. The learner-centered (and non-learner-centered) beliefs of students who are preparing to become teachers can play an important role in their professional development. Students enter their major with firmly held beliefs (LaBoskey, 1994). Focusing on changes in these beliefs during the program can be an effective means of addressing dispositions of developing educators. This is part of the process known as “seamless professional development” (McCombs et al., 2001).

Students preparing to become teachers enter their education courses with strongly entrenched biases and beliefs based on at least 12 years of experience in classrooms. In few other programs of study are there novices who bring such firm convictions about how experts should perform. Some of these unexamined beliefs about the ways classrooms should be run are not particularly learner-centered.

In the current standards-driven climate, students majoring in education are expected to master criteria based on standards recommended by the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC, 1992). INTASC organized their standards for beginning teachers according to three strands: knowledge, practices, and dispositions. Using the Assessment of Learner-Centered Practices (ALCP) survey to measure conceptual change over the course of a teacher education program represents a potentially valuable technique for addressing the students’ dispositions. For example, INTASC has recommended that teachers appreciate individual variation within each area of development, show respect for diverse talents of learners, and use student strengths as bases for growth. Similarly, the ALCP includes learner-centered items about the perceived importance of addressing students’ social, emotional, and physical needs and the non-learner-centered belief that innate ability is fairly fixed. Items such as these can be used to track beliefs about the importance of recognizing individual differences as undergraduates advance through teacher education courses (Pierce, Kalkman, & Dean, 2002).

Using the ALCP survey as part of a complete battery permits educators in higher education to design programs for seamless professional development. This implies that learner-centered principles operate on a number of different levels. Colleges and universities offer unique opportunities to consider the development of learner-centered beliefs and practices among preservice teachers who are making a transition from student to teacher. Indeed, it is possible to examine the intersection of undergraduate students’ perceptions of the learner-centeredness of their professors’ practices as well as the students’ reflections on their own evolving learner-centered beliefs, their practices during clinical experiences, and their self-efficacy for teaching and for learning.

The rest of this article will address more specific implications for higher education based on the LCPs. Because the APA task forces classified learner-centered practices according to four domains, implications of practices inspired by the theoretical foundations of the principles will be discussed according to the same four categories: Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors, Motivational and Affective Factors, Developmental and Social Factors, and Individual Differences Factors.

Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors

The cognitive and metacognitive factors of the LCPs present a framework for analyzing undergraduates’ journeys toward becoming reflective practitioners who are self-regulated learners knowledgeable about strategies of learning and thinking. Principle 1 refers to the “intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience,” while Principle 3 concerns “link(ing) new information with existing knowledge.” In other words, instructors need to prompt students to engage in the intentional construction/reconstruction of knowledge by confronting their assumptions based on prior experience.

Literature suggests that effective ways of creating potential for conceptual change involve making the students’ ideas explicit and focusing on ways in which those ideas compare and contrast with research-based findings (Dole & Sinatra, 1998). Consequently, some of the most powerful learner-centered practices that can be used with education students involve reflection.

Directed reflection

Creating reflective practitioners is a worthy goal of teacher education programs (Russell & Munby, 1992). The authors have found that “directed” reflection presents a meaningful context for students to recognize and confront their prior knowledge. For instance, educational psychology students are directed to reflect about instructional implications suggested by a variety of learning theories. When they learn about Bandura’s social cognition theory, for example, they experience learning from modeling. When they learn about Vygotsky’s social constructivism, students experience reciprocal teaching (Brown & Palinscar, 1987). Each time they participate in such an application, they are directed to reflect about what was good or bad about the experience for helping them learn. As students share their reflections, they begin to appreciate the variety of individual perceptions held by classmates. This represents one step toward becoming aware of their own learning preferences and appreciating that their preferred ways of learning may not be equally effective for others.

Writing reflections in a journal allows instructors to become aware of students’ knowledge and understanding. This can lead to a productive exchange in which the instructor builds on a student’s prior knowledge, confronts misconceptions, and addresses the student’s interests.

Another directed reflection technique for promoting constructive learning is the EXPLORE procedure used by one of the authors. Frequently students report conceptual change after experiencing the EXPLORE process. EXPLORE is an acronym standing for “EXamine,” “Pair,” “Listen,” “Organize,” “Research,” and “Evaluate.”

* Examine opinions. Initially students are presented with a controversial statement and are asked to commit themselves to a position relative to that issue.

* Create Pairs. People who agree with the statement raise their right hands, while people who disagree raise their left hands. Class members stand and walk up to someone with whom they can grasp opposite hands.

* Listen. Each member of a pair takes a turn explaining his or her position. The other member is instructed to listen effectively enough to be able to summarize what was just stated so that the speaker can agree that the summary was accurate.

* Organize. When both people’s positions have been heard accurately, they organize the information into a compare/contrast matrix.

* Research. Each member of the pair conducts research to determine what the literature says about the conditions under which either approach to the issue could be correct.

* Evaluation. Members of each pair share their findings and agree on research-based statements.

Techniques such as these have been used not only in undergraduate courses but also in master’s level classes. Educational psychology courses in learning and motivation can provide a backdrop for teachers to analyze their own learner-centered practices in terms of their epistemologies, personal learning theories, teacher efficacy, and so on.


Acquiring and monitoring strategies for learning and thinking represent other major foci of the Cognition and Metacognitive Factors. According to Principle 2, successful learners need to be taught how to “create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge.” Principle 4 concerns a “repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies,” and Principle 5 refers to metacognitive monitoring of mental operations. To address these principles, the authors have required students to use and reflect on a variety of study strategies. After students learn how to use specific learning strategies such as SQ4R and MURDER, (1) they are required to choose approaches that are appropriate for the material they are required to learn. They apply and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies in the situated contexts, and they consider how they could adapt each strategy for subsequent use.

One strategy that lends itself well to educational psychology courses teaches students to use and create matrices to represent, compare, and contrast information (Kiewra & DuBois, 1998). In the authors’ courses, students develop matrices to represent theories of learning, development, motivation, and class management. Students are taught how to create matrices to summarize what they have learned about each of the major theoretical perspectives. Their theory matrices are then used in a variety of contexts.

One of these contexts involves problem-based learning (PBL). Pierce and Lange (2001) have described ways in which they incorporate PBL into educational psychology courses. One problem posed to their students is, How would you define and address the needs of students in a videotaped classroom? Undergraduates are required to create matrices that represent different ways in which theorists would interpret and respond to the observed needs. With the matrices, students are able to consider strengths and weaknesses of implications based on the theories. This approach ensures that the students examine problems from a variety of perspectives. Engaging in that practice is a challenge for novice educators, who tend to be more inclined to jump to conclusions and solve problems before they are fully defined.

Motivational and Affective Factors

Certainly, motivation is an issue whenever students are expected to use self-regulated strategies. Spending time and effort using and monitoring strategies requires consideration of motivation. Principles 7-9 include statements such as “Motivation to learn … is influenced by the individual’s … beliefs, interests, and goals…. Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks … relevant to personal interests, and providing for personal choice and control.”

Student choices

Theorists have commented on the centrality of student choice to motivation (Ames, 1992; Ames & Ames, 1984; Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). When choices are presented within parameters, instructors capitalize on student interests and learning preferences while promoting students’ perceptions of autonomy. In educational psychology classes, for example, students can be responsible for numerous choices: which assignments are to be completed, as well as how, when, and with whom to complete an assignment.

One learner-centered practice identified by the authors has been to present students with the responsibility of creating a relevant alternative assignment if they do not believe that a project described in the syllabus would be appropriate for them. Students who are required to take educational psychology courses represent a variety of majors, including speech pathology and deaf rehabilitation. Not all of these students envision themselves teaching a classroom of students for a 9-month school year. Consequently, the authors list all of their major objectives in their syllabi. Next to each objective is the description of an assignment designed to meet that outcome. Throughout our educational psychology courses, students are reminded (and reassured!) that they have the responsibility to suggest an alternative assignment if they do not believe a suggested approach would be relevant for them. Of course, their alternative must be negotiated with the instructor. Some university sophomores are encountering the freedom to make such choices for the first time, so it is necessary to be ready to coach (set parameters for) those who require more structure.

At the end of a course, the students are directed to reflect on the suitability of each type of assignment for themselves as learners. If they did not appreciate an assignment, they are encouraged to reflect on what they could have proposed as an alternative. Practices such as these consider not only motivation and affective factors but also individual differences addressed in Principle 12: “Learners have different strategies, approaches, and capabilities for learning.”

Developmental and Social Factors Collaboration

Principle 11 highlights the importance of social interaction and communication. We have directed our students to reflect on their experiences in collaborative groups. Projects that are described in the syllabus include collaboration to define and address individual needs of students, as well as to synthesize and integrate research-based suggestions for educational psychology in the development of a lesson. For some projects, groups are formed based on student choice of collaborating partners. For other projects, students choose a topic to address and work with others who chose the same topic.

Each of these projects involves individual assignments that require students to develop their ideas by themselves before combining their thoughts with others in collaborative groups. The wisdom of the group creates the final synthesis, but the students’ grades are based on the ideas they contribute individually to the group (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). After the presentation of each major project, each student completes a group rating form analyzing his or her participation in the group process and then circulates it through the group. The other group members add an evaluation of the student’s performance. Then the form is returned directly to the individual. Some of the items concern whether the student dominated the group, paid attention, got off task, was considerate, and so on. One of the directed reflection assignments requires that students evaluate how closely their perceptions of their own group participation correspond to the perceptions of the other members.

Individual Differences Factors

The final three LCPs, and specifically Principle 14, address individual differences in learning. Some approaches relevant to this factor have been described previously.

Mastery goal orientation

Principle 14 concerns setting challenging standards for assignments. The authors share a conviction that mastery of the material addressed in educational psychology courses is essential for educators. To this end, the instructors have implemented criterion-referenced mastery grading. This means students are required to complete at least one assignment for each objective of the course. However, an individual is not necessarily assigned a grade evaluating the first attempt to meet each objective. Instead, students are permitted to redo assignments in order to master each stated objective.

Students are required to submit their first attempt at the beginning of the class session when the information is first addressed. This ensures that class members come prepared to discuss the issues. If a student’s first response needs revision, the instructor provides relevant feedback. As with reflective journal entries, this becomes an individualized discussion between the instructor and student as the individual constructs an accurate understanding of the course content. Certainly, some students dislike the mastery approach. It violates the assumptions that (a) an assignment needs to be completed only once, (b) students should settle for the grade they get on the first try, and (c) students should not be required to think about information until after the instructor discusses it. Once again, confronting the educational beliefs of students is a major focus of educational psychology courses.


Teacher educators have an obligation to “practice what they preach” if they want to be taken seriously. In 1999, McCombs and Pierce developed the Assessment of Learner-Centered Practices-Higher Education (ALCP-HE). This battery provides professors with an opportunity to monitor and reflect on their own learner-centered practices. Using surveys from the ALCP-HE has enabled the authors to re-examine their approaches and to develop their uses of the described instructional methods. Nevertheless, by its very definition, learner-centered practices are fluid–responding to the needs of individuals. Consequently, specific practices used in the authors’ classes may not transfer directly to another situation.

However, techniques that promote the development of reflective practitioners–self-regulated teachers/learners who monitor their uses of thinking strategies, choices in learning situations, behaviors in collaborative groups, and respect for individual differences–have broad-based support in the literature.


(1.) There are a variety of study methods that have been developed based on research in cognitive psychology. One of the most popular is SQ4R: Survey, Question, Read, Reffect, Recite, and Review. Another popular study strategy is MURDER–which stands for Mood, Understand, Recall, Digest, Expand, and Review. See for more information.


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Jean W. Pierce is a professor of education and Deborah L. Kalkman is a doctoral student, both at Northern Illinois University.

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