Student-Centred Learning

The following is an excerpt from the European Students’ Union’s publication “Overview on Student‐Centred Learning in Europe” (2015).

Student‐centred learning has a long and inspirational history, starting with the massive student protests against the elitism of universities in 1968 and the need for universities to open their doors to all parts of society. This continued with the rise of critical pedagogy, which aimed at empowering students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to build upon their experiences and perspectives and provide them with knowledge to challenge the common knowledge, perceptions and myths in society. This also based itself on the idea that students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.

The ineffectiveness of teaching through the transmission of knowledge has also been confirmed through years of pedagogical research. The massive protests, the rise of critical pedagogy and the research done on the teaching and learning process spawned the concept of student‐centred learning; putting students in the driver’s seat of their learning experience and facilitating the process of learning to learn.

The increasing student population and its growing diversity presents challenges to the traditional methods of teaching and learning, making it necessary to adapt the classroom to focus on the diversity of students’ experiences, engage with many different types of learners and inspire students through a mutual learning experience.

Over the past years, the concept of SCL has made its way into the policy discourse on higher education. Student‐centred learning was introduced as an action line in the Bologna Process at the Ministerial Meeting in Leuven/Louvain‐la‐Neuve in 2009. Further commitments can also be found in national plans for higher education and institutional strategies, and it has long been a prominent topic in higher education.

2. Main findings

The concept of SCL has a positive connotation among all educational stakeholders, regardless of the definition and understanding. At the same time, there is one area where all parties are conflicted and uncertain, and that is the final implementation at the classroom level. Given the fact that the main focus group here is students, the ones most affected by this paradigm shift, we turned to them to explain to us how everyday students see implementation of the SCL‐concept possible in the classroom. Therefore, we conducted a survey of the student population through their representatives, as part of Peer Assessment of Student‐Centred Learning (PASCL), a project co‐funded with the support of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme.

Started in October 2013, PASCL aims to re‐evaluate the progress of implementation of SCL, highlight best practices and establishes peer assessment procedures for the implementation of the concept in European higher education institutions. The SCL questionnaire was sent to student representatives from ESU’s 47 member organisations in 39 different countries. Each of the student representatives are currently enrolled in European higher education institutions and members of either the democratic student councils of those institutions or student organisations active at those universities. Being active students gives them good insight into current classroom activities, and their experience as student representatives enables them to analyse and give rational conclusions about the overall state of implementation of SCL concept in a given higher education institution or country.

We received 39 answers from 20 different countries: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia,
Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and UK. More information can be found in PASCL’s “Overview on
Student‐Centred Learning in Higher Education in Europe” (pascl.eu).

Student Awareness of SCL

The questionnaire focused first on the term of SCL and familiarity of the concept. Results proved a poor level of general awareness among students on the topic, as 74% of the respondents stated that everyday students in their country are not familiar with the concept of SCL. Contrary to that, the answers from student representatives show a near perfectly opposite picture, as 77% of them are familiar with the concept of SCL.

These provocative results could lead to many various assumptions, so a closer analysis of the reasoning behind this was necessary. Over 80% of student representatives learned about SCL through their involvement in the student movement, during engagement, conferences, seminars or projects of local students’ unions, national students’ unions and ESU. Only four answers referred to teachers and educational studies or individual research conducted online. This leads to the conclusion that there is an alarmingly low awareness of SCL amongst everyday students. The responsibility for improving this situation lies on both student representatives and organisations to better disseminate projects and information, but at the same time on the higher education institutions who should take additional steps in developing and communicating a clear SCL strategy to students and informing them about possibilities for greater involvement and ownership of their learning experience.

When asked to define SCL in their own terms, respecting national and institutional contexts, almost all respondents referred to a part of ESU’s definition of SCL, and eight respondents quoted ESU’s definition as their own understanding of the concept. Five respondents could not provide a definition or clear understanding of the term. When analysing the content of the definitions all respondents touched up to students being active participants and the ones responsible for their own learning experience. This feeds up to the focus on the needs of students, their learning styles and learning environment. Three respondents emphasised active participation and interaction in their definition. Every fifth respondent made a direct connection of SCL to the experience based knowledge. Modern technologies and teaching support systems were also mentioned in only a few definitions. Focus of three definitions was clearly teacher student communication and mutual respect.

The paradigm shift in practice

Almost 80% of respondents believe that there has been a shift in the degree to which students have a control over their educational process within the past years. 82% of surveyed students believe that there has been a positive change. Student representation is getting stronger allowing students to voice their opinions on their programmes, as a result of which course evaluations are taken more seriously, both by staff and students. At the same time, most of them see the gap between discourse and reality, stating that students tend to be more involved in the governance structures at all the levels, however they’re still not considered as an equal partner in the process. Four respondents see negative change, where there have been new sets of rules imposed, making the learning experience harder for students. 21% of students involved in research have not noticed any kind of change.

When it comes to the implementation of SCL in higher education institutions, there has clearly been some progress in the past years, and 90% of our respondents agree with this statement. Half of them view progress as slow, but see indications of efforts by either national authorities or higher education institutions. In some of these cases, the only indication of progress is on the initiative of individual teachers. The other half see concrete actions taking place, but are still not convinced that SCL has been made a clear priority in higher education, and observe that SCL has still not been presented to students with all its characteristics and opportunities. 38% of student representative respondents have had direct influence in promoting the SCL concept through their respective organisations.

Teaching Methods

Despite new trends and signs of a shift, lectures remain absolutely the most typical way of teaching at the university, appearing in 100% of responses from our respondents. Noticeably, seminars and projects are also a part of respondents’ learning experience, respectfully 69% and 51%. Labs are used in teaching according to 41% of respondents, while only one in five students report having debates, fieldwork, tutorials and workshops as a part of their learning experience.

When asked about project‐based learning, the type of learning in which students work in teams to produce concrete outcomes with full support from higher education institutions, 72% of students confirmed having knowledge about such approaches of teaching and learning in their country. How common this approach is varies greatly.

Students perceive a considerable distinction between bachelor’s degree (BA) and master’s degree (MA) curricula. While BA curricula are often based on teacher‐centered lectures, MA curricula are often more student‐centred and cater to students’ research interests. Most students agree that it depends on the course, institution and programme, some fields focus more on project‐based learning than others, depending on the subject: technical subjects tend to use this approach more than humanities and arts. It can also depend on teachers, their age, personality and experience abroad. Students in general welcome this approach, with respect to limitations and characteristics of a course and subject, show more interest and engagement in this type of learning and rate it as an overall highly positive and useful experience.

Teacher development

SCL focuses on empowering students, but does not by any means neglect the importance and need for
constant professional development of teachers. Teacher support and training programmes must be an integral part of SCL‐implementation in all higher education institutions. We asked students whether they were aware of teacher training programmes at their universities that focus on developing innovative teaching methods and if teachers are asked to take part in teaching quality enhancement programmes, i.e. in modules focusing on pedagogical enhancement. Nearly half of them were aware of the existence of these teacher support services.

44% of our respondents said that teacher training programmes are provided, either within the modules of higher education institutions or within traineeship programmes of different organisations.

Teacher and course evaluations

Teacher and course evaluations can assist in measuring student‐centeredness and for putting students in the drivers’ seat of their educational experience. In order to achieve those goals, evaluations need to be designed to allow students to express themselves in the best possible way, giving them the freedom to comment on and shape their learning paths. Results should be transparent, having direct and clear influence, empowering students to engage by seeing how their input can contribute to change.

At the time of our research, 13% of students claimed that there are no procedures in place for teacher evaluation set up by students. 50% of students believe that teacher evaluation systems are only partially set up by students.

The frequency of conducting these evaluations varies greatly. One in two students responded that evaluations are conducted at the end of each semester, while 5% of respondents said they are conducted only at the end of the academic year. Only 18% of respondents said that constant feedback throughout the year is the norm, while 15% experienced that feedback is collected only occasionally and with no particular order.

According to 93% of respondents teacher evaluations are conducted by way of questionnaire. The majority of those surveys are online, distributed through university emails or special online systems and
platforms established at universities. Questions are mainly quantitative, where students respond by using a numerical scale,, and are given the possibility of providing written comments. There are cases where evaluations are conducted orally, in the form of open questions to the entire class at the last session, and may also be conducted through interaction in smaller focus groups. Methods vary between universities, courses and teachers, but in some cases, like in Sweden, course evaluations are mandatory and conducted at the end of each course. There are often possibilities to comment about the teaching or make general remarks, however there are no evaluations directly dedicated to evaluate the teacher.

Generally speaking, students are satisfied with teacher evaluation systems at their universities. 67% of respondents expressed their satisfaction. Interestingly, not one respondent said they are very satisfied, while 23% were not satisfied at all with the teacher evaluation systems in place. Needless to say, there is still room for improvement, and the most mentioned reproach refers to the transparency of evaluation results and how they are used, giving students clear insight to the impact their input had. Closing the feedback cycle by informing students about the results and follow‐up of evaluations are essential for ensuring valuable student feedback and a true student‐centred approach.

Teachers and administrative staff are often concerned about whether students take teaching evaluations seriously, about the low response rates, and with how representative and honest results are. We therefore asked student representatives for their reflections on the general mood amongst everyday students and whether they take teacher evaluations seriously. 46% of respondents are not convinced that students take these evaluations seriously. Reasons cited were a lack of proper follow‐up and the feeling that the evaluations are not read, there are neither positive nor negative consequences due to results, a lack of incentives for filling them out, poor design of the evaluation. Additionally, evaluations may be too long and complicated be adequately answered, real issues are not being addressed, and students sometimes feel that universities themselves do not take them seriously when results are not followed‐up with concrete actions. Those who do not take evaluations seriously, also believe that when students have a severe complaints about the teacher, they will use systems such as an ombudsperson in order to be heard.

Most students agree that putting evaluations online helped a lot in getting better responses, as it improves accessibility and students can complete them in a comfortable environment, which in turn improves the quality of answers. 33% believe that students take these evaluations seriously only to a certain extent, stating that those who do answer take it seriously, but when evaluations are not mandatory, those who do not care do not provide any feedback. 21% of respondents strongly believe students take evaluations seriously, the reason being that they can see results and are satisfied with the evaluation systems in place.

Procedures, guidelines and legal frameworks for SCL

We explored institutional procedures and guidelines focusing on promoting SCL and only 24% of respondents were familiar with such practices in their respective country. Another 24% are not aware at all of existing procedures, nor did they know where to search for them, while 52% state that there are no such procedures established in their universities. Some respondents were aware of higher education regulations on national level, but could not identify concrete, comprehensive institutional guidelines and procedures.

When asked if a SCL definition is included in any legislative/normative framework at the national or institutional level, only 14% of respondents were familiar with some frameworks, but were not able to identify them. 52% students have never heard about those frameworks in their country or higher education institution.

Students in decision-making processes

Over 96% of respondents stated that students are involved in institutional decision‐ making structures (institutional level, faculty level, programme level). Students are guaranteed representation in decision‐making structures either by law or internal policies of the institution. They are involved through student organisations, student parliaments, student boards, academic senates, quality assessment and other decision‐making bodies within universities. The percentage of student representation varies between 20‐25% mandatory student involvement in decision‐making bodies. However the quality of involvement varies. While students from some countries are extremely satisfied with the impact and relevance they have in decision‐making bodies, students from other countries lack a feeling of being an equal in the decision‐making structures of the academic community. Students in Span, are not satisfied with their involvement and claim that while in most of the higher education institutions, students are present in decision‐making bodies, student perspective is often disregarded and not regarded with the proper importance. At the same time, these institutions do not provide adequate training to student representatives to have sufficient knowledge to be able to participate actively in these bodies, which in turn perpetuates the basal situation.

Flexible curricula and individual learning paths

Flexible curricula and individual learning paths are some of the main components of SCL implementation. At the same time, their implementation varies greatly from institution to institution and programme to programme. We asked student representatives to explain to us briefly to what extent there is centrally decided curricula for study programs at their university and how curricula are designed in general in their countries. The answers ranged all the way from very flexible with the possibility of choosing subjects in nearly every programme at the University College of Oslo and Akershus, to students not being able to shape their curricula, where professors decide curricula for them at the University of Zagreb. Again, it is a common perception that a master’s degree comes with greater freedom, more choices and respect to personal preferences. This differs from one field of study to another; most students in humanities, arts and social sciences can combine majors and choose subjects, while students from medical studies and science have rather rigid curricula. Freedom in shaping curricula is limited to choosing a minor of 30 ECTS according to majority of respondents, but completely free, independently chosen credit makes up maximum 10% of study programme, while in some cases, with the example of the University of Miskolc, students can take an additional 10% of the credits without paying any extra fee. At Óbuda University a subject plan is always provided to students in the first semester. Flexibility comes later when students can choose between different teachers and different times for the lectures and labs. Centralised curricula can also be found at the West University of Timișoara where even electives are limited and students have the impression that they are somehow forced to choose one or the other subject.

A detailed example of how curricula are designed comes from the Polytechnique University of Valencia. The faculty board decides on the curricula based on subjects and materials, then the departments decide which courses fit with the materials proposed. Once the curriculum is defined, it is brought to the university board which sends it to the academic committee for reviewal and back to the board with a report. Once approved by the board, it is sent to the National or Autonomic University Council which sends it to National or Autonomic Quality Assurance Agency and returns it to the Council with a report and then approves it. Students can typically choose certain components of their degree, such as a field of specialisation or within from a specified block of courses. Occasionally there are many subject choices, but courses can later be cancelled due to funding issues, while other times courses are presented as optional but are not as they become mandatory upon selection of a specific specialisation.

When asked to quantify the percentage of subjects in curricula chosen freely by students, one in two students responded that it is less than 20%. Detailed answers are as follows:

Student consultation in curriculum development

79% of student representatives stated that students are in some way consulted with regards to curriculum development. 18% of them believe that it is only formally, while 21% of students are not consulted at all.

Of the 79% consulted students, 59% report that they are consulted by the higher education institutions. Other stakeholders consulting students are the students’ unions (44% of respondents), and finally teachers (38%). Students feel they are least consulted by the national government when discussing student involvement in curriculum design.

Learning outcomes

The concept of learning outcomes (LOs) forms the core conceptual basis for a student‐centred higher education system. A description in terms of expected or desired learning outcomes should be a statement of what a learner is expected to know, understand, and be able to do at the end of a learning process. It should not refer to input criteria, such as what exactly is taught or the mode of teaching. ESU believes that learning outcomes should accommodate the multiple purposes of higher education; including preparing students for active citizenship, creating a broad, advanced knowledge base and stimulating research and innovation. All study programmes should be designed with an intention to achieve certain learning outcomes.

Expected LOs should be customly written for every course and programme and written before the learning activity begins and evolve through dialogue between teacher and student throughout the learning activity. They are a shifting category, depending on the expectations and satisfaction of both students and teachers involved in the learning activity. Describing minimum requirements ensures a common experience for all students and focuses on the concrete goals of the learning activity. At the same time, there is room for additional knowledge, skills, competences and attitudes to be acquired during the learning activity, dependent upon the individual students’ experiences. Since these are individual and not mandatory for passing, such learning outcomes should be listed in the Diploma Supplement to be given to the student upon completion of the programme.

At the beginning of the learning activity, learning outcomes are formulated as intended. During the learning activity, the student acquires those learning outcomes with the teacher acting as a facilitator of the learning process, “enabling” not “telling”. Assessment at the end of the learning activity should be bidirectional. Through transparent feedback, students assess whether intended learning outcomes were achieved and actively participate in defining and re‐defining them for the same learning activity in the future. Teachers assess if the student has acquired those minimum requirements, but also any additional learning outcomes to be presented in the Diploma Supplement. Students should be involved in the process of designing the study programmes and defining its learning outcomes. Where relevant, other educational stakeholders should be consulted in the process of designing learning outcomes. The learning outcomes should be formulated in clear and understandable way, transparent and accessible for students and other interested parties.

51% of students confirmed having results of study programmes defined in terms of learning outcomes. 11% of respondents have not encountered learning outcomes in their universities, while 28% believe that study programmes are only sometimes defined in terms of learning outcomes, depending on field of study and higher education institution.

Following this, 59% of respondents said that at least in some cases, students are evaluated in terms of those learning outcomes. 28% strongly believe that learning outcomes are not correlated with the assessment of students, while 26% support the statement that learning outcomes are a crucial factor in the assessment of students’ achievements.

33% of student representative respondents pointed out that students are neither properly informed nor consulted with regards to outcomes of programmes and teaching and learning methods used at their higher education institution. According to 44% of respondents, students are only informed about these determinants of their higher education experience, but not properly consulted or having their input valued and recognised.

Students as change-makers

In the end, all of our respondents agreed that the main carriers and leaders of the change and implementation of this paradigm shift are students themselves. The efforts of ESU on European level the National Unions of Students and students' unions on institutional level, have been essential, however there are numerous success stories of cooperations and joint efforts of all higher education stakeholders to use in exploring and better defining this concept, and work together on its implementation for the benefit of all included parties. On this joint mission students have been and should remain at the steering wheel, with all the support and full engagement of all other educational stakeholders.

3. Conclusions and considerations for the future

Through the research done in this publication on the grassroots level by surveying students and higher education institutions and gathering the different policies of essential European stakeholders, there are clear signs of progress in the implementation of SCL. We have also identified a plethora of different perspectives on what SCL is and where to go from here.

Students need to be consulted, to have real choices in their study paths and curricula – giving them more responsibility for their learning processes. Learning process should be described in terms of learning outcomes, which should be developed and monitored with constant evaluation and consultancy of students.

Even though the SCL concept involves putting students in the focus, that does not by any means diminish the role and importance of teachers. There is great need for for further development of
teaching methods, teacher support and professional training, as quality teaching is essential for a quality learning experience for all students. The enhancement of teaching should find its base in the needs of students, which are best assessed through teacher and course evaluation. Student feedback must be used actively in the development of curricula, learning outcomes and assessment procedures, closing the feedback cycle and taking action as a result.

In order to ensure mutual understanding and devotion, SCL should be embedded in institutional strategies, procedures and frameworks. The involvement and representation of students in governance, viewing students as equal partners, as a part of the academic community and co‐producers of knowledge, is essential for giving students ownership and responsibility for their learning.

4. Recommendations

Provide necessary resources and secure funding for implementation

The learning process must be two‐ways, based on a continuous dialogue between students and academics and recognising students as co‐producers of knowledge. This involves understanding students as a part of the academic community, not paying customers subject to fees and academics as providers of “customer service”. Adequate funding is therefore a top priority for the implementation of student‐centred learning. Resources must also be provided for supplying proper infrastructure and continuous teacher training and development.

● ''Ensure that students are a central part of university life and decision‐making within all parts of the higher education system. '

'Giving students autonomy, independence and choice means also incorporating them in decision‐making structures that ultimately impact their daily lives. Students are the largest group within the university, and the higher education system, both on a national, institutional, faculty and classroom level must guarantee that they are treated as equal partners and that their voice is heard in decision‐making and curriculum design and evaluation.

Student feedback must be taken seriously and continuously used in all parts of the learning process. This should result in action, which is then communicated to students, closing the feedback cycle. Expected learning outcomes should be designed by both academic staff and students, and communicated clearly to students prior to the start of the learning activity. Unintended learning outcomes must also be accounted for throughout the students’ learning process, and used in evaluation of programmes and courses.

Provide students with autonomy and choice

In order to accommodate the increasingly diverse student population, students must be afforded with choice throughout their entire studies. This involves allowing for flexible learning paths, allowing students to chose between different courses within or outside of the faculty, enabling student mobility and offering part‐time studies. A multitude of choices in their learning and assessment methods must also be provided, allowing for a student to choose different types of course literature and ensuring that students can choose between assessment methods that they believe will give them the opportunity to best demonstrate their achievement of learning outcomes.

Staff must receive continuous pedagogical training

Both countries and institutions must guarantee that teachers receive mandatory pedagogical training, and institutions must offer continuous training and development for staff. Teacher training should focus on how to accommodate to the different learning styles and needs of a diverse group of students and how to ensure the constructive alignment of expected learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities and assessment methods . Efforts must be made to enable the development of new methods of teaching and assessment.

Develop strategies, procedures and frameworks for SCL

Strategies on student‐centred learning should be designed on national and all institutional levels, and the implementation of student‐centred learning should be continuously evaluated. Students should be represented in each of those processes.

5. References

Todorovski, B., Nordal, E., Isoski, T. (2015). Overview on Student‐Centred Learning in Higher Education in Europe. The European Students’ Union: Brussels.

List of abbreviations

SCL - Student‐centred learning

PASCL - Peer Assessment of Student‐Centred Learning

BA - Bachelor’s Degree

MA - Master’s Degree

LO - Learning Outcome