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The Complete Guide to Student-Centered Learning in Secondary ELA

    the complete guide to student centered learning in secondary ela

    Are you ready to have your students do more of the heavy lifting in your classroom? Learn how to make the most of student-centered learning so you can act more as a facilitator as your students take the reins on their learning. Don’t worry, this comprehensive guide has everything you need to get started.

    Who does the bulk of the work in your classroom? Is it you or your students?

    I get it. As teachers, it feels natural to care more about a student’s success than they do. The more we do, the more we are helping our students, right? Truthfully, that mentality could be doing more harm than good, never mind adding extra work to an already overflowing plate.

    While the old-school way of teaching may lead you to believe you should be carrying the weight in your classroom, that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Student-centered learning is becoming increasingly popular pedagogy across content areas and grade levels, and for good reasons. Research shows putting the onus of learning on the students themselves pays off with higher levels of student engagement and overall academic success, including when moving on to higher education. 

    If you’re looking to pass the torch over to your students, take some of the “doing” off your plate, and help students engage in the curriculum and find success, I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s dive into the world of student-centered learning, shall we?

    What is Student-Centered Learning?

    Before we dive into the fun stuff, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what student-centered learning is all about.

    Don’t worry, student-centered learning doesn’t mean students do whatever they want, whenever they want. Just as with more traditional teacher-centered learning, you are still the authority figure. However, with student-centered learning, the students take a more active role in their education. It’s all about shifting the focus from the teacher being the sole source of knowledge to encouraging the students to act as co-pilots on their learning journey.

    Student-centered learning is about active participation and autonomy. It’s a more hands-on exploratory approach to learning than memorization and regurgitation of information. Rather than doing the heavy lifting, teachers take more of a facilitator role, guiding and supporting students along their learning journey.

    Sounds great, right? But how does that actually translate to the ELA classroom?

    What Does a Student-Centered Classroom Look Like?

    Here’s what student-centered learning might look like in your classroom:

    • Students actively participate in their learning by asking questions and seeking answers.
    • Students are encouraged to think critically and utilize their problem-solving skills.
    • Content is more personalized to students’ interests, abilities, and needs.
    • Group work and peer interactions are encouraged, exposing diverse perspectives.
    • The teacher acts as a facilitator, offering guidance and support as needed.
    • Student growth is at the forefront of assessment, valuing progress over perfection.
    • Learning is connected to real-life context, creating a sense of relevance.
    • Students develop transferable skills that possess value beyond the classroom.

    Of course, the above characteristics don’t all have to occur at the same time. If you’re new to this educational approach, it’s okay to start small. Strive to sprinkle evidence of student-centered learning throughout your classroom on a regular basis.

    Why Is Student-Centered Learning Important?

    Whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned vet, it’s important to have a strong why behind your methods. Especially if you’re used to a more “sage on the stage” approach, you might be wondering if shifting to a more student-focused approach is really worth it. (Spoiler: it is.)

    Let’s take a look at the many benefits of putting the spotlight on students.

    • Fosters Independence: Student-centered learning encourages students to become independent thinkers and learners as you encourage and support them on a more inquisitive learning journey.
    • Differentiates Learning: Due to the increased sense of independence, student-centered learning allows for more personalized learning experiences, ensuring that every student’s needs and interests are met.
    • Encourages Critical Thinking: Students are encouraged to ask questions, think critically about the information they learn, and solve problems along the way. As a result, they develop a strong set of vital 21st-century skills. 
    • Supports Inquiry and  Risk-Taking: Instead of students staying quiet until they know they have the “right” answer (or what they think you are looking for), student-centered learning encourages them to be inquisitive without fear of being wrong. Therefore, it emphasizes the learning process, not just the result.
    • Boosts Engagement: By default, students are more engaged in lessons and activities that put them in the driver’s seat. This type of learning requires them to become active participants in their learning instead of passive receivers (and regurgitators) of information.
    • Focuses on Growth: Rather than focusing solely on answers and results, this learning style prioritizes inquiry, learning processes, skill development, and understanding. While you will likely still assign students numerical grades, you will also strive to provide meaningful feedback throughout their learning.
    • Increases Academic Achievement: Contrary to popular misconception, student-centered learning empowers students with the skills and tools they need to achieve success in the classroom.
    • Promotes Lifelong Learning and Real-World Success: When you put the onus of learning on the students, it encourages them to develop strategies and skills for learning that they can use long after their days in your classroom are over. Students will leave your classroom more readily able to adapt to and find success in the real world.

    I don’t know about you, but those benefits are exactly what I’m seeking for my students.

    Strategies for Successful Student-Centered Learning

    As you set out on this teaching journey, you might be wondering how to adjust your lessons to adopt a strategic approach that puts students at the center. Here are 4 teaching strategies that are sure to pass more of the “doing” onto students.

    1. Flipped Classroom

    Time is always the biggest concern for teachers. If you’re looking for a strategy that allows more class time for interactive, student-led activities, and deeper discussions, consider the flipped-classroom model. This approach flips the traditional learning model, having students learn new content at home while further exploring and engaging in the content in the classroom.

    2. Technology

    I know this is a general “strategy,” but there’s so much valuable technology out there that can promote student-centered learning. Whether you encourage students to interact with online learning games, embark on a virtual inquiry experience, engage in a virtual escape room, or collaborate on platforms like Google Classroom, Flipgrid, or Padlet, the possibilities are plenty.

    Shop my collection of done-for-you digital escape rooms on Teachers Pay Teachers.

    3. Project-Based Learning (PBL)

    If you want to engage students through inquiry, research skills, creativity, and teamwork, project-based learning is here to help. PBL is a great way to bring real-world relevance to the ELA classroom, encouraging students to explore real-world topics, problems, or questions relevant to the ELA curriculum. Typically, students collaborate on an extended assignment where they plan, research, design, develop, and present their findings in a unique product.

    Teacher tip: Short on time? Problem-based learning is an alternative to project-based learning that focuses on students inquiring about and finding the solution to a single, more focused problem. 

    4. Jigsaw Method

    If you want to find an effective way to share the responsibility of learning among your students, try the jigsaw method. While there is plenty of room for adapting this strategy to your unique needs and purposes, it all boils down to the same process: divide a larger topic into subtopics, and assign each subtopic to a small group. From there, each group takes on the responsibility of being the “expert” on their subtopic before sharing their knowledge with the whole class. This can be used for small lessons like teaching figurative language or literary devices, or for larger concepts like analyzing aspects of a class novel.

    Engaging Student-Centered Activities for Secondary ELA

    As you plan your student-centered lessons, consider incorporating the following activities:

    1. Literature Circles

    Literature circles work by grouping students into mini “book clubs,” where they work together to read, discuss, and analyze a piece of literature. Using literature circles in the classroom is a great way to support differentiation while promoting ownership over the reading experience. If you are considering implementing literature circles, consider the following guidelines:

    • Give students some sense of choice in reading material
    • Divide students into small groups where each group reads a different text
    • Student groups hold regular meetings and must complete roles or tasks in preparation
    • Students generate discussion topics to promote organic, student-led conversation
    • Encourage cooperative student-led text analysis, providing guidance as needed

    2. Author Studies

    If the focus is on literary devices, author’s craft, and overall literary analysis, let students get in the driver’s seat by taking part in a personalized author study. You can let students choose an author from a specific time period, literary movement, or garner, or give them complete control by letting them select an author they’re passionate about. Either way, the next step is for students to dive into the author’s works to engage in a self-led study of author’s craft and literary analysis. A successful author’s study requires students to read multiple books by the author, research their life and influences, and present their findings in a creative project or paper. 

    3. Writer’s Workshop

    When you’re gearing up to assign your next writing assignment, consider hosting a writer’s workshop. Rather than having students work on their essays on their own, a writer’s workshop supports students through the various stages of the writing process. Incorporate opportunities for peer feedback or offer one-on-one conferences to provide feedback and guidance along the way.

    4. Socratic Seminars

    Put your students at the forefront of your classroom discussions by hosting a Socratic seminar. Essentially, it is a student-led discussion over a text or big idea. Instead of you facilitating the discussion by asking questions, students take charge of their own learning in this activity by creating and asking the questions.

    This style of classroom discussion prompts students to collaborate to unpack and understand any topic at hand. I find them useful when having students unpack a text’s themes, implications, and overarching messages. However, they are also useful when unpacking big ideas, complex questions, and societal affairs in general. Rather than trying to prove an argument, a Socratic seminar discussion is more about deep, meaningful discussion, exploring perspectives, and establishing meaning. Let the students develop, ask, and answer the questions while you act more as a facilitator there to provide support and guidance as needed.

    5. Multigenre Projects

    Invite students on a multigenre exploration of a particular topic, character, theme, or piece of literature. These projects offer a break from traditional essays, allowing students to express their understanding through a diverse range of creative genres. Students have more choice over how they present their insights, fostering a sense of autonomy, engagement, and connection.

    6. Learning Stations

    Learning stations are a perfect way to dip your toes into student-centered learning. They are also the perfect activity for sprinkling a student-centered approach throughout the year. You can require students to move through each learning station for a certain period of time or let students pick and choose which stations they visit (and when) throughout the period. While the stations may cater to different learning styles, interests, and abilities, they each focus on a specific skill, topic, or learning objective. As students work through the different tasks at hand, they will engage in collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving as they actively participate in activities, discussions, or research. This hands-on approach to learning fosters a sense of motivation, autonomy, and ownership over the material.

    Tips for Putting Your Students at the Forefront

    Transitioning to a student-centered ELA classroom can be a bit challenging and feel like an overwhelming task—but it doesn’t have to be. Follow the tips below to help make the transition into student-centered learning more natural

    • Build a Supportive Classroom Culture: Create a positive and safe space where students feel comfortable and supported in sharing their thoughts and taking risks.
    • Set Clear Expectations: Not all students will be familiar with this approach so it’s important to clearly communicate your expectations and clarify roles and responsibilities. 
    • Pass the Baton in Stages: Help students wade into student-centered learning, helping them adjust to the new expectations and guiding them to success with their new responsibilities. This is especially true if you’re making the transition mid-year.
    • Be Flexible: Since this approach is truly about the students, be open and willing to adapt your lessons as needed, paying attention to your students’ interests and needs.
    • Provide Choice: When possible, provide students with an element of voice and choice by letting them select from a list of texts or projects to match their interests and abilities.
    • Give Meaningful Constructive Feedback: To focus on growth, actively support student inquiry and overall learning by providing valuable feedback often, helping to steer students toward success.
    • Reflect and Adapt: Whether you are new to student-centered learning or not, it’s essential to regularly reflect on your teaching methods and their effectiveness, making adjustments as needed.

    Ready to Adopt a Student-Centered Approach in Your Classroom?

    Before you jump in, it’s important to note that this approach to learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for success. Of course, there may still be a time and place when a more teacher-centric approach to material makes more sense. And not all students, grade levels, subjects, and lessons are a good fit for this method of learning. In fact, having a balance of teacher-centered and student-centered methods may be the key to success in your classroom. As always, the best practice is to carefully consider the specific abilities, needs, and goals of your students and plan accordingly.

    Either way, there’s one thing that cannot be denied: putting students at the heart of their learning experience can lead to heightened academic success, valuable transferable skills, and a general enthusiasm for learning. Talk about every teacher’s dream, am I right?

    If you’re a traditionalist, taking a step back in your classroom might be challenging at first. Honestly, the urge to make ourselves the center of any lesson often comes from a good place. We simply want to help our students succeed. However, the best chance they have at success is when they are active participants in their learning journey.

    If you have any questions about student-centered learning, let me know in the comments below!

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