heterodox: the blog
The Problem with Student-Centered Education
This essay is a special repost from Times Higher Education, responding to recent events in the Chemistry department at NYU. Responses further exploring the advantages and disadvantages of student-centered learning are welcome.
Student-centered learning is intended to promote a more inclusive environment and to democratize the classroom. It is a broad philosophy, but its fundamental principle is the belief that education should involve a partnership between student and educator. Further, it advocates that education should be personalized to meet students where they are, with curricula design and course structure based on their individualized learning preferences.
Such an approach is increasingly hailed as the gold standard in higher education and is ostensibly well-meaning. It embodies the idea that education, as a route to social mobility and desirable careers, should be accessible to as many people as possible. We have no argument with that view. And there may indeed be some value in student-centered learning if the practical constraints of delivering a personalized education — such as class sizes — are considered, particularly if students’ ambitions align with the educational goals that deliver the best opportunity for their long-term growth, development, thinking, and citizenship. But these conditions are not often met in today’s marketized mass higher education.
Many will contend that technology and online learning offer a solution to the personalization issue, giving students the ability to self-pace using asynchronous content or dynamic tests that adjust to prior mistakes. However, such hopes are often belied by the messy reality of how students actually engage with such content. As for the issue of education goals, universities have in essence given up trying to tell students what is good for them. Fueled by the shift towards student-centered learning, student satisfaction is widely accepted as the primary indicator of educational success. But this does undergraduates a disservice because student satisfaction bears no necessary relation to true educational objectives.
Take assessment, for example. Students find exams stressful, so we are told to reduce the number of exams. Neither do students like to read, so we are told to assign easier and shorter readings. Students find it hard to concentrate, so we are told to break down lectures into small chunks and intersperse activities in between. Students enjoy media content and are happy to engage with YouTube and social media, so we are told to incorporate more videos and make course material and assessments more creative and interactive. Some students don’t like to speak in class, so we are told to make sure there are myriad ways students can participate without having to actually speak.
Such well-meaning educational initiatives — alongside grade inflation, flexible deadlines, warm language in feedback — deny students access to the type of educational experience that universities were designed for. They short-change students by appealing to their immediate wants and feelings rather than their potential for greatness, their capacity for reason, and their fundamental need to leave university better than when they arrived. The student-centered mindset has led to a dumbing-down of curricula and a constant pressure on educators to motivate students, rather than a pressure on students to take ownership of their own success and failure. This is because it appears mostly to have been adopted without a principled questioning of what a university education is for.
The result is that student-centered education leaves undergraduates in a state of constant busyness but also constant worry about the value of these low-stakes endeavors. Students complete more and more simple and straightforward tasks — worksheets, projects, quizzes and so on — without the opportunity to think about what they are doing or learning. It is no wonder they lack motivation: they are denied the life-affirming pride that derives from achieving something genuinely meaningful and built on hard work. And without critical feedback on the work they do undertake, students are not given the necessary guidance they need to improve. In this sense, meeting students where they are keeps them where they are.
A transformative educational experience is supposed to be the point of a university education. Students deserve opportunities for challenge so that they develop the necessary strength of mind and character to meet the myriad challenges they will inevitably face in the higher-stakes contexts of post-university life. Such strengths will also equip them potentially to rise above their personal and social circumstances and pursue the life they want.
If we decide that making courses less intellectually and emotionally demanding equates with making education accessible, that is an unkind assumption. We are in effect saying that students attending university lack the necessary ability to withstand an education that is intellectually and emotionally demanding. Students deserve to be taken seriously and to be seen as capable — both in terms of their capacity to improve and in their capability to find resolve against momentary unhappiness.
The guise of a student-centered education is also, at its core, dishonest. It tells students that they are uniquely skilled and uniquely talented — often touted as “empowering” their individuality. However, unless you are paying for a private tutor, education takes place in groups alongside several — if not several hundred — others. Moreover, in an era of mass higher education, staff-to-student ratios are falling rather than rising. There is no way that an individual educator can tailor lessons or assessments to each individual student’s needs and preferences.
Nor should they. Endorsing the perspective that each student should be treated as unique and offered personalized accommodations would fail to push them to develop a healthier mindset that connects self with surroundings. Specifically, if part of a university education is about preparing students for post-university life, they must begin to recognize that their uniqueness is situated in a shared environment that requires adjusting the self to the situation and not the other way around.
We should not disempower students by telling them to expect the problems they face to be resolved by the people around them recognizing and catering to their needs. Doing so takes away individual agency and results in a sense of entitlement generally not viewed positively by employers, partners, family, friends, or colleagues. We should empower students by motivating self-efficacy and self-regulation, rather than fostering an approach to social life where expectation leads to passivity and victimhood.
Furthermore, the push for a student-centered education seeks to position students as equals in the classroom, such that their individual desires should be given equal weight with the expertise of the educator in determining what occurs in their courses. While designed to promote inclusivity through removing all presence of a privileged voice, such misguided democratization once again harms students. Students need an appreciation and respect for accumulated knowledge, and instilling it does not entail a misuse of power in the classroom. There will always be situations in life where power is shared unequally, but that does not necessarily mean that something unjust is taking place. Yet many educators now encounter students who feel insulted, offended, or threatened when their ideas are disputed or their essays corrected.
Similarly, invoking “lived experience” as the correct lens through which to process information means that subjective opinions are given the same, if not greater, weight as facts and established theory in classroom discourse. A push to see beyond one’s own narrow viewpoint is interpreted as a critique of self, rather than an intellectual exercise designed to promote critical evaluation.
We don’t mean to imply that students should not be given the opportunity to question what they are being taught or to disagree with their instructors. In fact, we encourage this. But it is most beneficial when students are open to learning that their perspective might not be correct and that others, with many years of experience, might know more than they do as novices.
Taking a student seriously is to not pander to their ego or, worse, to falsely flatter them in pursuit of their approval or in fear of their complaints. Taking them seriously means treating them as capable of receiving genuine feedback about their limitations, in an effort to see them improve.
They must be taught how to appropriately and effectively debate controversial topics and engage with those with whom they disagree, working through the discomfort of having their perspectives challenged. Engagement in society sometimes requires individual compromise to larger group goals and the recognition that one’s unique position might not always be supported by others. The problem is that students unchallenged in their assumptions about their own uniqueness and value will be ill-equipped to respond appropriately within environments that require this recognition.
We all lose when educators can no longer assist students in developing an understanding of citizenship and respect of expertise. Would any of us want to live in the high-rise building designed by the architect whose professor was told that they could not correct a student’s error? Would any of us want medical care from the physician who decided that the best medical school was the one that provided its students with the least rigorous course load?
Increasingly, businesses are saddled with new employees who do not want to do entry-level work, who feel that any negative feedback is insulting, who do not respect the need to put in hard work to move up the hierarchy, and who do not respect the knowledge of those with many more years of work experience. Similarly, managerial training is increasingly becoming an exercise in developing skills to manage employees’ self-esteem instead of to develop them through challenge. These situations exist because universities are failing to do their job in providing students with a demanding education that would foster self-motivation and risk-taking.
If the expertise and guidance of an educator were not necessary, students would be able to educate themselves with the myriad resources available today (not least by reading books). Rather than worrying about obfuscating the power dynamics between a lecturer and students, we should embrace the experience, knowledge and range of perspectives that inform educators’ practice. We should set the stage for students to accept failure and confront personal shortcomings on a path of continued self-growth, valuing the long-term gains that derive from effortful engagement with what is hard.
It is also important to recognize that part of the shift towards student-centered education is not driven by a desire to promote inclusivity per se but to disguise the desire simply to get students through university. Graduation, not education, is the desired consumer outcome at the myriad “pay-for-a-degree” institutions that compete for the many students whose pursuit of a university education is motivated solely by a perception that it is necessary even to land entry-level jobs, let alone promotions. That perception – promoted by employers and universities alike – leads students to see higher education as a chore: a stumbling block or a checkbox on the way to something else. They are unwilling to put in the necessary work and want the easiest path to recognition.
When students’ behaviors and goals are in conflict with what is necessary for the learning that underlies a transformative education, it is especially important to turn to the educators rather than the students for direction. And even when students have the right goals for their education, it is short-sighted at best to expect them to know how to design and structure curricula, syllabuses, and assessments. At worst, it is cruel. In addition to their deep knowledge of their disciplines, most university educators also have years of experience of developing pedagogical techniques that effectively educate. It is incongruous to expect that students would have more — or more accurate — knowledge of how their educational experience should be structured.
When we adopt a student-centered educational philosophy, irrespective of how well-meaning we may be, we short-change students. Rather than succeeding in empowering them, we fail to equip them with the skills to deal with the challenges they will invariably confront as their life after university unfolds. When we see these consequences and choose to do nothing, we perpetuate this unkindness.
Instead, let us respect students’ potential to access the transformation that a rigorous university experience can offer. Only then can we claim to operate in a student-centered fashion: by providing students with the education they deserve.
This piece was originally published in Times Higher Education.
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