So how student-centred are we really?

As summer draws to an end, thoughts turn towards the return of students.

Raise your hand if you consider your teaching to be “student-centred”. It is one of those things that you feel you should acknowledge in your teaching strategies and programme documents. But how student-centred are we in practice? Could you list ten indicators of student-centredness within your department? And if you can, how are these shared among the teaching staff, and where are they publicised? One of the issues here is to agree on what we actually mean by student-centred. There seem to be a number of conflicting definitions.

I would ask a slightly different question: is student-centredness the right approach? If we collectively do not agree on what the term means and how it can be recognised, should we be looking elsewhere for a different concept around which we can all base our curriculum development? What about “the discipline”?

As Hobson and Morrison-Saunders (2013: 781) have put it: “one of the most effective things we can do is simply bring our attention onto the subject at hand, and enable our students to join us in this mutual enquiry. In this manner, teacher and student collectively share in the learning process”.

If our teaching was discipline-centred, then surely the problem of identification and communication of our central principle of curriculum design and delivery would be easy to articulate. We all know our own discipline, right? We could all articulate the paradigm in which our discipline works, and the central concepts (perhaps ‘threshold concepts’) which form the skeleton of our disciplinary knowledge structures in ways that our students could grasp – couldn’t we? Perhaps we could, but I am not convinced. I have been looking for evidence that university departments do articulate these ideas. So far, I haven’t found any. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps I have Just been looking in the wrong places? Maybe university web sites would not be the appropriate spaces to explain these things? Perhaps programme handbooks would also be the wrong place to explain where course content fits in with disciplinary structures? And perhaps it would not be sensible to introduce these ideas within individual lectures as if it were content to be tested? But then where should it be found?

An additional problem that I have been grappling with is the relationship between disciplinary structure and curriculum structure. These are clearly not the same thing. I have been reading a paper by Johan Muller (2009) over the summer, and he concludes, ” the inevitable selections and arrangements that go to make up the curriculum create a quite different animal to the discipline as it is practised in the university“, and goes on to state that, “while curriculum formats are arbitrary, these patterns can be judged to be more or less compatible with curriculum structure.” In my own work (Kinchin, 2011), I have shown how inappropriate curriculum structures can lead students astray, by promoting rote learning where meaningful learning was intended.

So here’s the problem: how do we get students to understand the nature of the subject they are studying and the disciplinary structure in which their learning needs to fit?

Answers on a postcard…….


Hobson, J. and Morrison-Saunders, A. (2013) reframing teaching relationships: from student-centred to subject-centred learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(7): 773 – 783.

Kinchin, I.M. (2011) Visualising knowledge structures in biology: Discipline, curriculum and student understanding. Journal of Biological Education, 45(4): 176 – 182.

Muller, J. (2009) Forms of knowledge and curriculum coherence. Journal of Education and Work, 22(3): 205 – 226.


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