Student-centered and personalized learning have gained support and momentum as a powerful tool for student success. There are now few education conferences that one can attend, that don’t highlight several opportunities to better expand your knowledge and implementation of a more student-centered practice. In order to continue to create these unique and meaningful environments for our students, it is important to constantly study and revisit what works in actual classrooms.

In a study released today by the American Institute of Research (AIR) and supported by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, researchers seek to go beyond the idea of whether or not student-centered teaching works to the specifics of how different student-centered approaches are implemented and how student outcomes are affected by the varying degree in which classrooms utilize the practice.

Defining Student-Centered. Authors of the study acknowledge that student-centered is not limited to a single instructional model, but instead encompasses an array of approaches to teaching and learning. They explore the practice through the lens of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation Student-Centered Learning Tenets:

  • Learning is Personalized
  • Learning Is Competency-Based
  • Learning Takes Place Anytime, Anywhere
  • Students Exert Ownership Over Their Learning

Applying it to the High School Math Classroom. Highschool math classrooms have historically been a place of routine, where teachers take students through a regular structure of teaching content, allowing time for guiding practice, and then providing time for independent practice. A more student-centered approach can mean scraping the routine to build a more meaningful learning process that is tailored to support and challenge each student specifically. The study is based on a framework that identifies key learning opportunities for high school math students. We want students to be able to:

  • Use mathematical reasoning to understand the “why” as well as the “how.”
  • Communicate their thinking and critique the reasoning of others.
  • Make Connections between and among mathematical concepts and real world concepts
  • Engage and persevere in solving complex mathematical problems.

The four learning outcomes listed above provide an excellent framework for not only the study, but for individual teacher practice. When we look at building the next generation of math students, we must develop a deeper learning environment that not only supports critical thinking and problem solving, but also supports the development of a community of mathematicians who actively engage in conversations that will connect concepts to the world around them while solving challenging problems. A community that supports not only mathematical intellect, but also the growth of curiosity, creativity, passion, and the grit needed to persist through challenging problems.

The Findings. The study resulted in quantitative data about the effects of different teaching approaches and powerful teacher and classroom examples of best practices. The researchers found that the vast majority of high quality teachers (originally identified through a nomination process) all use student-centered practices at times and prioritized strong relationships and a classroom culture that is well organized and respectful. The variation comes in the level of student-centered practice that is actually put into place. Those who use them with the greatest level of regularity have the highest belief in the value of the approach and tended to work in schools that focused on preparation for students futures and valued life skills, not just test scores. The findings below are pulled directly from the report and highlights results as they relate to student outcomes:

  • Students in math classrooms led by highly regarded teachers feel very positive about their teacher and their class. Students with highly regarded teachers who implement more student-centered approaches to math instruction report that they find the content more interesting and meaningful.
  • Students in more student-centered math classrooms report being more engaged in how much they are learning and how interested they are in the material, compared to students in less student-centered classrooms.
  • Students in more student-centered math classrooms showed higher growth on a test of problem-solving skills than students in less student-centered classrooms.

For more information on the study design, instructional tasks used in the classroom and report findings, view the full report, An Up-Close Look at Student-Centered Math Teaching and Its Effects on Learning A Study of Highly Regarded High School Teachers and Their Students.

As the world of STEM education gains support and the need for stronger math education (focused on the critical thinking skills necessary for future success) become realized, it is vital that we continue to dive into what works for students and educators. Student-centered learning provides huge promise for a shift in the way that students engage with math — both academically and emotionally. It has the power to increase understanding, and to motivate and inspire students to solve problems that are meaningful and personalized.


For a look into student-centered learning in the middle grades, check out Getting Smart on Blending Middle Grade Math, a Smart Bundle sponsored by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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