Battlefieldby Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

A good teacher is always reflecting, and if you could catch a glimpse of the inner turmoil that goes on inside a teacher’s brain, you would see a veritable war zone—a swirling melee of measurable outcomes, student engagement, authentic assessment, and hosts of other educational combatants at odds with each other.

In the battlefield that is a teacher’s self-reflective mind, two foes, in particular, clash regularly at the front lines. On one side is teacher-centered learning, in which the instructor is the leader, the expert, and the center of attention while students sit and passively receive content. On the other side is student-centered learning, in which the students are active participants in authentic challenges while the instructor acts as more of a guide, a native who knows the territory well enough to steer travelers through safely without telling them where to go.

If you’ve ever had these two forces at war in your mind, you know that the toughest fight is finding a way to deliver the necessary content to students without just lecturing it at them. Student-centered learning is often touted as the solution to this problem, but as we feel more and more of an inner desire to replace our PowerPoint lectures with activities that give students more control in the classroom, we are left wondering “How can we possibly do this without sacrificing content?”.

To answer this question, at least partially, I want to look at two pieces of research about problem-based learning (or PBL), which is perhaps the paragon of student-centered learning models.

PBL and content

The first is a study called “Development of knowledge in basic sciences: A comparison of two medical curricula” that was published in Medical Education in 2012. This study followed two cohorts of medical students over ten semesters: one cohort was instructed using a traditional curriculum, the other using a curriculum focused around problem-based learning. Students were tested at the end of each semester to measure their basic medical science knowledge. The study concludes “…there is no systematic difference between a traditional and a problem-based curriculum in terms of the assimilation of overall medical knowledge”.

So, on the plus side, this study at least shows that one method of student-centered learning, when properly implemented, does not sacrifice content. On the other hand, this study also made me pause. Problem-based learning is significantly more difficult to implement than traditional lecture, so why bother with all the time and effort if students are learning the same content either way.

PBL and thinkingLearning

Enter another study to provide an answer. “Measuring the effect of problem-based learning instructional program on reflective thinking development”, published in 2012 in the Journal of Instructional Psychology, followed two cohorts of 10th graders: one taught using traditional methods, the other taught using problem-based learning. Each cohort took a pre- and post-test to measure reflective thinking skills. The results were pretty astounding: the traditional students only increased by an average of 0.66 points from pre- to post-test, while the PBL group increased by an average of 3.9 points. That means PBL grew reflective thinking skills almost six times as much as traditional instruction!

Looking at these two studies reminded me of something that Mark Serva, of the University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education, communicated at a workshop he recently ran at Delaware Tech. When addressing the question of how to use PBL without sacrificing content, Mark basically said that what problem-based learning loses in breadth of coverage, it makes up for in depth of thinking on the students’ part. So even though you aren’t lecturing every last piece of knowledge at the students, you are teaching them the critical thinking and study skills they need in order to learn the material on their own.

Obviously, I haven’t performed a complete review of the literature here, and, really, these studies only look at one particular method of student-centered learning. That being said, the general consensus in my experience and research is that when implemented properly, student-centered learning is an effective way to deliver content while also engaging your students in deeper levels of thinking and more authentic learning experiences. So,  in the midst of transforming old lectures into new learning experiences, if you find yourself screaming “Is this worth all the effort?”, remember that the time you are putting into planning student-centered learning pays off for the student: they learn the content, and—more importantly—they learn how to think in the process.


What are your experiences with student-centered learning? Leave a comment and let us know.


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Nouns, Z., Schauber, S., Witt, C., Kingreen, H., & Schuttpels-Brauns, K. (2012, December). Development of knowledge in basic sciences: A comparison of two medical curricula. Medical Education, 46(12), 1206 – 1214. doi: 10.1111/medu.12047

Weshah, H. A. (2012, September-December). Measuring the effect of problem-based learning instructional program on reflective thinking development. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 39 (3/4), 262 – 271.


  1. Cory Budischak4 years ago

    Ish, another great post!

    I have implemented a PBL based instructional strategy in my classrooms but with a twist. I wanted to make sure my students also received some form of direct instruction so I flipped the classroom and delivered the lectures asynchronously with online quizzes to assess understanding of the videos. In this way, the students came prepared to class with the background knowledge to be successful in the problem based learning activities. It has been an adjustment for both me and my students, but overall I think it has been very successful and has lead to the students developing much deeper critical thinking skills and also learning how to better work in a group.

    1. Ish Stabosz4 years ago

      Cory, PBL and the flipped classroom go hand in hand quite well. I have heard of a lot of instructors using video tutorials to teach discrete skills, and then using class time to work on the application of those skills with more hands-on, student-centered methods such as PBL.

  2. Henry4 years ago

    Hey Ish, good summary. I have been “battling” this balance ever since starting here at DTCC almost 10 years ago. I find many students fight the transition from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. Being a passive learner is just easier for most students and its what most of them have experienced during their K-12 education. I have been using project based learning assignments in my capstone courses and find it to be very helpful in student engagement. Projects typically include several problems to solve and require the students to assimilate a variety of skills, both technical and social. Yes it requires a lot of work for an instructor to steer students away from passive learning but I feel the benefits are well worth the effort.

    1. Ish Stabosz4 years ago

      It’s funny you should mention the resistance students often have for student-centered learning, Henry. While doing some research, I remember coming across a study that found, among other things, that a lot of students were dissatisfied at the instructor’s attempt to encourage more participation in what was typically a large lecture class. The researchers pointed out two things that seemed worth considering: (1) Students were disappointed because their expectations were not met. They expected lecture but got activity instead. (2) Student satisfaction is not a good measure of learning.

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