Student-Centered Instructional Strategies

May 24th, 2018 | Category: Church Work Professional, Lutheran Education Commentary, Research in Education
By Kim Sekulich

Student-Centered Instructional Strategies

My goal as a graduate-student instructor is to model and enhance each student’s journey toward becoming an educational leader. Modeling student-centered instructional strategies helps prepare future leaders to implement those strategies in their schools and districts to maximize their own, teachers’ and students’ learning. As an instructor, it is important to model research-based practices that identify and implement student learning-style modes, require higher-level critical-thinking skills, provide descriptive feedback based on criteria, and encourage reflective analysis for continual improvement. These practices may be implemented across content areas and in various educational settings. As these practices are implemented within the teaching/learning process, a spirit of mutual collaboration and respect develops. Also, these practices demonstrate the instructor’s value for student-centered learning and each student.

Focusing on Student-Centered Learning

Prior to each new class, I communicate with each student personally to welcome each of them to the class and to provide important course information. At the first class meeting, each student is asked to write about how he/she learns best in graduate school. Patterns are identified from this student feedback and shared at our second class meeting. Often, students write that they learn best through discussion, collaboration, practical applications, visuals, projects, and feedback. This student feedback guides my instructional planning for future class meetings.

Graduate students appreciate the focus on their learning preferences. “[The instructor] tailored the course toward our individual learning styles. I appreciate how organized she is and how she communicated clearly each week” (Concordia University Chicago [CUC], 2016-2017). “Our professor did a great job of planning for each lesson. She asked questions about our learning styles and was able to hone into those in class” (CUC, 2017-2018).

These practices are supported by the work of Fullan (2016) who writes about ways in which student-centered learning may be enhanced. These practices demonstrate how Fullan’s work may be applied within the context of higher education and may also be applied in school districts. For example, principals may ask teachers how they learn best and plan professional-learning sessions accordingly. Teachers may ask their students how they learn best and use that information to guide their lesson planning. According to Fullan, “My Learning” is about individual and collective student views about how they best learn. There is little evidence that anyone has asked students that question on any scale” (p. 149). Fullan also writes about “My Belonging” which he describes as “whether students feel cared for and wanted, or otherwise feel they are members of  a community that values them” (p. 149).

Addressing Learning Styles

To address the varied ways in which students learn, activities are differentiated. According to Warwick (2015), “Each student has a style of learning that is most beneficial to him or her for processing new information. The learning environment needs to create options for learning that address the four major learning styles: concrete-sequential, abstract random, abstract sequential, and concrete-random” (p. 88). Below are methods to address each learning style.

Concrete-sequential: Present experiences in a sequential linear, structured, ordered, hands-on, immediately-reinforced, and teacher-centered manner.

Abstract random: Present active experiences, small-group, multiple-source, unstructured, and student-centered discussion.

Abstract sequential: Present ideas in a sequence using written lists, order, logic, conceptual approaches, and teacher-centered approaches.

Concrete-random: Present ideas and discuss, using movement, action, hands-on methods, observation, experimentation, and student-centered methods. (Warwick, 2015, p. 88)

Presentation of content in a concrete-sequential manner includes step-by-step instruction, modeling, and detailed explanation of assignments. The active and multiple-source methods of abstract, random activities incorporate discussion and brief videos. Presentation of ideas in an abstract, sequential manner integrate course readings. Concrete-random activities include role play, simulations, and student presentations. Grouping structures are varied and facilitate whole group discussion, small-group discussion and collaborative tasks, partner work, and individual reflection.

It is important for students to experience all four learning styles so they expand and integrate how they process information. “If a student learns most effectively as a concrete-sequential learner, after the initial presentation in that style the student should be required to be in a small-group discussion (abstract-random) to reinforce the understanding of new material” (Warwick, 2015, p. 88).

Graduate students commented on activities that benefited their learning. Comments are aligned with the learning styles.

Concrete-sequential: “She gave us great examples and modeled various assignments and presentations that we needed to do. She always gave us clear directions and had high expectations for us. She was very patient and took the time to re-explain or clear up any misconceptions” (CUC, 2017-2018).

Abstract-random: “Brought in activities which were helpful in discussions and real-life situations. Also used technology to enhance learning” (CUC, 2016-2017). “The ability to engage all students in discussions, providing opportunities for us to self-reflect but also gain feedback from peers and the professor” (CUC, 2016-2017).

Abstract sequential: “The texts were current, relevant, and well-written” (CUC, 2017-2018). “The texts and readings were of use and allowed for some strong learning” (CUC, 2016-2017).

Concrete-random: “I liked being able to re-enact scenarios during class” (CUC, 2016-2017). “The role playing and presentations were very helpful” (CUC, 2016-2017).

Abstract-random and abstract-sequential: “The discussions with readings helped shape my understanding of course content; both student-led and professor-led discussions were great” (CUC, 2016-2017).

Concrete-random and abstract-sequential: “I liked the presentations that allowed me to review the key points from the weekly readings” (CUC, 2016-2017).

Experiencing the differentiated activities provides future educational leaders with knowledge and experience that they may share with teachers in their schools to then implement in their classrooms to benefit student learning. This includes addressing, expanding, and integrating learning styles; and varying grouping structures. Differentiating activities according to learning style creates options for learning that can be facilitated across content areas and in various educational settings.

Addressing Levels of Critical Thinking

To extend student learning, questions are posed and activities are planned that reflect higher levels of critical thinking. “Four areas of thinking that educators need to address are application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis” (Bloom, 1956 as cited in Warwick, 2015, p. 4). Below is a description of the higher levels of thinking.

Application: Using or carrying out a procedure in a novel, concrete situation

Analysis: Breaking down a whole into parts and understanding the role of each part, the relationships among the parts, and the relationship to the overall purpose or structure of the topic

Evaluation: Making and justifying judgments based on criteria

Creation and Synthesis: Creating a new form with individual parts; putting elements together to form a coherent whole (Gareis & Grant, 2015, p. 56)

Higher levels of critical thinking are incorporated within activities and assignments by asking students to apply content from course readings and make recommendations to enhance implementation of initiatives in their schools; analyze leadership theories, frameworks, and/or standards systems and identify common themes; complete self-evaluations based on criteria provided on rubrics; and create plans and presentations for school improvement. Discussion questions that reflect higher levels of critical thinking are embedded within presentations. Questions are also individualized to extend student learning.

Graduate students commented on being asked questions that reflect higher levels of critical thinking. “[This instructor] provided feedback to each week’s post…and asked thought-provoking questions. She also anticipated the needs of learners by providing information about upcoming assignments in advance” (CUC, 2017-2018). “[This instructor] consistently provided timely, thorough feedback on assignments and discussion posts. I like how she took the time to clarify key concepts within her own discussion posts weekly and responded to each of our posts, asking probing questions to stimulate higher-ordered thinking” (CUC, 2017-2018).

Instructors’ addressing the higher levels of critical thinking helps graduate students have a rewarding experience within courses. They may then apply their understanding of higher-level thinking when working with teachers to incorporate critical thinking within their lesson and unit planning, questioning, and assessments. This may be done across content areas and in a variety of educational settings. According to Sousa (2006), “Our students would make a quantum leap to higher-order thinking if every teacher in every classroom correctly and regularly used a model such as Bloom’s revised taxonomy” (p. 259).

Providing Descriptive Feedback

Scoring rubrics are shared with students before assignments are due. The feedback that is provided about an assignment addresses the expectations of the assignment and criteria on the rubric that will be used for assessment of the assignment. Comments include areas of strength and recommendations for next steps in students’ learning. The descriptive feedback addresses both content and format. Comments about content include strengths regarding fulfilling the specific requirements of an assignment and details about any requirements that were not met. Questions are posed to encourage further reflection. Comments about format include organization of the assignment and specific areas of American Psychological Association (APA) format that needed to be addressed. Any deduction of points is substantiated by feedback to enhance student learning and support continual improvement.

Graduate students appreciate descriptive feedback. “The professor has given me excellent feedback about the assignments and answers I have presented in the discussion posts, which has helped tremendously” (CUC, 2017-2018). “Overall I think the instructor did a great job of creating a true learning community. She was fair on her grading, gave quality feedback, was very responsive, and always supplied us with helpful resources” (CUC, 2017-2018).

Instructors’ modeling descriptive feedback helps future leaders experience a practice that is essential in teacher-evaluation systems for the purposes of instructional improvement. It is also essential in assessment systems to enhance student learning. Providing descriptive feedback is an important component of formative assessment, which is assessment for learning. Stiggins (2007) writes about assessment for learning and emphasizes the importance of “the effective use of the assessment process and its results to help students advance their learning with enthusiasm and feel in control of their learning as they attain new levels of proficiency” (p. 69).


Focusing on student-centered learning, addressing learning styles and levels of critical thinking, and providing descriptive feedback helps graduate students have a rewarding and successful experience for leadership growth and development. Modeling these practices also helps future educational leaders implement them within schools and districts to maximize adult and student learning. It is through knowledge and implementation of research-based practices, self-evaluation, and feedback that we, as instructors, continually work to transform ourselves and our students. I wish teachers and educational leaders the best of success with continually improving the teaching/learning process. LEJ


Concordia University Chicago, College of Graduate Studies, Course Evaluation System. (2016-2017).

Concordia University Chicago, College of Graduate Studies, Course Evaluation System. (2017-2018).

Fullan, M. (2016). The new meaning of educational change (5th ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gareis, C, R., & Grant, L.W. (2015). Teacher-made assessments: How to connect curriculum, instruction, and student learning (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.

Stiggins, R. (2007). Assessment for learning: An essential foundation of productive instruction. In D. Reeves (Ed.), Ahead of the curve: The power of assessment to transform teaching and learning (pp. 59-76). Bloomington IN: Solution Tree Press.

Warwick, R. (2015). The challenge for school leaders: A new way of thinking about leadership. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Author Information

Dr. Kim M. Sekulich is an associate professor and program leader in the College of Graduate Studies at Concordia University Chicago. She teaches master and doctoral level educational-leadership courses. She served as a principal for 13 years before coming to Concordia University Chicago.