How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom Part I

[Cross-posted from HASTAC]

Part One: How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom Part I

Part Two: It’s All About You

Part Three: The Syllabus

Part Four: Students

Part Five: Collectively Writing a Constitution

Part Six: Contract Grading and Peer Review 



Over the next several weeks I will blog some practical suggestions for things you might try if you want to move from a traditional classroom to a more egalitarian, student-centered pedagogy.  I will post these as I write them to the Futures Initiative Group on HASTAC where you can leave comments or ask questions.

There will be easy suggestions that anyone can incorporate into a classroom tomorrow and with great, interesting results.  There will also be full, expansive major, and radical suggestions if you really want to turn your teaching inside out.  You can pick and choose what works best for you, your students, your university, your subject matter.

In my experience, student-centered methods work equally well for every level of student, at every economic level, in every situation. (I’ve seen stunning progress in English language learning in first generation immigrant students at a community college who published a peer-evaluated student online magazine, for example, and with students at a top 10 private university working with local community organizers to create an ESL pre-college program for adolescent migrant farm workers in rural North Carolina as a final project.)

I teach in the humanities, interpretive social sciences, and technology so many of my suggestions are in these areas, but I will try to bring in examples from STEM and social science fields as well, and I invite others to do so.

If you sign your name, I will footnote you and give credit to any ideas you might offer.  There are so many great ideas out there.  Please help us all out by posting your own!  While this series is intended largely for higher education, ideas are welcome from elementary and high school teachers.  Also, since there are many different ways to teach, we welcome comments from instructors in areas such as vocational training, professional development, athletics, acting or other performing arts, meditation, yoga or martial arts, visual arts, open source coders, DIY craft instructors, and so forth. Some of these are student-centered pedagogies, some not.  Yet all offer different ways we can learn from one another, including by the ways contrasting methods offer us to think about our own assumptions and unexamined practices.

I will also be posting the blogs to a continuous Google Doc and where anyone can ask questions and leave comments that I will also try to incorporate into subsequent edited versions that may evolve over time:

Over the course of this year, I’ll be working with the Futures Initiative Fellows at the Graduate Center, with HASTAC Scholars, and with CUNY Fellows to take some of these ideas, plus ideas developed in last year’s graduate seminar, and create a textbook or workbook on student-centered learning.  This  blog series might be a crude rough draft that will be emended many times–like progressive teaching itself.  There is never a final draft.  Learning is a process, not a product.


I want to start with the biggest questions first because, without these, none of the rest makes any sense:  why do we want to redesign higher education?  And why do we want to start with the classroom?   I am writing a book addressing these big theoretical and historical ideas  so right now I’m going to just say a few words about the “why.”

Please note:  If big, theoretical points aren’t your thing, skip this post and come back in a few days for the practical parts.  Or take a look at a more practical blog I wrote a few weeks ago, “Why Start With Pedagogy?  Four Good Reasons, Four Good Solutions”



There are at least three compelling reasons for changing from the current credential-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom.

The first is simple:  it works.

If you believe it is important for students to learn the subject matter you are teaching, then student-centered learning is the most effective method you can use.  If you think of your job as grading students on how well they have mastered the material, then student-centered learning may not be for you.  (NB:  many forms of instruction are based on attaining pre-determined levels of mastery; student-centered learning works for some, but typically not as well.  Later, when we discuss assessment, we’ll be looking at the assumptions implicit in various assessment forms.)

The essential difference between those is, in the latter, the credentialing of knowledge-acquisition is the key.  The former requires you to understand what the student knows, doesn’t know, is interested in, can relate to, and can bring to an understanding or mastery of the material. It may seem a subtle difference but it actually an entirely different valuing of what learning is for, what it means, and why it matters.

Second:  The second reason to change to an equitable, student-centered classroom is deeply political and philosophical:  it allows you and your students to model how to participate responsibly in a more just, equitable, democratic, diverse society.

Student-centered learning means you think about what your students need to learn what they need to learn and to come up with the best ways for them to learn.  That’s how learning works just about everywhere outside of school.  Basically, this is how we teach our children.  Any good parent who has more than one child knows you adapt your learning to the child, not the other way around.  And you adapt your teaching to the challenge the child faces, sometimes assisting, sometimes getting out of the way.

In Vygotsky’s terms, in student-centered learning, your job is to provide the “scaffolding”–as little or as much as is needed in a given situation for a given student– that supports the learning.

It sounds like common sense.  But it isn’t.  The way you learn in formal education is remarkably different than the way you learn in almost any other circumstance, largely because formal public, compulsory education evolved in the 19th century and as a way of disciplining, selecting, rewarding, recognizing, advancing, or penalizing children. Formal education is as much about power and compliance, conformity and regulation as it is about knowledge, mastery, intelligence, ingenuity, creativity innovation, or originality.   Like the penitentiary that evolves at the same time, it is about a system of social regulation, where deviation has consequences–advancement, recognition, achievement, graduation, and awards, or detention and failure.

Third:  It brings joy.  To you and your students.  Maybe that’s the best reason. You restructure your classroom with students at the center because students who are invested in their own learning, who take responsibility for their own learning, love their learning, work harder than they ever thought they would, and, in that process, you become a co-learner, not a regulator of their failure.    Who wouldn’t want to make the change?

I encounter an awful lot of grumpy professors.  I encounter an awful lot of resentful students.  And there are a lot of pundits out there telling all of us–profs and students–that what we do doesn’t matter.  That’s a burden on everyone, but we–students and profs–should not be one another’s enemies.

When you turn your classroom into a student-centered classroom, the onus of regulation and restriction is removed from the professor and becomes part of the student’s own responsibility and, in some set ups that we’ll be discussing, also becomes part of the collective goals of the class.

One reason why I always provide a public, online component for the work produced by my students is publication gives a level of identification and reality to the work students produce.  HASTAC network member Steven Berg, a professor of history and English at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, does this better than anyone I know.  He has a blog called Scholarly Voices in which he published student work of a quality and a quantity that is quite spectacular.  I’ll feature him in an upcoming post.   The point is that, when students need to stand by their work in a public way, it reinforces that the work is about them–not about pleasing you, doing what you want, sucking up to you as a prof, all the cynical things students say about teachers and that credential-centered teaching inspires.

The bottom line: in student-centered learning the prof’s biggest role is in making clear what benefit learning the subject matter will have for the student, not in obtaining a grade in the course, a requirement for a degree, or even a degree–but in being part of pathway to a better, more productive, more responsible, more enjoyable independent life beyond school.   Most of us as academics don’t ask those big questions even of ourselves.

Maybe we’ve forgotten them because we’ve spent so much of our time enforcing rules and measuring outcomes.

Being overt at what we think we are conveying, making sure students understand what they can attain, and helping each student to find an ideal way to attain it, is a benefit of student learning.  In addition, because student-centered learning requires students to work together, to publish work online (in the method I recommend here), and so forth, students gain–especially if you make it clear this the skill they are gaining–experience with project management, leadership, time management, working to a deadline, writing skills, publishing skills, and possibly presentation and public speaking skills in addition to whatever subject matter they are mastering.  Those are all important life skills.  Since I also have them use wisely and well a variety of tools, they learn digital literacy and learn to talk about digital literacy (privacy, data usage, security, and so forth).   It’s not expensive, mostly index cards and HASTAC’s free open community resources (HASTAC hosts free groups for dozens of student-centered courses where profs don’t have other resources, at no cost to students or profs).

Scaffolding means underscoring for students the skills they are learning–so they can build on those.  Scaffolding also means trusting students to learn.  If they are interested, invested, believe it will be important to their lives and not just to a grade, they will be motivated.  If they are showing their work to their peers and to the world (we’ll also be talking about ePortfolios and other ways of displaying one’s work), it is theirs, and not just an assignment.  Especially for students who do not come from superior K-12 backgrouns, the inspiration to excellence in the public representation of themselves is huge.  Peer mentoring can help them.  Plagiarism becomes almost obsolete when it is so easy to be caught, so public, and the responsibility of peers, not teachers, and about group reputation.

The whole value system changes:  they are not doing your assignment for your grade.  They are learning as a survival skill, for personal growth, because it is meaningful to them.   Presumably you became a prof because this subject matter and teaching itself was meaningful to you.   Student-centered teaching renews your excitement in a profession that is being pommelled from every side.  (And, yes, I know you have to be strategic:  we’ll cover that in a future blog post too.)


Learning in formal education is almost entirely non-natural.  It is formalized, standardized, regularized, and, in the end, far more about compliance and conformity than creativity, ingenuity, innovation, or even mastery (points that are especially true for marginalized people, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says so eloquently and bitterly in Between the World and Me).

Student-centered learning is one small chink in a system that needs many, many disruptions.  Sadly, the structures of regulation are everywhere in formal education from testing to the architecture of our schools and our classrooms to our systems of reward and peer review and recognition.  Much of the system  of higher education is based on learning to mimic and master the forms of knowledge embodied by those who have the power to convey what counts as knowledge within society.  The entire system, in higher education, of peer review, is based on this hierarchical model of mimicry, mastery, and conferral.  In credential-centered learning, your job as prof is to enforce the first level of refereeing, selection, and admission into that system.

If you are tired of being the police–selecting, ranking, grading, snuffing out plagiarism and wrong answers and mistakes–and want to find the most creative ways to promote success for any student who earns it, student-centered learning is for you.

It is not about theory; it is about method, practice, pedagogy, architecture, design, and structure.  And that’s what this series of blog posts is about, in very practical terms.

I’m talking about concrete ways:  arranging your syllabus, your tools, your assignments, your classroom, your way of calling on students, your way of having them participate in discussion–even of how they raise their hands.

I’m talking about class-constructed constitutions, peer mentoring, and even peer grading systems.

I’m talking about student editing and publication of work, student goal setting, student syllabus selection, and two-way evaluation systems as well as anonymous ones.

You cannot counter structural social inequality by good will.  You need to design structural equality into the classroom.

Structuring equality in classroom discussion–in a lecture or a seminar–is actually quite easy to do but it is not intuitive. At least, it was not intuitive for me. I learned several tricks from other people and I pass them on every time I give a public lecture and use at least one or two of them every class period.  They work.  They change the dynamic.  They change the way everyone participates.  When the situation is equal, no one hides, no one wants to hide, and no one bullies.
I know all that sounds lofty.  It is real. It is gratifying.  When you experience the rewards of a student-centered classroom, there is no going back.

Read Part 2; Part 3



Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Cathy N. Davidson, “Why Start With Pedagogy?  Four Good Reasons, Four Good Solutions,” Hybrid Pedagogy  (

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Michel Foucault, On the Punitive Society

Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy

Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309