Skip to main content

Embracing Learner-Centered Pedagogy

Most educators pride themselves on putting our students first and try to make teaching decisions with our students' best interests in mind. But, what does learner-centered teaching really mean?

In their 2017 book, Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice, Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook set out to answer this question--and how it can be applied to teaching in a librarianship context. When asked to articulate what having a learner-centered approach means, most point to individual exercises or classroom techniques they employ or try to avoid, but are unable to describe the philosophy as a larger concept.

Ultimately, Klipfel and Cook's definition of learner-centered pedagogy is "who we are as people matters."[1] They explain it in further detail as: "Our conception of learner-centered pedagogy encourages library educators to encounter the learner as an individual with personal interests, preferences, and motivations, and uniquely human set of cognitive capacities."[2]

Klipfel and Cook distinguish between the educator who facilitates learning through building connections with their students and the educator as "expert." The former, striving to understand who their students are as human begins with diverse and complex needs--both cognitive and psychological, is derived from person-centered therapy in humanistic psychology.

They rely heavily on Carl Rogers' application of humanistic psychological theory to education, explaining that Rogers viewed learning place across a spectrum of meaning. They describe it as follows:

"On one end of the spectrum is learning that has no personal meaning to the student, as in the rote memorization of nonsense syllables. Because there is no concrete or compelling personal reason to remember these things, they tend to be forgotten quickly. . . . On the other end of the Rogerian continuum of meaning lies significant learning, which has both meaning and personal relevance to the learner. Significant learning takes place for the learner if, and only if, the learner attaches some personal meaning to the subject of inquiry and wants to learn about the subject matter. Real, genuine curiosity is central to this kind of learning."[3]

As Klipfel and Cook put it, we should constantly be asking ourselves, "What is it like to be a person learning something?"[4] As such, discovering what matters to the learner himself or herself should be the goal of the learner-centered educator.

This can be challenging for law librarians, who may or may not have a significant amount of time with the students (for example, in situations where they are just leading a one-hour workshop as a guest lecturer). We can, no matter how much time we have with our students, ask ourselves why the research instruction we are doing matters to the students--more than just the fact that they'll be spending a significant time in practice conducting legal research--and consider their previous research instruction experiences. In other words, we can practice empathy by trying to put ourselves in our students' shoes--and structure our courses/workshops to best fit their individual needs. For example, this may mean giving less information on the background/history of particular resources and allowing more time for practical application of skills. It may also mean having an open line of communication with students about what they want to learn, what they think they need to learn, and how they might apply what they learn. While there may be things learners don't know they need to know, it's important to tie what they're learning to their goals, so they'll value and consequently retain what they've just learned--and then apply it to new situations.


[1] Kevin Michael Klipfel & Dani Brecher Cook, Learning-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practices 1 (2017).
[2] Id. at 1-2.
[3] Id. at 7.
[4] Id. at 9.


Popular posts from this blog

Teaching and Burnout

Well, friends, it's been quite a while since I've written in this venue.  Full disclosure: the fall semester was a tough one--my library was down two teaching librarians and the load was heavy as responsibilities in this and other areas increased.  While I still enjoyed being in the classroom with my students, I didn't have as much time as I'd like to think deeply about cognitive science and educational theory, and I often started feeling badly about myself for not making more time for it, for not pushing forward in my understanding of how we can best help students learn.

The truth is that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. This is something that I spout off to others quite frequently, but is something I too often fail to keep in mind for myself.  I often feel like a hypocrite as I speak to my students frequently about the importance of self-care, when I so infrequently practice self-care myself.  Teaching, done well, uses up a huge amount of emotional and cognitiv…

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend,

Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training. 

There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you today. 


First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"…

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching, there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog.

The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new in…

16x16 Challenge, or How A Tweet Resulted in Building a Community of Law Librarians Thinking & Writing About Teaching

Twitter is a space in which I've made connections with so many Law Librarians and many others within legal academia--and strengthened connections with others--and learned so much from and been inspired by colleagues across the country.

This past weekend, Emily Barney, Technology Training & Marketing Librarian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, was live-tweeting a panel from the WP Campus (Where WordPress Meets Higher Education) Conference called "The Infamous 9x9x25 Challenge," by Todd Conaway, from the University of Washington--Bothell. Started in 2013 at a community college in Arizona, faculty members were challenged to write 25 sentences a week for 9 weeks about teaching and learning. It gave faculty members the chance to reflect on what they do, share experiences and ideas, and see what their colleagues are up to over the course of the semester. And the challenge has spread in various iterations to college campuses across the United States.

This seemed like a wonder…

Gratitude in Teaching

My favorite poet is Mary Oliver and what I love most about her work is the awe and gratefulness she exudes in merely observing the world.

She writes,
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
This is, I think, good advice for teachers.  As teachers, we tend to focus in, with laser-like precision, on anything that goes wrong in our classrooms. This is important--we must reflect on what doesn't work in our classrooms to improve as instructors. But, what we too often fail to do is take note of our successes.

In Chapter 3 of her new book, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, Professor Jessamyn Neuhaus has a wonderful section on the importance of gratitude in teaching. She describes gratitude as "an inner attitude [that] leads to an expression of thanks--taking an action--toward someone or something. It means recognizing what you received from another person or from the circumstances in w…