Insights into the Effectiveness of Student-Centered Learning in K-12 Education

Published on July 13, 2023
Written By: 

Kelly Cuccolo, PhDMichigan Virtual Research Learning Institute


Kristen DeBruler, PhDMichigan Virtual Research Learning Institute

This report examines the impact of student-centered learning (SCL) on K-12 student achievement. Despite the high regard for SCL, there is a lack of research on its effect. A literature review reveals limited studies on student achievement, showing modest gains. Factors like demographics and SCL elements are explored, emphasizing the need for further research, particularly with high-quality experimental designs.

Suggested Citation

Cuccolo, K. & DeBruler, K. (2023). Insights into the Effectiveness of Student-Centered Learning in K-12 Education. Michigan Virtual.

Student-centered learning (SCL) is a highly regarded practice in education, yet its impact on student achievement in K-12 remains understudied. This report presents a review of relevant literature, identifying trends and research gaps. A literature search was conducted, revealing that there is a significant lack of research on the impact of SCL on student achievement in K-12, and a large portion of the research available focused on implementation, barriers to implementation, and/or perceptions. Of the literature that focused on student achievement (n = 10) the results indicated small to moderate positive student achievement gains and outcomes. Factors such as demographics, grade level, class type, and elements of SCL that are implemented may impact SCL’s effectiveness and are reviewed. Future research, especially high-quality experimental designs, are needed to fully understand the relationship between SCL and student achievement.

What is student-centered learning? 

  • Student-centered learning is a pedagogical approach that emphasizes the needs and interests of students as individuals. Student centered learning encompasses practices such as Competency-Based Education (CBE) and personalization. These practices are often implemented together so that students can take an active role in their learning, demonstrate mastery of material through meaningful assessment, and have access to instruction and support that is tailored to their needs and interests. There are four tenets of student-centered learning: learning is personalized; learning is competency based; learning happens anytime, anywhere; students take ownership of their learning (Nellie Mae Foundation, n.d.).

What we already know 

  • Leaders in the field of education cite Student-Centered Learning as an impactful practice (e.g,: Patrick, 2015).
  • Educator and student perceptions of Student-Centered Learning are positive (Green & Harrington, 2020; Kang, &, Keinonen, 2018; Yu et al., 2022).
  • There are many anecdotal and descriptive reports of the positive impact Student Centered Learning has on student outcomes (e.g., Evans et al., 2020; Green & Harrington, 2021).

What this report adds

  • This report reviews empirical evidence about the effectiveness of Student-Centered Learning on academic achievement in K-12 settings which is an area of need because most of the research in this area centers on postsecondary education.
  • This report highlights factors that may influence the effectiveness of Student-Centered Learning, which educators may use to guide implementation. 

Implications for Practice/Research 

  • By reviewing the impact of Student-Centered Learning on academic achievement in K-12 settings, we can better understand the extent to which, and under what circumstances, Student-Centered Learning impacts student achievement. The positive association between Student-Centered Learning and academic outcomes supports the implementation of this model. Further, the evidence reviewed can provide direction (and empirical support) for districts that are looking to enhance students’ academic achievement, and reduce achievement gaps through systemic changes.


Many leaders in education such as Michigan Virtual, The Aurora Institute, and the Christensen Institute advocate for Student-Centered Learning. Student-Centered Learning (SCL) is a philosophy that emphasizes meeting the needs of individual students. A student-centered approach is holistic, in such that students and teachers work together to create a learning path that is tailored to the needs and interests of individual students. A review of frameworks and literature conducted by the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute revealed four main tenets of SCL

  1. Learning is personalized
  2. Learning is competency-based
  3. Learning happens anytime, anywhere
  4. Students take ownership of their learning and have agency (Green, DeBruler & Harrington, 2023)

When learning is personalized, the learning experiences are continually adjusted for each student based on an assessment of their needs and interests. In other words, data is used to inform and modify students’ learning paths. When learning is student-centered, students progress by demonstrating mastery or competency. This means that time is not standardized for each student, rather, they work along their own path at their own pace. Because learning is not measured strictly by seat time, learning can happen anywhere at any time, affording students the opportunity to engage in authentic and hands-on learning experiences. Finally, students have increased ownership of their learning through collaboration with teachers on individual learning paths. Student ownership is often enacted through providing students a voice (input) and choice (options) over their learning (Green & Harrington, 2021; Harrington & DeBruler, 2019).

SCL is often used alongside terms such as personalized learning, and competency-based education (CBE). Despite being interrelated as evidenced by the components of SCL outlined above, these terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Personalized learning refers to adapting learning based on each students’ strengths, needs, and interests (Patrick et al., 2013). While competency-based education is defined through seven elements: 

  1. Students are empowered to make decisions about their learning experiences, the creation and application of their knowledge, and demonstration of learning
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering experience that provides timely, relevant, and actionable evidence 
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs
  4. Students progress based on their demonstration of mastery, not seat time
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable (Levine & Patrick, 2019).

Given that SCL incorporates both CBE and personalized learning, we may consider CBE and personalized learning scaffolds that help uphold and achieve learning that is truly student-centered.

As schools look to address achievement gaps, declining graduation rates, low achievement and other shortcomings, they are increasingly turning to some form of SCL, personalized learning, or CBE. Districts and educational professionals are realizing that in order to improve outcomes, and reach all students, changes need to be made (Green & Harrington, 2020). 

Indeed, student-centered approaches are often contrasted with more traditional educational models. Traditional models may emphasize teacher-centered instruction, in which the teacher is viewed as the content expert whose goal is to transfer that knowledge to students. The current structure of K-12 education in the United States emphasizes standards-based accountability, meaning that through the use of required standardized testing, students’ mastery of the content and skills associated with each grade level is assessed (Steele et al., 2014). Because of the ways in which standardized testing is related to the allocation of resources, decisions about curriculum and instruction, and educator evaluation systems, teachers and school systems may see covering content as a necessity to ensuring proficiency on these exams, and proficiency being a priority (Zeiser, Scholz, & Cirks, 2018). Working towards specified state standards blends itself to a “one-size-fits all” approach to education, as an effort is made to keep all students on pace with peers, and standards are uniform across student interests, goals, and abilities (Pane et al., 2021). Despite these accountability mechanisms, schools still face significant challenges such as declining graduation rates, low engagement, and low (and declining) achievement (Sturgis & Patrick, 2010; Green & Harrington, 2020). The realization that traditional models are not working for all students and the desire to ensure all students’ needs are met, serves as a powerful motivator for schools’ movement towards SCL (Green & Harrington, 2021). 

Anecdotal reports from schools making this shift indicate that it pays off (Fulbeck et al., 2020; Green, 2021; Green & Harrington, 2020; Green & Harrington, 2021; Surr et al., 2018). Some schools that have implemented SCL initiatives self-report improved academic achievement and graduation rates (Green & Harrington, 2020). Educational professionals also hold positive perceptions of SCL, expressing that it engages students, promotes deep learning, and increases motivation (Fulbeck et al., 2020, Green, 2021; Green, & Harrington, 2021). Many educational professionals and organizations see SCL as the way forward, a way to improve student outcomes, and as more effective than traditional educational models (Green & Harrington, 2020; Harrington & Green, 2021). This begs the question, what do we know about the relationship between SCL and student achievement in K-12? 

A plethora of research in higher education has examined this question, finding that SCL is positively associated with student learning outcomes such as concept knowledge, final exam grades, and course grades (e.g., Bazelais & Doleck, 2018; Yick et al., 2019). Relatively little research has examined SCL and academic outcomes in K-12 settings. This lack of research may stem from a combination of systemic, logistic, and school specific challenges (see Table 1). Indeed, SCL requires a systems-change approach that takes time and resources as administrators, stakeholders, and school leaders work to secure buy-in, develop infrastructure, provide professional development, establish instruction and assessment practices, develop expectations, and tailor practices to fit the unique needs of the school and students. 

Further, SCL requires holistic changes to teaching pedagogy and school system—in order for learning to be truly student-centered, it has to go beyond standalone implementations (Green & Harrington, 2020), formats (e.g., blended; Macaruso et al., 2020), technology use (e.g., web-based learning systems; Wongwatkit et al., 2017), and surface level personalization (e.g., aligning homework questions with student interests; Bernacki & Walkington, 2018). Changes and benefits may not emerge immediately, and programs may take varying lengths of time to “reach their stride” depending on the resources they have available to them. Researchers therefore advise against evaluating outcomes too early, and schools may be hesitant to have their programs evaluated or studied during early implementation while they are still experiencing “growing pains” (Steele et al., 2014; Scheopner Torres et al., 2015). 

Taken together, time, variability in SCL implementation, “growing pains” associated with new program implementation, and other factors make systematic study of SCL difficult (Evans 2021). However, understanding how SCL impacts student achievement outcomes is important so that states, districts, and schools can keep up with best practices in the field, make data driven decisions about instructional and curricular decisions, and garner stakeholder support for implementing changes.

Table 1. Challenges Associated with SCL Implementation

Type of ChallengeCategoryDescription
SystemicCultivating buy-inCultivating buy-in from students, caregivers, and teachers may be difficult as SCL differs from what caregivers have experienced, and how teachers were trained (Green & Harrington, 2021; Torres et al., 2015)
SystemicStandardized testingNeeding to meet standards and prepare for state testing limits the amount of choice teachers feel they can offer to students, and limiting choice, in turn limits the implementation or use of personalized learning paths (Pane et al., 2017; Zeiser et al., 2018)
Logistical; school specificTechnologySchools need to be able to collect and use relevant student data to personalize learning paths. This often requires infrastructure such as specific kinds of technology and efficient learning management systems (Green & Harrington, 2021)
Logistical; School specificProfessional developmentTeachers need pedagogical training and logistical support for making the move to student-centered teaching (Green & Harrington, 2021; Zeiser et al., 2018)
Logistical; School specificTimeTeachers need time to develop personalized learning paths, create or find resources, and collect and use student data (Pane et al., 2017; Zeiser et al., 2018). Administration should provide appropriate scaffolds and supports
School specificVariabilityWhile SCL is composed of four tenets, these tenets may be implemented to varying degrees, in varying combinations, and implemented through different tactics (Steele et al., 2014)

Current Project

The aim of this survey of published research was to provide context about the effectiveness of SCL through synthesizing available empirical evidence. Specifically, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) reviewed articles that examined the impact of SCL programs on student achievement outcomes. MVLRI hopes that identifying patterns of effective implementation practices can inform SCL program development initiatives and enhance support for such programs across school districts.


A literature review was conducted to summarize findings on student-centered learning and students’ academic achievement. MVLRI focused their search on articles published between 2018 and 2023 in order to provide current information to readers. Through a search conducted on Google Scholar, articles were identified that examined the relationship between SCL and student academic outcomes. The reference sections of identified articles were searched for articles that were not initially included in the Google Scholar search.

Search terms included:

  • Student-centered learning
  • Education
  • Student outcomes
  • Personalized learning
  • Education
  • Competency-based education
  • Learning
  • Personalization k12
  • Student-centered achievement

A total of 10 articles were included, and 38 articles were excluded. The primary reason an article was excluded was because it used a narrow implementation of SCL (e.g., flipped classroom, n = 14, 36.84%) or because the results were not focused on student outcomes (n = 11, 28.95%). This is similar to studies excluded in the literature review carried out by Evans et al., (2021) which examined implementation and outcomes associated with CBE initiatives in K-12. Nine articles (23.70%) were excluded because the study population was not generalizable to K-12, eight articles (21.05%) were excluded because the intervention within the article did not meet our definition of SCL, and one study (2.63%) was excluded because it was past the cut off date. See Figure 1 for a breakdown of this process. Appendix A includes a table of studies that were excluded and the rationale for exclusion. Note that the total may add up to more than 38 (100%) as some articles were excluded for multiple reasons (e.g., narrow implementation of SCL and results not focused on student outcomes), and rounding. Appendix B contains a list of the full references for excluded articles. Table 2 provides a summary of the articles that were included in the review. Appendix C contains a full reference list of all articles included in this review so that readers can follow up on any studies that may be particularly relevant to them.

Figure 1. Review Process


A total of 10 articles were reviewed and synthesized. In the first read through, each article’s research methodology and findings related to student outcomes were noted. Subsequent reviews of the articles focused on identifying cross-cutting themes, which were recorded and organized into key takeaways for the reader. 

Table 2. Articles included in the Review

CitationStudy DesignSample Type and SizeOutcomeEffect Size
Evans, Landl, & Thompson (2021)Literature ReviewK-12; 25 studies4 studies reported positive effects; 1 study reported mixed effects; 1 study reported negative effectsNot Reported 
Li, & Wang (2022)Meta-AnalysisK-12; 84 studies  PositiveMedium
Bernard, Borokhovski, Schmid, Waddington, & Pickup (2019)Meta-AnalysisK-12; 299 studiesPositiveMedium
Cornelius-White (2007)Meta-AnalysisPreK-Grade 20; 119 studiesPositiveMedium
McCarthy, Liu & Schauer (2020)Case StudyK-5th Grade; 1,911 students PositiveSmall
Kang, & Keinonen (2018)Correlational Study4714 15-year-old students MixedSmall
Lee, Huh, Lin, Reigeluth & Lee (2021)Correlational Study308 K-12 schools, 102 ELA teachers NANot Reported 
Ingkavara, Panjaburee, Srisawasdi, & Sajjapanroj (2022)Experimental Study292 secondary school studentsPositiveMedium
Brodersen & Randel (2017)Case StudyElementary and middle school; math (approx.  2,388 students); literacy (approx. 1,702 students)PositiveSmall
Pane, Steiner, Baird, Hamilton, & Pane (2017)Quasi-Experimental Study32 K-12 schools, approx. 5,000 studentsPositiveSmall

Outcomes for main analysis: positive (in favor of SCL), mixed (in favor of SCL and traditional), negative (in favor of traditional)

Key Takeaways

Persistent Lack of Research on Academic Outcomes of SCL 

There is relatively little research published that indicates the effect of SCL implementation on achievement among K-12 students. Of the research that is available, very few studies focus on student outcomes as the primary impetus for the study, or use high quality quasi- or true experimental designs (Evans, et al., 2021). Out of the 49 articles we identified, 39 were excluded. We excluded approximately 28% of the articles we reviewed because they did not report student achievement or academic outcomes. Instead, these articles largely highlighted how student-centered programs may be designed, implemented, and supported as well as challenges school systems may face during the process (Evans et al., 2019; Sturgis, & Patrick, 2010; Zeiser et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2022). Low achievement coupled with persistent (learning) gaps are frequently cited as motivators for making a change from traditional educational models to SCL (Sturgis, & Patrick, 2010). However, as mentioned above, systemic and logistical factors provide significant challenges for schools wishing to move towards SCL. State support and leadership such as investing in pilot programs, providing technical support, and logistic support (e.g., funding, allowing schools to move away from the Carnegie unit) can facilitate schools’ adoption of SCL models (Sturgis, & Patrick, 2010). 

If articles that were primarily descriptive did report student outcomes, they largely focused on attitudes, motivation, and perceptions (Zeiser et al., 2018). While understanding how SCL may be related to psychosocial outcomes is important, districts who are trying to decide if they should move to SCL may need evidence that speaks to specific gaps they see in student achievement in order to feel that the time and resource investment involved in adopting SCL will help them achieve the goals they have for their learners.

Relatedly, out of the 10 articles included in this review, only one was a quasi-experimental design (Pane et al., 2017), and only one was a true experimental design (Ingkavara et al., 2022). This means that there is a significant lack of causal evidence regarding SCL and student outcomes, and that the majority of research has been at the level of establishing associations between SCL and various outcome metrics. Carrying out experimental designs presents a host of challenges such as randomly assigning districts, schools, and students to groups, finding a suitable control group, providing appropriate professional development so instructors are implementing instructional methods with high fidelity, standardizing outcome metrics, and having sufficient time and resources to make (and subsequently track) large scale systemic changes. While challenging to implement, having more causal evidence about the role of SCL on student achievement would help substantiate claims and promote the allocation of resources to schools who want to implement this model. Studying SCL implementation in a wider variety of settings would also promote a greater understanding of how certain contextual factors may change the impact SCL has on student outcomes.

Varied Definitions and Extent of SCL Implementation

Another notable finding was the wide variation in the extent to which schools involved in the research implemented SCL. SCL includes characteristics such as:

1.      Learning is personalized

2.      Learning is competency-based

3.      Learning happens anytime, anywhere

4.      Students have agency, and take ownership of their learning

At its core, a student-centered environment is one where students and teachers collaboratively develop a path for each individual learner. This means that students have some level of choice and voice—students’ goals can inform their learning paths, and they can choose how to show their mastery of the material, or what area of a topic they want to explore further. Competency-based progressions allow students to move through their own learning paths at their own pace, and progress is based on mastery, not seat time. Personalization and use of competency-based progressions mean that meaningful assessment data and technology will be used by teachers to help adjust students’ learning (Green & Harrington, 2020). 

However, SCL is a philosophy that goes beyond a single instructional method. Most often, we observed that studies used a specific method or instructional technique that partially aligned with a tenet of SCL (e.g., Fulbeck et al., 2020; Zeiser et al., 2018). For example, a study conducted by the American Institutes for Research focused on how teachers fostered student agency, a specific component of SCL that focuses on students’ ownership of their learning. The strategies most commonly used by teachers to assist with developing student agency included forming close relationships, modeling desired behaviors, and providing students with tools and resources. Increases in agency were positively associated with student perceptions of learning (Zeiser et al., 2018). While the instructional methods used by teachers varied, the emphasis was on improving a single tenet of SCL.

In regards to specific instructional techniques, station rotation (e.g., Fulbeck et al., 2020), flipped classroom (Cheng et al., 2019; Gelgoot et al., 2020; Kostaris et al., 2017; Lo et al., 2020; Van Alten et al., 2019; Wang et al., 2018), and web-based systems (Macaruso et al., 2020; van Klaveren et al., 2017; Wongwatkit et al., 2016) were commonly used as SCL interventions. While some articles demonstrated that these techniques can promote positive outcomes such as gains in content knowledge/learning outcomes (e.g., exam performance) and engagement, it is important to note that these techniques do not fully capture the interactions between all of the tenets of SCL as they are often examined as stand-alone practices (Kostaris et al., 2017; Van Alten et al., 2019; Wongwatkit et al., 2016). For instance, while station rotation does offer some level of personalization by having students rotate through stations with different learning modalities (computer, paper-pencil, teacher-led, collaborative) represented, the content or activities at the stations are not guaranteed to be personalized to each individual students’ needs, interests, goals, or competencies. In other words, these types of instructional practices afford some personalization, but it is not a continuous process of updating the instruction based on challenges or successes students might be experiencing, like we would expect in SCL. Additionally, because learning is still delegated to a specific class time (and these instructional practices are “seat time” based), students are still expected to progress at a similar pace to that of their peers which may result in some students progressing to the next step without demonstrating mastery of the material. When looking at the use of web-based systems as a form of SCL, studies often used technologies that combined personalized learning paths and formative assessments, however, these were often delegated to specific units, periods of time, and/or classes (Wongwatkit et al., 2016). As such, they did not reflect the scope of transformation that is typically associated with SCL.

Overall, implementations seemed to focus on instructional practices that provided some elements of personalization while SCL components related to flexibility, competency, and assessment seemed to be underrepresented (Evans et al., 2019). 

Small to Moderate Positive Student Gains and Outcomes

The majority of the evidence (8 out of 10 articles) reviewed suggests that SCL is related to positive student achievement outcomes, namely, gains in content knowledge and performance on standardized testing (Brodersen & Randel, 2017; Ingkavara et al., 2022; Lee et al., 2021; McCarthy et al., 2020). Notably, multi-year studies examining SCL implementation over time highlight that performance gains are not immediate. As such, regularly assessing student progress and achievement over the span of several years is necessary to fully evaluate the effectiveness of a school’s SCL implementation. 

In order to develop the most effective programs possible, it is important to identify variables that may influence the relationship between SCL and student achievement. Understanding why these variables exert an effect can provide schools with important information about SCL implementation, and increase schools’ ability to choose impactful instructional and assessment strategies. Very few studies reviewed, however, discussed how benefits of SCL may vary by variables such as grade, content area, and/or other demographic factors (Cornelius-White, 2007; Bernard et al., 2019; Evans et al., 2021; Li et al., 2022). Some evidence suggests certain circumstances under which SCL is most beneficial—namely, SCL appears to have a bigger impact at lower grade levels (elementary school), with certain populations (special education students), and in certain courses  (e.g., non-STEM subjects).

While looking at the impact of SCL on student achievement, Bernard et al., (2019) noted SCL was significantly more beneficial for students in special education relative to general education, and slightly more beneficial for performance in non-STEM subjects. Li and Wang’s (2022) review of the effects of blended learning on student achievement revealed that blended learning produced greater effects among elementary school students relative to secondary students. While this difference was statistically significant, it should be noted that the difference in effect size was small (.03). Similar to Bernard et al., (2019) Li and Wang (2022) noted that effects of blended learning varied across subjects. While Bernard et al looked at broad level differences (STEM v. non-STEM), Li and Wang (2022) looked at specific classes. Contrary to what Bernard found, they observed some of the smallest effects for non-STEM classes like reading. Classes like language, computers, math, and physics had larger effects. It is important to note that while Li and Wang’s definition of blended learning is aligned with some principles of SCL (learning is not delegated to time and place, and differentiated instruction), the extent to which these principles were implemented into face-to-face and online components of the blended learning intervention is unclear. While blended learning has the potential to be (and often is) student-centered, there is often significant variation among schools’ implementation of these practices.

Given that the majority of studies reported positive outcomes associated with SCL, we should not take the fact that SCL performs better in certain circumstances as evidence that we should only use SCL in those instances. Rather, we should focus on understanding how and why certain circumstances impact the effectiveness of SCL and work to implement instructional strategies that transfer the benefits of SCL to all students and circumstances. While SCL had a greater impact on student achievement in some contexts over others, it is important to keep in mind that the majority of the time these differences were relatively small, and overall, SCL still had a positive effect on student achievement across contexts. For example, the difference in effect size between non-STEM and STEM classes found by Bernard et al (2019) was .08, meaning that SCL still had a small/medium positive impact on learning in both non-STEM and STEM classes. These positive effects of SCL should not be overlooked, as they likely translate into meaningful gains and progress in student learning. 

Importantly, SCL may be especially beneficial for learners who are struggling, or considered to be behind their peers. McCarthy and colleagues (2020) found that the implementation of a strength-based personalized learning model helped lessen achievement gaps in standardized testing performance for economically disadvantaged students. In a study of the effectiveness of Westminster school district’s competency-based system, Brodersen, and Randel (2017) also noted that CBE was an effective way of helping students who are academically behind get back to their grade level content. In fact, they noted that 43% of students who were behind in math and 47% of students who were behind in literacy completed their competency requirements in three or less quarters. Even statistically small effects can translate into practically meaningful differences for students. 

Effective Elements of SCL

As mentioned earlier, SCL is a broad umbrella term with components that can be implemented in a variety of combinations, to varying degrees, and by using various strategies. Because of the wide variation in SCL implementation, it can be difficult to identify consistent components that may enhance or detract from its effectiveness across studies (Evans et al., 2021). Several high-quality studies and meta-analyses, however, highlight some features which schools may want to consider.  

Structure and Flexibility

The first feature that schools may want to consider is pacing: providing students with a high degree of flexibility in course progression was actually found to be negatively related to achievement (Bernard et al., 2019). Flexibility can often be challenging for students, especially students learning online, as they may not have the meta-cognitive skills necessary to effectively navigate reaching their learning goals (Borup et al., 2018). Having some structure to the learning environment is likely to benefit student success, and ensure that students are progressing through their learning path and reaching their goals. Indeed, it is crucial that information be scaffolded such that students demonstrate the mastery of specific skills and competencies before moving on to the next unit/module. When students have too much flexibility over their course progression, they may move through the course in such a way that it undermines their comprehension. 

However, flexibility in students’ progression through educational systems can be promoted through offering students’ voice and choice. For example, At Oxford Community schools, students can pursue various pathways that align with how they see their future selves. Students at the high school level may take college courses that fit their interests in blended or face-to-face, enroll in a career and technical education program (CTE) where they can earn certifications (e.g., EMT, ASE), and even receive credit for these work-based placements (albeit that these experiences align with students’ educational development plans). By understanding students’ individual interests and goals, Oxford promotes personalized experiences that allow students to see how class content is applied in the contexts that align with their career interests. This affords students with flexibility in the sense that “learning can happen anytime, anywhere” but also provides structure as students still need to develop skills to become self-directed learners. Notably, students are able to practice these skills early as students’ experience in the Primary Years Programme (prek-5th grade) leads up to an exhibition project where students explore a topic that is meaningful to them. 

Pacing can work together with being competency-based to provide a blend of flexibility and structure that fosters student growth. If a teacher and a student work together to develop a personalized learning path, the student does not need to be kept on pace with peers, but rather with themselves. With the teacher implementing meaningful assessments and using relevant data, the teacher can help the student progress forward while ensuring they are meeting important benchmarks.

Teachers As More Than Content Experts

The second factor that schools should consider is the role of the teacher. Teachers who are more student-centered, in such that they act as facilitators of learning and are responsive to students’ individual needs, see greater gains in student achievement compared to teachers who almost exclusively lecture or act as the sole authority on learning (Bernard et al., 2019). As such, schools may want to consider how they can empower teachers to be more student-centered, and teachers may want to consider specific instructional strategies that allow them to afford students’ choice and voice, while also supporting students with clarification and encouragement.

Given that moving away from strictly being ‘content experts’ to collaboratively individualizing the classroom for students may be nerve wracking for teachers, it is imperative that school leaders, administrators, and other stakeholders create a supportive culture that gives teachers room to experiment, fail forward, and grow. Cultivating buy-in through creating a shared vision for student success (e.g., Portrait of a Graduate), and providing relevant, practical, and empowering PD (e.g., Capturing Kids’ Hearts Program) may help ease the stress of transitioning into SCL practices and systems.

Teachers can move towards functioning as facilitators of learning by thinking about how they can help students achieve fluency (i.e., acquiring, processing, and applying information) in a content area instead of emphasizing memorization (Wolfe, 2022). Teachers should consider how all aspects of SCL can be incorporated into their classroom. To personalize learning for students, teachers can focus on working with students to develop a learning path that fosters engagement by allowing students some ownership of their experience and that further cultivates their strengths and interests. This may look like working with students to set and monitor goals, and having students generate (and then choose) options for how they’ll show their understanding of the material (i.e., providing choice and voice). Competency-based practices can be incorporated through establishing competency standards, allowing students flexibility in their timelines for meeting these standards, and providing opportunities for meaningful assessment. In a SCL framework, learning can happen anytime, anywhere – meaning that learning (and the assessment of learning) is not solely directed by the teacher, seat time, or school hours. In order to promote deep learning and engagement, students should be able to see class content in the “real world,” practice and obtain feedback on their learning,  and connect learning to their interests. In other words, once an expected standard is established, students (when given choice and voice) can take ownership of their learning and demonstrate that they’ve reached this standard in a variety of ways (some of which may be beyond the classroom). 

Project Based Learning and Differentiated Support

The impact of student-centered teaching practices can be made even more effective through adaptability (Bernard et al., Evans et al., 2021). Adaptability is a lot like voice and choice—it means that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the classroom materials and activities. Similarly, student choice and the use of project-based learning have been identified as having positive associations with student performance (Evans et al., 2021). Project-based learning (PBL) is more than just having students make a diorama at the end of a lesson, it is engaging students in solving real-world problems through skill building. PBL is embedded into the curriculum, and is often informed by previously outlined competencies which help ensure students are working towards mastery. Relatedly, Lee and colleagues identified that high performing schools (top 20% of AYP) implementing SCL were more likely to use PBL, more likely to use it for a longer duration of time, and significantly more likely to share their projects with their communities more often than low performing schools (Lee et al., 2021). Sharing projects with the community, in particular, may reinforce the value of these projects for students as well as increase their authenticity

Indeed, in their review of the literature, Evans and colleagues (2021) noted that “Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs” was a specific component of student-centered frameworks that promote positive outcomes. 

Holistic SCL Implementation

It is important to keep in mind that when learning is personalized, competency-based, not solely measured by seat time but by meaningful assessment, and students have ownership over their learning, we can say that the experience is truly student-centered. All components of SCL need to be integrated into the classroom for it to be successful. Keeping that in mind, a review of studies documenting SCL implementation found that while providing differentiated support and allowing students to progress based on demonstrations of mastery were common, and consistently implemented across studies, using assessment as a meaningful, positive, and empowering part of the learning experience was the least commonly reported (Evans et al., 2021). Knowing that assessment may be a sticking point for implementation, schools can use this information to provide relevant training and PD, or return to the topic of assessment frequently within the process. 

Overall, the more SCL components that are included in an intervention/program, the larger the benefit (Bernard et al., 2019; Lee et al., 2021). The ways in which these components are implemented should make sense for the school’s (and student’s) unique needs and goals, and be informed by input from those with vested interest. Teacher buy-in and empowerment is especially important in this process, as it is necessary to create a culture that enables risk taking and innovation. School administrators should be attuned to the needs of their teachers and district, and consider what logistical and structural changes may need to be made to facilitate holistic SCL implementation. Administrators should also consider what professional learning would benefit teachers’ understanding of and motivation to use SCL. Schools should be aware that while positive perceptions of SCL are likely to be present early on, objective academic achievement gains are likely going to take time to emerge (McCarthy et al., 2020; Pane et al., 2017). 


The majority of research reviewed indicates that SCL can benefit student achievement outcomes, however, given the limited research available, the findings may be limited in their generalizability. While MVLRI was able to identify elements of SCL that seem to be important for promoting positive outcomes such as appropriate use of pacing, teachers’ use of SCL practices, differentiation, and holistic implementation, more research needs to be done in order to understand the effects of specific SCL practices on student achievement. Logistical, systemic, and school specific barriers to this research are reviewed in Table 1. While there are a limited number of quasi- and true experimental studies examining SCL and student outcomes in K-12, the emerging findings are promising; combined with growing anecdotal/descriptive evidence schools may consider adopting SCL practices as they will likely see some benefits.  

When considering implementing SCL practices, schools should keep in mind that meaningful assessment is the least likely tenet of SCL to be implemented. The importance of meaningful assessment should not be underestimated as the more SCL practices that are implemented, the greater the effect. Relatedly, as assessment shifts towards being competency based, i.e. more authentic assessment of learning, it may look as if performance is decreasing. This is because of scale changes in evaluations. Overall, while more focused experimental research on SCL and student achievement outcomes is needed, emerging research is promising. While perceptions of SCL appear to be positive, school leaders implementing SCL should keep in mind that patience is key because multiple studies have identified that it takes time for the tangible benefits of SCL to emerge. 


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Green, C. (2021). Why are Schools Making Learning Student-Centered. Michigan Virtual.

Green, C., DeBruler, K., Harrington, C. (2023). What Do We Mean When We Say Student-Centered Learning? Michigan Virtual.

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Green, C., & Harrington, C. (2020, August 18). Student-Centered Learning At FlexTech High Schools. Michigan Virtual.

Green, C. & Harrington, C. (2021). Student-centered learning in Michigan K-12 schools: Factors That impact successful implementation. Michigan Virtual University.

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Green, C., & Harrington, C. (2022). Empowering teachers and Capturing Kids’ Hearts®: The Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, and Keweenaw’s journey toward student-centered learning. Michigan Virtual University.

Harrington, C., & DeBruler, K., (2019). What Exactly IS Student-Centered Learning? Michigan Virtual.

Harrington, C., & Green. C. (2021). Competency-based education: A path toward equitable learning for Michigan students. Michigan Virtual University.

How To Shake Up Your Teaching Routine with the Station Rotation Model. (2022). Prodigy.

Lee, D., Huh, Y., Lin, C. Y., Reigeluth, C. M., & Lee, E. (2021). Differences in personalized learning practice and technology use in high-and low-performing learner-centered schools in the United States. Educational Technology Research and Development, 69, 1221-1245.

Levine, E. & Patrick, S. (2019). What is competency-based education? An updated definition. Aurora Institute.

Michigan Department of Education. (n.d). Four Components of a CTE Program.

Nellie Mae Foundation (n.d.) SCL Continuum.

Patrick, S. (2015, June 9). The Learning Sciences Supports the Shift to Student-Centered Learning. Aurora Institute.

Patrick, S., Kennedy, K., & Powell, A. (2013). Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended, and Competency Education. Aurora Institute.

Scheopner Torres, A., Brett, J., Cox, J. (2015). Competency-Based Learning: Definitions, Policies, and Implementation. Northeast College and Career Readiness Alliance.

Steele, J.L., Lewis, M. W., Santibanez, L., Faxon-Mills, S., Rudnick, M., Stecher, B.M., Hamilton, L. S.(2014). Competency-Based Education in Three Pilot Programs: Examining Implementation and Outcomes. RAND Corporation

Appendix A

Table of Excluded Articles and Rationale for Exclusions (Click to Expand)
Citation Reason for Exclusion
Agustini, Wahyuni, Mertayasa, Wedhanti, & Sukrawarpala (2021) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Rukmini, Cindy, & Tanoto (2018) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Sturgis & Patrick (2010) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Zeiser, Scholz, & Cirks (2018) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Fulbeck, Atchison, Giffin, Seidel &, Eccleston (2020) Narrow SCL implementation
Wongwatkit, Srisawasdi, Hwang &, Panjaburee (2016) Narrow SCL implementation
Kaput (2018) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Evans, Graham, & Lefebvre (2019) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Mason, & Parsons (2019) Study population not generalizable to K-12; Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Surr, Zeiser, Briggs, & Kendziora (2018) Narrow SCL implementation
Kraft, Blazar, & Hogan (2018) Did not meet definition of SCL
Kostaris, Sergis, Sampson, Giannakos, & Pelliccione (2017) Narrow SCL implementation
van Klaveren, Vonk, & Cornelisz (2017) Did not meet definition of SCL; Narrow SCL implementation
Pešaković, Flogie, & Aberšek (2014) Past cut-off date
Papanastasiou, Drigas, Skianis, Lytras, & Papanastasiou (2019) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Gelgoot, Bulakowski, & Worrell (2020) Narrow SCL implementation
Ruipérez-Valiente, & Kim (2020) Narrow SCL implementation
Li, & Wong (2022) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Zhang, Carter Jr., Basham, & Yang (2022) Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Hiemstra, Van Yperen, & Timmerman (2019) Did not meet definition of SCL
Tsybulsky (2020) Narrow SCL implementation
Cheng, Ritzhaupt, & Antonenko (2019) Narrow SCL implementation
Lo, & Hew (2020) Narrow SCL implementation
Bai, Hew, & Huang (2020) Narrow SCL implementation; Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Chen, Wang, Kirschner, & Tsai (2018) Narrow SCL implementation
Van Alten, Phielix, Janssen, & Kester,  (2019) Narrow SCL implementation
Wang, Jou, Lv, & Huang (2018) Narrow SCL implementation
Yu, Wei, & Sukjairungwattana (2022) Did not meet definition of SCL
Bernacki, & Walkington (2018) Did not meet definition of SCL
Brodersen, & Melluso (2017) Did not meet definition of SCL
Harwood, & Brett (2019) Study population not generalizable to K-12; Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Walkington, & Hayata (2017) Did not meet definition of SCL; Results not focused on achievement outcomes
Mueller, Mildenberger, & Lübcke (2020) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Yick, Yip, Au, Lai, & Yu (2019) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Botts, Carter, & Crockett (2018) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Al-Qatawneh, Eltahir & Alsalhi (2020) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Bazelais, & Doleck (2018) Study population not generalizable to K-12
Macaruso, Wilkes, & Prescott (2020) Did not meet definition of SCL

Appendix B

Reference List of Excluded Studies (Click to Expand)

Agustini, K., Wahyuni, D.S., Mertayasa, N.E., Wedhanti, N.K., & Sukrawarpala, W. (2021). Student-centered learning models and learning outcomes: meta-analysis and effect sizes on the students’ thesis. Journal of Physics: Conference Series 

Bai, S., Hew, K. F., & Huang, B. (2020). Does gamification improve student learning outcome? Evidence from a meta-analysis and synthesis of qualitative data in educational contexts. Educational Research Review, 30, 1–20.

Bernacki, M. L., & Walkington, C. (2018). The role of situational interest in personalized learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(6), 864–881. doi:10.1037/edu0000250 

Botts, R. T., Carter, L., & Crockett, C. (2018). Using the blended learning approach in a quantitative literacy course. Primus, 28(3), 236-265.

Brodersen, R. M., & Melluso, D. (2017). Summary of research on online and blended learning programs that offer differentiated learning options. Retrieved from

Cheng, L., Ritzhaupt, A. D., & Antonenko, P. (2019). Effects of the flipped classroom instructional strategy on students’ learning outcomes: A meta-analysis. Educational Technology Research and Development, 67, 793-824.

Chen, J., Wang, M., Kirschner, P. A., & Tsai, C. C. (2018). The role of collaboration, computer use, learning environments, and supporting strategies in CSCL: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 88(6), 799–843.

Evans, C. M., Graham, S. E., & Lefebvre, M. L. (2019). Exploring K-12 competency-based education implementation in the Northeast states. NASSP Bulletin, 103(4), 300–329.

Fulbeck, E., Atchison, D., Giffin, J., Seidel, D., & Eccleston, M. (2020). Personalizing Student Learning With Station Rotation A Descriptive Study. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from

Gelgoot, E. S., Bulakowski, P. F., & Worrell, F. C. (2020). Flipping a classroom for academically talented students. Journal of Advanced Academics, 31(4), 1–19.

Harwood, C., & Brett, C. (2019). Obuchenie online: The applicability of Vygotskian pedagogy to online teaching and learning. Technology, Instruction, Cognition & Learning, 11(2/3), 141–161. 

Hiemstra, D., Van Yperen, N., & Timmerman, M. E. (2019). Students’ effort allocation to their perceived strengths and weaknesses: The moderating effect of instructional strategy. Learning and Instruction, 60, 180–190.

Kaput, K. (2018). Evidence for Student-Centered Learning. Education Evolving.

Kostaris, C., Sergis, S., Sampson, D. G., Giannakos, M. ç, & Pelliccione, L. (2017). Investigating the potential of the flipped classroom model in k‐12 ICT teaching and learning: An action research study. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 20(1), 261–273.

Kraft, M. A., Blazar, D., & Hogan, D. (2018). The effect of teacher coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta‐analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 547–588.

Li, K.C., & Wong, B.T.M. (2022). Personalisation in STE (A) M education: a review of literature from 2011 to 2020. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 1-16.

Lo, C. K., & Hew, K. F. (2020). Developing a flipped learning approach to support student engagement: A design-based research of secondary school mathematics teaching. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 37(1), 142–157.

Mason, J., & Parsons, K. (2019). State of the field: Findings from the 2019 national survey of postsecondary competency-based education. American Institutes for Research.

Mueller, C., Mildenberger, T., & Lübcke, M. (2020). Do we always need a difference? Testing equivalence in a blended learning setting. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 43(3), 283-295.

Papanastasiou, G., Drigas, A., Skianis, C., Lytras, M., & Papanastasiou, E. (2019). Virtual and augmented reality effects on K-12, higher and tertiary education students’ twenty-first century skills. Virtual Reality, 23, 425-436.

Pešaković, D., Flogie, A., & Aberšek, B. (2014). Development and evaluation of a competence-based teaching process for science and technology education. Journal of Baltic Science Education, 13(5), 740.

Ruipérez-Valiente, J.A., & Kim, Y.J. (2020). Effects of solo vs. collaborative play in a digital learning game on geometry: Results from a K12 experiment. Computers & Education, 159, 104008.

Rukmini, E., Cindy, C., & Tanoto, P. (2018). Student-centered learning in relation to class performance and soft skills: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Jurnal Pendidikan  Kedokteran Indonesia: The Indonesian Journal of Medical Education, 7(2), 93-106.

Sturgis, C., & Patrick, S. (2010). When Failure Is Not An Option: Designing Competency-Based Pathways for Next Generation Learning. International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Surr, W., Zeiser, K. L., Briggs, O., & Kendziora, K. (2018). Learning with others: A study exploring the relationship between collaboration, personalization, and equity. Final Report. American Institutes for Research.

Tsybulsky, D. (2020). Digital curation for promoting personalized learning: A study of secondary-school science students’ learning experiences. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 52(3), 429-440.

Van Alten, D. C. D., Phielix, C., Janssen, J., & Kester, L. (2019). Effects of flipping the classroom on learning outcomes and satisfaction: A metaanalysis. Educational Research Review, 28(7), 1–18.

Van Klaveren, C., Vonk, S., & Cornelisz, I. (2017). The effect of adaptive versus static practicing on student learning – evidence from a randomized field experiment. Economics of Education Review, 58, 175–187.

Walkington, C., & Hayata, C. (2017). Designing learning personalized to students’ interests: Balancing rich experiences with mathematical goals. ZDM Mathematics Education, 49(4), 519–530.

Wang, J., Jou, M., Lv, Y., & Huang, C. C. (2018). An investigation on teaching performances of model-based flipping classroom for physics supported by modern teaching technologies. Computers in Human Behavior, 84, 36–48.

Wongwatkit, C., Srisawasdi, N., Hwang, G.-J., & Panjaburee, P. (2016). Influence of an integrated learning diagnosis and formative assessment-based personalized web learning approach on students learning performances and perceptions. Interactive  Learning Environments, 25(7), 889–903.

Yick, K. L., Yip, J., Au, S. C., Lai, Y. Y., & Yu, A. (2018). Effectiveness of blended learning in the first year of fashion education. International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education

Yu, Z., Wei, X. U., & Sukjairungwattana, P. (2022). Meta-analyses of differences in blended and traditional learning outcomes and students’ attitudes. Frontiers in Psychology, 13.

Zeiser, K., Scholz, C., & Cirks, V. (2018). Maximizing student agency implementing and measuring student-centered learning practices. American Institutes for Research.

Zhang, L., Carter Jr, R. A., Basham, J. D., & Yang, S. (2022). Integrating instructional designs of personalized learning through the lens of universal design for learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 38(6), 1639-1656.

Appendix C

Reference List of Included Studies (Click to Expand)

Al-Qatawneh, S., Eltahir, M. E., & Alsalhi, N. R. (2020). The effect of blended learning on the achievement of HDE students in the methods of teaching Arabic language course and their attitudes towards its use at Ajman University: A case study. Education and  Information Technologies, 25, 2101-2127.

Bazelais, P., & Doleck, T. (2018). Blended learning and traditional learning: A comparative study of college mechanics courses. Education and Information Technologies, 23, 2889-2900.

Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Schmid, R. F., Waddington, D. I., & Pickup, D. I. (2019). Twenty-first century adaptive teaching and individualized learning operationalized as specific blends of student-centered instructional events: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 15, e1017.

Brodersen, R. M., & Randel, B. (2017). Measuring student progress and teachers’ assessment of student knowledge in a competency-based education system (REL 2017–238). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central. Retrieved from

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143.

Evans, C. M., Landl, E., Thompson, J. (2021). Making sense of K-12 competency-based education: A systematic literature review of implementation and outcomes research from 2000 to 2019. Journal of Competency-Based Education, 5, e01228.

Ingkavara, T., Panjaburee, P., Srisawasdi, N., & Sajjapanroj, S. (2022). The use of a personalized learning approach to implementing self-regulated online learning. Computers and Education: Artificial Intelligence, 3, 100086.

Kang, J., & Keinonen, T. (2018). The effect of student-centered approaches on students’ interest and achievement in science: Relevant topic-based, open and guided inquiry-based, and discussion-based approaches. Research in Science Education, 48, 865-885.

Lee, D., Huh, Y., Lin, C. Y., Reigeluth, C. M., & Lee, E. (2021). Differences in personalized learning practice and technology use in high-and low-performing learner-centered schools in the United States. Educational Technology Research and Development, 69, 1221-1245.

Li, S., & Wang, W. (2022). Effect of blended learning on student performance in K-12 settings: A meta-analysis. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 38(5), 1254– 1272.

Macaruso, P., Wilkes, S., & Prescott, J. E. (2020). An investigation of blended learning to support reading instruction in elementary schools. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68, 2839-2852.

McCarthy, E. M., Liu, Y., & Schauer, K. L. (2020). Strengths-based blended personalized learning: An impact study using virtual comparison group. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 52(3), 353-370.

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., Hamilton, L. S., & Pane, J. D. (2017). Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects. Research Report. RR-2042-BMGF. RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

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