What Do We Mean When We Say Student-Centered Learning?

Published on May 13, 2023
Written By: 

Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


Kristen DeBruler, Ph.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute


Christopher Harrington, Ed.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Student-centered learning, personalized learning, and competency-based education—terms widely recognized in the field of K-12 education. While we know they are related, do they mean the same thing? This report explores how each term is defined as well as what they look like in practice to gain a deeper understanding of what we really mean when we say student-centered learning.

Suggested Citation

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

What We Already Know About This Topic

  • The terms student-centered learning, personalized learning, and competency-based education are often used interchangeably—and inadvertently incorrectly—as they are related but not the same.
  • Many similar but different definitions exist for each of these terms, which can confuse conversations around these topics.

What This Report Adds

  • Thought leaders in K-12 education tend to categorize student-centered learning (SCL) as the parent or umbrella term which encompasses personalized and competency-based education. As such, learning that is truly student-centered is both personalized and competency-based. 
  • Distinct differences exist between traditional, differentiated, individualized, and student-centered learning when considering how assessment, instruction, and school operations function in practice. 

Implications for Practice and/or Research

  • Despite providing a definition of what it means to be truly student-centered, incorporating any of the tenets into instruction, assessment, and/or school operations is beneficial to students.
  • This brief provides clarity around terms in order to help educators communicate effectively and consider what is feasible to change or work towards.

In the field of education, the terms student-centered learning (SCL), personalized learning, and competency-based education (CBE) are widely accepted educational philosophies or pedagogical models. While these terms are commonly used and recognized by educators, they are often used interchangeably—and inadvertently incorrectly—as they are related but not the same. In addition, many similar but different definitions exist for each of these terms, which can confuse conversations around these topics. As a result, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) recognized a need to bring some clarity to not only our own work and how we think about and use these terms but also to how each term is defined and how they are related to one another. 

The MVLRI team began by conducting a scan of frameworks and literature that currently exist for each of the three terms above. This work does not intend to redefine any of the three terms but rather identify what seem to be the most widely accepted definitions that exist in the field of K-12 education. Further, it seemed beneficial to provide insight into how different elements of education—instruction, assessment, and school operations—look when viewed through different educational models.  


Student-Centered Learning

MVLRI, the Aurora Institute, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Christensen Institute, Students at the Center, and KnowledgeWorks base their understanding of the term on four main tenets as identified by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation

  1. Learning is personalized
  2. Learning is competency-based
  3. Learning happens anytime, anywhere
  4. Students take ownership of their learning and have agency

Based on how these organizations understand and discuss student-centered learning, MVLRI has further described each of the tenets as follows: 

  1. Learning is personalized: learning experiences are adjusted based on an ongoing analysis of student data—both academic and non-academic—as well as the changing needs and interests of each student. 
  2. Learning is competency-based: students progress based on the demonstration of mastery or competence of predetermined knowledge and skills. Students can work along their own pathway at their own pace.
  3. Learning happens anytime, anywhere: learning extends beyond school walls and beyond the school day. 
  4. Students take ownership of their learning: students actively engage in the learning process and have agency. Students help shape and design their own learning, co-creating their learning plan or pathway.

Some organizations, such as the CCSSO, prefer to use the term learner-centered to encompass learners of all ages including professional learners rather than student-centered. As is clear from the definition above, many leading educational organizations consider personalized and competency-based education to be necessary parts of student-centered or learner-centered learning. Figure 1 (see below) encompasses this relationship. 

Personalized Learning

The most widely accepted definition of Personalized Learning also comes from the Aurora Institute. Their definition is also recognized and used by organizations such as GettingSmart, Edmentum, Arizona State University, and Knowledge Quest (American Library Association).

In their report Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education, authors Susan Patrick, Allison Powell, and Kathryn Kennedy define personalized learning and its characteristics as well as explain how personalized learning, blended learning, and competency-based education fit together. They define personalized learning as:

Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests—including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn—to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

Competency-Based Education

The most widely accepted definition of competency-based education seems to be from Aurora Institute authors Eliot Levine and Susan Patrick in their report, What is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition. This definition is used by organizations such as the Michigan Department of Education, KnowledgeWorks, and the Christensen Institute

The Aurora Institute definition includes the following seven elements necessary for learning to be truly competency-based:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning. 
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence. 
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence 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.

Relationships Between the Terms

In order to understand the relationships between student-centered learning, personalized learning, and competency-based education, MVLRI created the graphic below (see figure 1) which emphasizes that student-centered learning is the more broad term that encompasses both personalized learning and competency-based education (see definition above for student-centered learning as to why it is oriented in this way). 

In her blog, Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, describes personalized learning as:

A pedagogical philosophy, tending to refer to a host of efforts and models that tailor learning and development to the individual student, based on beliefs about what outcomes we want students to reach and how to best help them get there.

When learning is personalized, it is tailored to each learner’s strengths, needs, and interests. However, on its own, personalized learning may not address the fact that some students need more or less time (i.e., varied pacing). Learning that is competency-based serves as a complement to personalized learning as CBE’s focus is on mastery of concepts and skills regardless of time, place, or pace. 

When learning is truly student-centered, it is both personalized—tailored for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests—and competency-based—students progress based on demonstrated mastery of competencies, not seat time. Students are actively engaged in the learning process and have opportunities to direct their own learning in meaningful ways.

Figure 1: Definitions and Relationships Between Terms (click here to download the graphic below)

Exploring Instruction, Assessment, and School Operations

MVLRI also created three matrices to explore how the different components of instruction, assessment, and school operations can look in different pedagogical models such as traditional, differentiated, individualized, and student-centered learning. It is important to note the emphasis on “can”—these are neither exhaustive nor definitive but rather examples of how each may look in practice. 

While the matrices can be read left to right, that doesn’t imply educators will always, or must, move left to right in a linear fashion and progress towards learning that is more student-centered. Rather, with these matrices, hopefully educators can see ways in which they can make some aspects of education more student-centered. 


As seen below in Figure 2, instruction is explored through the following components: curriculum, scope and sequence, instructional planning, pace of instruction, instructional support, and learner agency. 

Traditional Instruction. In a more traditional model of learning, curriculum is divided into distinct subject areas such as math, reading, science, and social studies. Curricular scope and sequence is developed by teachers and tends to be the same for all students. Direct instruction in a traditional classroom is designed and delivered to meet the needs of most students and planned with a single overarching academic goal for all students. Students are guided to stay on pace with the rest of the class as time is fixed and learning is the variable. Student support is typically provided by the classroom teacher; however, some students may receive individual or small group instruction provided by support staff. Students are encouraged, but not necessarily expected, to take some ownership of their learning. 

Differentiated Instruction. In a differentiated model, instruction is still planned with a single overarching academic goal for all students; however, teachers differentiate their instruction according to one or more of the following four ways: content, process, product, and/or learning environment. Doing so allows teachers to design learning that better meets the needs of groups of students. While some students receive small-group instruction, most students are traditionally guided to stay on pace with the rest of the class. In a differentiated model of instruction, because there are more options provided to meet the varying needs of students, engagement may increase and students may take more ownership of their learning.

Individualized Instruction. In an individualized learning model, instruction is still planned with a single overarching academic goal for all students; however, students can progress through the curriculum at their own pace. Instruction is able to meet the unique pace of various students but most are still guided to stay on pace with the rest of the class, hence for most students, time is still fixed and learning is the variable. As with the previous two models, instructional adjustments are made for small groups of students or for individual students, and additional instructional support is provided to qualifying students.

Student-Centered Instruction. When instruction is student-centered, students learn actively through individualized curricular pathways guided by a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Instead of curriculum being divided into distinct subject areas (traditional model), when learning is personalized, it can be cross-curricular in nature at times and is often cross-curricular when learning is competency-based. 

Instruction and pacing in a student-centered model are designed to meet the unique needs of all students, not just a small subset. Student support is not only provided by the classroom teacher but also by a team of additional staff (counselors, mentors, advisors, support staff/para pros, community members, etc.) working together to provide each student with comprehensive support. Rather than time being fixed, when instruction is student-centered, it is learning that is fixed with time being the variable

Figure 2: Instruction (click here to download the graphic below)


When considering how assessment changes in different models of learning, the matrix focuses on assessment format and frequency, how assessment data are used, as well as how assessment data are measured and reported (see Figure 3).

Traditional Assessment. In a traditional model, a single common assessment is given at the end of a unit to all students to measure learning. These assessments are used to measure knowledge and determine grades, the results of which typically do not affect instruction. Students have singular or limited opportunities to demonstrate learning, and assessment data are fixed. For example, they are not replaced if a student can demonstrate additional understanding of a concept or skill at a later point in time. Learning is measured according to traditional ABC letter grades. 

Differentiated Assessment. When learning is differentiated, assessment data not only measure knowledge at a fixed point in time and determine ABC letter grades (as with traditional models) but are used to place students into groups and can help to inform instruction for these groups of students (unlike traditional models). Based on data, different versions of a single assessment may be created and given to these groups of students based on students’ needs. 

Individualized Assessment. When learning is individualized, assessment data not only measure knowledge typically at a fixed point in time and determine traditional ABC letter grades but are also used to inform individualized instruction for every student. Based on data, assessments may be designed to meet the needs of each individual learner. 

Student-Centered Assessment. However, when learning is student-centered, assessment data are dynamic instead of being fixed, meaning data can change as students typically have more than one opportunity to demonstrate mastery. Instead of a common assessment given to all students (traditional model) or different versions of an assessment given to groups of or individual students (differentiated and individualized models), when learning is student-centered, assessments are designed with opportunities for student voice and choice and measured by demonstrating mastery of content, skills, or competencies according to a proficiency scale. For example, students may be able to choose, based on their interests and strengths, how they want to show their understanding.

When learning is student-centered, assessment is a critical part of the learning process for both teachers and students. By tracking their own academic progress, students develop the skills needed for learner agency. Assessment results help inform and guide teachers’ instruction and are used to personalize learning for all students.

Figure 3: Assessment (click here to download the graphic below)

School Operations

The matrix shown below in Figure 4 focuses on how school operations change in different models of learning by considering: how grade levels are used to group students, how time is structured, where learning takes place, and how student progress is measured.

Traditional, Differentiated, and Individualized School Operations. In traditional, differentiated, and individualized models, schools generally operate within structures that group students into age-based grade levels and measure learning according to ABC letter grades. Time structures are based on a 9-month school calendar and class periods that transition students to different subject-based classrooms. Technology is used primarily as an instructional tool to increase student engagement but can provide students with opportunities to learn at their own pace. Typically, learning happens within this traditional school day. It is important to acknowledge that traditional school structures like age-based grade levels, a 9-month school calendar, and student progression based on seat time can be difficult to move away from because these structures may be heavily ingrained in the existing school culture. 

Student-Centered School Operations. School operations in a student-centered model are, unsurprisingly, driven by learners themselves. Students may still be grouped according to grade levels but will have the ability to move fluidly between grade levels according to demonstrated mastery of content or competencies according to a proficiency scale. This provides students the opportunity to move ahead when they are ready or take extra time to learn content with additional supports before moving on. 

Student progress may still be measured according to seat time when learning is personalized; however, progress is measured according to demonstrated mastery of competencies according to a proficiency scale in a competency-based model. Learning takes place not only within the traditional school day but beyond as well as, ideally, students regularly engage in non-traditional community-based learning experiences.  

When learning is student-centered, technology provides students with opportunities to learn not only at their own time, place, and/or pace but along their own curricular pathway. However, while technology is not an imperative component in any model of learning, some educators may find it very challenging to personalize learning or to provide opportunities for students to move on when ready in individual curricular pathways without it. In any educational model, technology provides a way for learning to extend beyond the school walls and beyond the school day. It provides a way for students to learn at their own pace and in an environment–be it in-person, online, or a blended learning environment–that best meets their needs. 

Figure 4: School Operations (click here to download the graphic below)

Final Thoughts

It is important to acknowledge the fact that referring to many aspects of our historical education system as traditional or especially “one size fits all” can elicit a particularly negative emotion. That is not our intent with this piece (to shame or condemn this model). The traditional model of education has been used by many good teachers and good school leaders and has, historically, worked for many, many students—but it has not worked for all. Alternatively, student-centered learning offers all students the ability to have an active role in their education and a voice in developing an educational experience that fully realizes and supports their strengths, passions, and unique needs.

This report builds on foundational work from organizations such as the Aurora Institute, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Christensen Institute, GettingSmart, KnowledgeWorks, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and so many more. This report, as well as the embedded figures and resources, are designed to serve as a starting point—a place to provide clarity around important yet nuanced terms. 

The intent behind this work was to bring not only clarity and understanding to the field but to our own research and practice as well. MVLRI has published numerous publications and blog posts on student-centered learning including case studies of several Michigan schools—Berrien Springs Public Schools; The Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, and Keweenaw; and Oxford Community Schools. In addition, MVLRI partnered with the Michigan CoOp (MiCoOp), a network of school districts that are early adopters of student-centered learning, to provide guidance on implementing effective student-centered practices. 

It is through this work that MVLRI hopes to further the conversation around the merits and difficult, yet worthwhile, work of making learning student-centered and provide the necessary clarity around what we mean when we say “student-centered learning.”


This work would not have been possible if not for the thought leadership around student-centered, competency-based, and personalized learning by leading educational organizations. The definition graphic and matrices were developed/adapted from and based on work by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL), ISTE, and the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. A full list of references used is listed below. 

Basye, D. (2018, January 24). Personalized vs. Differentiated vs. Individualized Learning.

Glowa, L. and Goodell, J. (2016) Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

Harrington, C. & DeBruler, K. (2019, October 22). What Exactly IS Student-Centered Learning?

Levine, E. & Patrick, S. (2019). What is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition. Vienna, VA: Aurora Institute.

Patrick et al. (2013). Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended, and Competency Education. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

Spangler, D., Brown. S, Simmons, T., McGarvey, B., Cushenberry, D., Griffin, J., Donohue, N., Rath, B., Powell, R., & Dawson, L. (2016). Seizing the Moment: Realizing the Promise of Student-Centered Learning. Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc.

Additional Related Resources (click to expand)

In addition to resources used to develop the definition graphic and matrices, multiple resources were consulted to expand our understanding of student-centered learning, competency-based education, and personalized learning. Resources are listed below accompanied by a short description. 

Table of Contents