Kicking the “Sage off the stage”: Post-secondary perspectives on student-centered learning

Is “student-centered learning” approached differently by k-12 educators and university instructors? If so, what are the differences (or commonalities) between our practices and concerns?

I’ve wondered this often through my years of observing and participating in academic culture. University teaching is often predicated on the “sage on the stage” model: the professor as a Great Orator, casting a spell over students with Exceptional Knowledge and Dazzling Rhetoric. Of course, the model rarely lives up to this hallowed ideal, as anyone who has sat through an excruciatingly bad lecture can attest.

Scrapping lectures all-together is often not possible (or even desirable), but professors are increasingly encouraged to infuse student-centered approaches into their classes: discussion, small-group activities, and using technology to increase engagement.

Because universities generally value research and grant-attainment over teaching, it is possible for professors to ignore this shift almost entirely. I imagine (though correct me if I’m wrong!) that university instructors can “opt out” of conversations about pedagogical innovation in ways that k-12 teachers cannot. However, even university instructors who are passionate about education feel some trepidation about what a “student-centered” class might look like.

I’d like to outline some of the more interesting sources of this trepidation – not to indict myself or any other academics, but to cast an honest eye on how university culture, and our own personal issues, can impede pedagogical innovation. I would be very interested in hearing how these issues compare to those encountered in k-12 educational settings.

1. Lack of trust in students

University culture is deeply hierarchical, as this PhD Comic does a lovely job of illustrating (click on the link for a larger picture):


As a fresh-faced MA student I laughed in recognition at this comic; now I wince at the implications. When hierarchy is so deeply ingrained, it is difficult for instructors to realize or acknowledge how much undergraduate students can contribute to a classroom. This is not about instructors assuming that undergrads are idiots; it’s about instructors assuming that they must uni-directionally “impart” their knowledge on students, rather than creating a more collaborative learning environment. Ultimately, this hierarchy results in a mis-trust of undergrads to participate actively and contribute to their own learning experience.

2. The problem of the “self selecting sample”

Academia is overflowing with professors and grad students who thrived on the “sage on the stage” model. I count myself within this group: as an undergrad, there was nothing I loved more than a stimulating lecture. The ability to retain information from lectures helped me get into grad school, where I met other students who learned well through this teaching method. Nestled in this chain of events is the assumption that the “best” students are those who a)learn through lectures, and b) have the particular battery of skills that make one suited for academia.

Here the academic culture begins to replicate itself: as young instructors, we are eager to give GREAT lectures that will engage students as much as we were once engaged! It is important for us, as grad students learning to teach, to look beyond our own experience appreciate the variety of learning styles that exist. Many students do not learn best aurally, and they are as deserving of an engaging educational experience as we once were.

3. The conflation of “teaching” and “lecturing”

“I’m off to teach”, “I’m off to lecture”: these two phrases are often used interchangeably. The vast majority of university instructors have never taken a pedagogy class, and are probably unaware of the variety of ways that students can learn. They lecture because “that’s just how it’s done”. This is closely related to a forth issue….

4. “The Lecture and the Ego”

Giving a great lecture is a heady, gratifying experience. The thrill of seeing 200 students engaged in your lecture at 8:30 AM  can make any attention-loving person reconsider the “sage on the stage” model! There’s an element of performativity in a good lecture, and some instructors thrive on that.

I love to lecture, but I also love teaching. I love working one-on-one with a student to help her get a C- paper up to a B+. I love figuring out what exactly is tripping a student up on multiple choice exams, and helping him devise a strategy to solve the problem.

Many university instructors DO love to teach as well as to lecture. However, I suspect that some instructors are reluctant to give up the “high” of lecturing in order to make a truly student-centered (rather than lecturer-centered!) learning environment. I think it is important for us lecture-loving instructors to critically reflect on how we can make sure our lectures are educationally meaningful for students.

5. Lecturing and class control

Diminishing lecture time  can also feel like the diminishment of control.  While lecturing can be exhilarating, it can also be terrifying. I imagine that many instructors my fear “letting go” enough to invite in a more participatory learning environment.

6. The fear of irrelevancy

This is a terrifying time to be a new academic: fewer tenure-track positions are available, and more classes are being taught by contract instructors. Online courses and distance ed options are proliferating – a huge topic that reaches beyond the realm of this post.

I suspect that, for some instructors at least, this environment might make “student-centered learning” seem particularly threatening. Shifting away from the ubiquitous lecture model might seem like the further diminishment of our role as educators (see earlier comment re: “teaching” vs.”lecturing”). This is unfortunate, as student-centered approaches have the potential to contribute greatly to the quality of post-secondary education.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I believe it addresses many of the underlying concerns motivating university instructors who feel ambivalent about student-centered learning. I’d be curious to hear people’s opinions, their own experiences, and how this might compare to the issues talked about in k-12 educational circles.



  1. Krista, thanks so much for opening the door to this conversation. You’ve provided a number of different “jumping-off” points for some interesting thinking. Very recently, I was in conversation with Sébastien Després at Memorial University about some of the same issues, and it would be interesting to get you two connected on this.

    A number of years ago, I recall chatting with friend of mine that was considering a move from an elementary (K-8) to a secondary (9-12) school. When I asked him why he thought he would be a good high school teacher, he told me that he had a lot to tell students. I think that there is an underlying assumption that, the further along the schooling journey one moves, the more important content becomes. And the more important content becomes, the more essential it is for educators to be able to communicate (tell) to students what they know.

    It’s a stubborn model, isn’t it? And it’s one that, I suspect, has its roots in some of the most ancient ideas about schools and schooling.

    In your entry, you point to the conflation of teaching and lecturing. Both are centered in the one doing the teaching. But, perhaps, the change in conversation that is helping those of us more familiar with elementary and secondary environments to focus on “learning” might find a home in your context. Although we assume that the results of our stellar teaching will be learning, its not always the case. A shift to student-centered approaches automatically force our attention to a different part of the process.

    So that’s me jumping into a conversation about a stream in which I currently have one foot dangling. Let’s see if we can’t attract some additional insights and ideas on this important area. I think that if we can start to make this type of shift at the post-secondary level, there may be more openness to committing to it in a stronger way at the secondary and elementary levels. I could say more about that, but I’ll leave it there for now!!!

    • Krista Shackleford /

      Thank you for your response Stephen!

      You mention the stubborn nature of more teacher-centered approaches, and how it is rooted in ancient ideas about education. My mind immediately went to Socrates and his conversational approach to education – guiding citizens along their own journey of thoughts. Presumably there are some connections between this and a “student-centered learning”? Teacher in the role of “guide” or “facilitator”; the path and speed of learning being mitigated by the student.

      Of course, I realize that I’m still operating under a “teacher-centered” paradigm – after all, this is known as the “Socratic method” – privileging the role and methodology of the teacher.

      As you say, student-centered approaches “shift attention” to a a different part of the learning process. My difficulty in doing this is that I think of learning and education in dialogical terms. The existence of a student, I believe, necessitates the existence of some sort of interlocutor – be it an official “teacher”, or another student – someone against whom the student can formulate and challenge his/her ideas. This is probably just the sociologist in me, but I prefer thinking about the “relationality” of a learning situation, rather than singularly focusing on only the teacher or the student.

      A final question: I am very curious about the lines of influence between teaching methods in post-secondary, elementary, and secondary education. You mention that student-centered shifts in post-secondary ed might compel more elementary and secondary teachers to follow suit. Why do you think this is so? Would k-12 teachers have an easier time justifying the shift if they knew students would need it to be prepared for university? Is this related to the privilege placed on higher levels of education? I’m curious about the dynamics here.

      • Krista, just to let you know that I just spent the past 30 minutes responding to your response, and then I pushed the wrong button (on this very strange computer that I’m using). The response disappeared, but I will regroup and try again when I return this evening.

        A hint though: “The Paper Chase”!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

+ two = 8

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>