An Introduction to the Four Stage Learner-Centered Model

Based on the various research findings and views of leading educators the following model was developed by Columbia College. It describes the fundamental stages that faculty at Columbia College follow in designing a learning environment that supports the introduction of new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviours learners need to acquire.

Our faculty helps learners during each of the four stages to be actively and collaboratively engaged with other learners, as well as themselves, before, during, and after each class as it relates to the subject being studied.

In the first stage (introduction) the facilitator will identify and ensure that learners are introduced to the new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviours. The facilitator will also determine what activities the learners will be engaged in at this stage. For example, learners may be asked to read material prior to class. They may be directed to a website and observe and reflect on what they have learned. They may be asked to interact and listen to other learners using such tools as Moodle. They may be asked to write about their experiences and share them in class.

During the second stage in The Four Stage Learner-Centred Model, learners will be provided with examples that relate to what they are learning. These examples may be experienced prior to their class as part of their homework assignment, as well as during their class. The facilitators will do their best to ensure the examples are as relevant to the learners as possible. The more relevant each example is, the more meaningful it becomes to each learner. During this stage the facilitator may ask the learners to provide their own examples related to the subject they are learning about.
During this stage the facilitator will also do his/her best to ensure learners are able to share with others, listen to others, ask questions of others, and take notes about what they are learning. The facilitator may also ask learners to recall and compare personal experiences with others to help solidify
what is being learned.

The third stage of this model is referred to as the “apply” stage. At this point learners will have been introduced to new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviours as well as have received and shared examples for these. It is now time for learners to experience the subject by using or applying it in selected situations or simulations. This may occur prior to class as part of homework; however, will normally occur during class. It may occur after class. The facilitator will often divide the class into smaller groups and then have each group go through one or more experiential exercises. Often the group will be faced with a problem or case. They will then be asked to experience, study, assess, analyze, and resolve their challenge. During this stage, learners may be engaged in role playing, demonstration, discussion, observation, presentation, debate, analysis, and synthesis. Small groups may be asked to share their views with the larger class. During this stage learners may be asked to assess, evaluate and provide feedback to others based on what they observed. These observations may be presented in written form, verbal form, or both.

The final stage of The Four Stage Learner-Centered Model is called the “assess” stage. Although it is listed as the fourth stage it is actually a range of activities the facilitator will formally and/or informally engage in during each stage of this model. During this stage the facilitator will be observing, monitoring, assessing, analyzing, and determining how effectively learners are acquiring their new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviours, and the related learning objectives he/she is trying to help learners achieve. Based on his/her ongoing assessment of the situation, the facilitator may modify his/her lesson plan in order to improve the students’ learning outcomes.

Facilitators will actively engage learners in many forms of activities throughout the model including reviewing material and observing; recalling what they learned; measuring, recording, and comparing; analyzing, synthesizing, sharing, listening, evaluating, concluding; and reporting on what they learned.
The facilitator may ask learners to observe, assess, and evaluate others. He/she will ask learners to share what they have learned in a meaningful, caring, and respectful manner that assists others to learn and grow from constructive and not destructive feedback.

The Four Stage Learner-Centered Model of Education has been developed and adopted by Columbia College and is applied in each of its professional programs. The model also applies, wherever possible, in pre-career programs and courses. Table 1 presents “The Four Stage Learner-Centered Model” as it has been adapted by Columbia College for classroom instruction

Table 1: The Four Stage Learner-Centered Model Applied in Columbia College Classrooms

Stage Instructor/Facilitator Approach Learner Activities Columbia College Classroom Application
Stage 1
Ensure new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviours are introduced and explained. Read, write, study, share, observe, questions, discuss, reflect, and listen to others. Students are normally introduced to new knowledge and skills by completing homework assignments. Students prepare written questions for class and prepare to write a quiz in class or demonstrate what they have learned in a lab.
Stage 2
Ensure learners are provided with relevant and meaningful examples of new concepts and skills. Listen, question, note, assess, share, relate, recall, and compare personal example(s) with that of others and instructor/facilitator. Students hand in written questions; discuss answers to their questions which often includes examples of how new concepts and skills are applied; write, mark and discuss quiz results related to new knowledge or observe, assess, and evaluate a demonstration of new skills.
Stage 3
Engage learners individually or in small to large groups in the application of new concepts and skills by such methods as problem based learning or experiential learning. Use, demonstrate, role play, discuss, apply, observe, assess, question, listen, analyze, solve, synthesize, and describe. Students experience and explore new knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviours by using it or applying it to solve problems in a classroom and/or lab. It may also be used or observed in a workplace (i.e., cooperative education placement).
Stage 4
Facilitate the evaluation, measurement, assessment, and reporting of learning outcomes at each stage of this model. Review, study, recall, observe, measure, record, compare, question, listen, analyze, share, evaluate (self, peer, or group), at each stage of this model and report on the acquisition of new concepts or skills. During each stage of this learning model the facilitator will be formally or informally testing, assessing, and/or evaluating the learners’ success in acquiring and applying the new knowledge and skills. This may also entail having students assess their own progress and that of others.

The Four Stage Learner-Centered Model Applied to a Columbia College Classroom

The greatest criticism of educators and educational institutions over the last half century is that they do not teach students how to think and solve problems. What educators are accused of in a classroom based course is creating a learning environment where students listen, take notes, study (which often means memorizing what they heard), and repeating what their instructor (or a noted expert) said either in a test or paper.

It should be noted that, at Columbia, students may be placed in several different learning environments, the most common of which is a faculty led classroom. Another type of learning environment at Columbia College is the tutorial. This environment is set up for students to meet with a faculty member or subject specialist in order to review and/or discuss specific subjects or topics presented in their textbooks or classroom that they are having difficulty understanding. The tutorial may be optional or students may be required to attend. Another type of learning environment that is more common to skill based programs such as nursing or dental health is the lab. These learning environments are set up for students to develop hands-on skills that usually relate to their theory courses. A common lab based course related to most programs at Columbia College is the computer lab. The final type of course set up by Columbia is the co-operative education course. Unlike most universities and colleges in North America, Columbia College requires students in all professional programs to enroll in this credit based course. At Columbia, it is the eleventh course in an academic year of study that normally consists of ten courses at a traditional institution. This course places students into real world settings where they have an opportunity to observe, assess, apply, and demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have acquired. This exposure can bring real meaning to theories, concepts, and values studied at the College.

It should also be understood that when we speak of facilitating at Columbia College we are usually speaking about the behaviour of our faculty in the classroom. We are speaking about the various activities they engage in which support student learning. These activities include a wide array of behaviours that move learners from being passive receptacles absorbing traditional lectures, to learners who actively participate throughout each class period. Student participation at Columbia comes in many collaborative forms such as sharing, questioning, listening, discussing, applying, debating, observing, understanding, analyzing and evaluating with classmates. Regardless of the form, the key factors that make this unique at Columbia is that the student’s mind is not simply passively listening to a lecture but instead is being challenged to actively think, engage in problem solving, and collaborate with fellow students to resolve questions being posed by the instructor. We at Columbia College formally call our instructors, facilitators. Our faculty are strongly encouraged to not speak or lecture in class for more than twenty-five percent of the class period. The resulting void creates a lot of active and collaborative student centered learning time.


Providing students with knowledge is critically important. At Columbia College most of our students’ first exposure to new knowledge comes when they complete their homework assignment such as reading handouts, and/or reading Chapter X and/or Y in their textbook. It may also come from completing questions 1 and 2 at the end of a chapter or reviewing the key points from their readings in order to prepare to write a test near the beginning of their next class. It may further come from visiting websites, watching internet demonstrations, experiencing a simulation, interacting with their peers, or working outside of class with an assigned group. Acquiring new knowledge is the first step in the learning process but certainly not the last. Next they must understand what they have learned.

Once learners have acquired new knowledge it is important they are able to at least retain it in short term memory for a limited period. To accomplish this, they need time to think about what they just learned. They need to determine if it makes sense in light of their existing knowledge. They need to have time to question what they have learned in order to make sure they understand it. They need to take the time needed to process their thoughts in order to identify any questions they need to have answered so they feel more comfortable with what they just learned. This period of review and reflection, which we refer to as Questioning Knowledge, is critical in the learning process.

To help ensure this process takes place Columbia College, students are expected to write two to three questions they want answers to, related to their newly acquired knowledge. They are also expected to review their homework material sufficiently enough to write a ten to fifteen minute test based on their assignment.

The test will be designed to allow the students an opportunity to demonstrate that they have completed their homework assignment and at the very least retained what they learned as basic facts, terms, and/or concepts. They will be asked to label, list, name, define, choose, select, or match their newly acquired knowledge through completing the test.

As they enter the classroom, students are expected to submit their written questions to the facilitator who begins to read the questions privately. As the facilitator reads each set of questions, he/she tries to look for questions related as closely as possible to the lessons’ learning objective(s). This enables the facilitator to determine which questions will be discussed at the beginning of the class period. After greeting the class and outlining the lesson plan for this class, the facilitator begins by sharing the first question with the class and asking them to help answer this question. It is not important who actually wrote the question so that is normally kept private. This questioning approach causes the minds of every learner to begin to think and search for an answer to the question. As learners begin to openly share their thoughts with others, their minds also start to more deeply internalize the new knowledge they have learned. This in turn starts to move knowledge from short term to medium and long term memory.

The students continue to share their thoughts on the question until they arrive at a sort of group consensus. The facilitator’s role is to do his/her best to ensure all the students have an opportunity to participate and that learners show respect for each other’s opinions whether they agree or not. The facilitator’s role is also to ensure the item being discussed is viewed from different perspectives and, as a result, is more fully understood by learners. The facilitator may also need to add one or more points about the item in his/her summation to ensure the students acquire more complete understanding.

One of the unique benefits of this approach to learner-centered education is that what is being discussed in class is what learners don’t understand rather than what they may already know.

This process of sharing and discussing questions will take the first portion of the class period or up to 45 minutes of class time. A typical class period at Columbia College is four hours. During this first portion the facilitator may have sufficient time to have the class discuss three to six written questions. It should be kept in mind that, in a class of thirty students, about forty or more unique questions tend to be submitted at the start of class, and if only four to six are discussed before a quiz, then a number of others could be discussed at appropriate times during the remaining portion of the class or after class. Furthermore, the intent of these questions are to relate to the acquisition of new knowledge and to evaluate the level of preparation that students have for the class based on their work completed on the assigned readings and homework. Questions that venture into more application and synthesis of knowledge should be put aside and may be discussed during the remaining portion of the class.

Students are instructed at orientation to bring both a blue pen and red pen to each class. The tests should be multiple-choice and/or True/False questions, and should be written with the blue pen. Pens can be purchased in the library for those students who have forgotten their pens. The questions on the test should contain lower level knowledge acquisition questions only. The test is normally written just prior to a class break. This allows those who finish early an opportunity to take a longer break. It also allows those who need additional time an opportunity to complete the test during the break. As each student goes for his/her break, they give their test to the facilitator.When the break is over, the facilitator hands the tests back to the students to mark their own tests. Students must mark their tests with their red pens. The facilitator then provides the answers to the questions, the students mark and score their tests and then return them to the facilitator who records their marks. This action presents another opportunity for students to learn since most tend to focus their attention on what questions they got wrong and not what they got right. It is not unusual for students to ask why a response was wrong. This gives the facilitator an opportunity to ask the students if they can help their peer not only understand why his/her answer was wrong but what response was correct and why it was the better answer. This opportunity to learn through collaboration reinforces the new knowledge being acquired once again and continues to move this knowledge to longer term memory. To help the students better understand what they are discussing, skilled facilitators may create role playing situations, demonstrations, share personal stories, or encourage students to participate in a debate, etc.

This collaborative approach to student-centered learning again focuses student attention on what they don’t know rather than on what they do know. It should be noted again that the facilitator encourages as many students as possible to become active learners and the facilitator spends as little time as possible speaking. In bringing a conclusion to the discussion, the facilitator tends to either summarize the points that students raised or identify any missing points.

To assist facilitators in creating the proper climate in the classroom for student interaction, Columbia College developed a document that has been posted on the wall in each classroom and lab. It is titled Ground Rules for Interacting with Others. Please read through this document as it is designed to assist faculty in creating and maintaining a proper classroom climate. Faculty should review this material with new students prior to their first class discussion. They may also find it necessary, from time to time, to remind students of specific ground rules and encourage them to review this document on their own.

At this point the learners should have a pretty clear understanding of what new terms, concepts, and values are being introduced, so now it is time for the facilitator to move to the next stage in this model and give students an opportunity to gain better understanding by applying their knowledge.

In almost all classes students will be presented with a case or activity to review, discuss, and solve. The case or activity may come from the text or other instructor resource material. The best cases or activities are ones that are the most identifiable to the students. The more the case or activity relates to the students the more meaning it will have. To accomplish this, faculty often have the students role play situations from the case or actively participate in an activity. At the very least as an example, students will be asked to share their solutions to the case by thinking about themselves as one of the characters in the case. This active engagement gives students an opportunity to apply newly acquired knowledge in order to better understand it.

It may take the third hour of class to discuss one or possibly two cases or engage in one activity. The critical factor here is not how many cases or activities are experienced but the quality and depth of engagement especially through the use of newly acquired knowledge.

Faculty may also choose any number of other facilitating techniques to help learners grow. These could include debates, panels, presentations, demonstrations, and simulation activities. In skill based programs Columbia College has also set up labs where students have a greater opportunity to acquire hands on skills.

At this point in a class period (lesson plan) students have had an opportunity to question and discuss what they learned prior to class. They also wrote, marked in class, and discussed any questions raised by their quiz results. Thirdly, they were introduced to one or two cases or activities, became involved in understanding the case(s) or activity, discussed what they experienced, and shared thoughts about the most effective solution or application to the case or problem presented using their newly acquired knowledge.

This leads them to the final portion of the class period. During this portion the facilitator will lead the class through analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation activities. The primary intent here is to get students to first study a situation, problem, or challenge. Often students will be asked to review the case or activity they just experienced but from a different perspective. In their review they could be asked to examine their discussion or decision and analyze, dissect, inspect, classify, and/or categorize it by breaking it into its parts and identify motives or causes. Getting students to question a situation or position will cause them to think more deeply about what they experienced and question their actions thus far. These activities will either strengthen a discussion or cause an individual or the group to change its position. Often a facilitator will break the class into a number of smaller groups and have each group go through this process separately. They will then be brought together to share, discuss, and defend their position.

Based on the topic being dealt with and class time available a facilitator may have students go through a process or synthesis. This may find students looking at the information they are studying (or case they are solving) in a different way by combining elements into new patterns or even proposing different solutions. This may involve constructing, creating, imagining, inventing, formulating, or making up new approaches or solutions. Again the primary goal here is to get students to question what they have done, to reassess a decision made, and to consider alternative solutions that may be more appropriate.

Once students have completed their analysis and hopeful synthesis, it is time to ask them to sit back and evaluate their position and/or the position of others. This process may include judging, justifying, interpreting, explaining, prioritizing, comparing, proving or disproving, deducing, estimating, and/or valuing material in front of them. The facilitator may introduce various tools that could be used by students to study the topic of discussion.
This level of activities is considered the most important as it causes students to think more deeply.
During this final portion of the class students should, from time to time, have an opportunity to evaluate each other’s position on a subject. By properly engaging students in peer evaluation (sometimes referred to as peer review), they gain valuable experience that can be used in their future workplace as well as develop skills that they can use to self-evaluate their own learning.