Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The SPICES Model: S. Student-Centered Learning/Teacher-Centered Learning

In Harden’s SPICES model (1), the S stands for the continuum between a student-centered learning approach versus a teacher-centered one. In a student-centered approach to an institution’s curriculum, the student has to take significantly more responsibility for his or her own learning. In contrast, in a teacher-centered approach, stress and importance are placed upon the instructor and what he or she teaches (i.e., content). To define the differences, Harden uses a restaurant analogy: think of the teacher-centered approach as one similar to a Prix Fixe menu, where you will be eating what the restaurant has prepared for all its guests that day, and the student-centered approach as similar to an ala carte menu where you can pick the foods you wish to eat. That is, in a teacher-centered approach, the teacher is key and we emphasize activities such as formal lecture and laboratory. Students have little say in what they learn, the order in which they learn it and the methods used to teach them. This is essentially a passive form of learning.

This is a typical teacher-centered example: I, a teacher, teach a class that meets 3 times per week for one-hour lectures. My syllabus gives only the briefest description of the weekly topics, so students really have to show up in class to receive the content. They will have a midterm examination at week 7 and a final examination at week 15. They take each test and around 10% fail both exams, but they are never provided feedback about what they missed, nor do I or anyone talk to them about their learning styles. Some of them do pass a make-up examination, but some fail and must repeat the course.

In a student-centered approach, the student is seen as key. With instructor guidance, they may select their own learning objectives, determine which resources they need to meet those objectives, determine the sequence in which they will learn and assess their own progress. An example of this would be a course where students are provided a set of objectives which outline the minimum requirements for the course. Some printed matter is made available, as are some slides, and students can use these at times convenient for them. They can also use any textbook they wish, and can contact an instructor as needed. You would see such scenarios in most problem-based learning programs and classes.

Both of these approaches have advantages. The student-centered approach places emphasis on the student (because what the student learns is more important than what the teacher teaches), may increase motivation, and is good preparation for lifelong continuing education. The teacher-centered approach best uses the experience and expertise of teachers, places fewer demands on a teacher (because it narrows the range of learning resources used), and also relies on the past experience of students, which is largely within the teacher-centered approach.

Also, it is important to note that Harden does not state that one way is better than another in all cases. All teaching will fall on a continuum where student-centered anchors one side and teacher-centered anchors the other. What is certainly the case is that most of us are far more experienced and familiar with the teacher-centered approach, and we would benefit by incorporating more of the alternative.


1. Harden RM, Sowden S, Dunn WR. ASME Medical Education Booklet No. 18. The SPICES Model. Med Educ 1984;18:284-297

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