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Student-Centered Learning - a Consideration for all Maritime Trainers

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on July 16, 2012

The term “student-centered learning” is one that many trainers likely have not heard before. Yet it is an important training concept that has been discussed for 20 or more years, and one that all maritime trainers should understand and consider. It is credited with improving trainee motivation, trainer-trainee relationships, and increasing the trainee’s own responsibility for their training. So what is student-centered learning and how is it applicable to the maritime industry?

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The term “student-centered learning” is one that many trainers likely have not heard before. Yet it is an important training concept that has been discussed for 20 or more years, and one that all maritime trainers should understand and consider. It is credited with improving trainee motivation, trainer-trainee relationships, and increasing the trainee’s own responsibility for their training. Many feel that as a result, training outcomes are improved. I have mentioned the concept previously in passing in other articles, but I believe it is important enough that it deserves its own discussion. And speaking of other articles, please feel free to sign up here if you would like to receive notification of upcoming articles, and have not already done so.


So what is student-centered learning and how is it applicable to the maritime industry?

What is Student-Centered Learning?

The idea of student-centered learning is that rather than training being focused on the needs of the trainer as it often is, the training should be focused on the needs of each trainee in order to provide better results. Traditional classroom-based, instructor-lead courses are highly trainer-centered. They occur where and when the trainer is available. They proceed at the pace dictated by the trainer. The trainer stands at the front of the class and lectures. The trainees are left to follow along and ask questions, if they are able.


Additionally, most training assumes that there is such as thing as a “typical” trainee, and teaches to that mythical person. Having taught thousands of students over 15 or so years, I can tell you (though I am sure you already know) that there is no such thing as a “typical” student. Each one is different, with different backgrounds, different learning styles, different foundational knowledge, and different goals. Yet even so, the vast majority of our training is “one size fits all”. But of course, it doesn’t. In fact, our current trainer-centered model is an exact fit for very few. Instead, trainees are offered a single experience which has been designed to suit the “typical trainee” (who we know does not exist), and all the real trainees are left to adapt to the training experience as best they can.


The opposite of trainer-centered is student (or trainee) -centered. Being trainee-centered means that the training conforms individually to each trainee. It accommodates their individual learning styles, their varying level of academic ability and pre-existing knowledge, and their location and time constraints. It puts the trainee at the center of the training process instead of the current practice of having the trainer at the center. Figuratively, it makes the trainee’s voice the prominent voice in training.


Naturally, the reason that most existing training is trainer-centered is because we cannot offer a different learning experience tailored to the individual needs of each trainee. The costs would simply be too high. However, it turns out that there are practical and effective techniques and tools that we can use which can help achieve the same goal of adapting to the needs of each trainee.


How Can Training be Adapted to the Needs of Each Trainee?

There are many practical techniques and tools which can be used to adapt training experiences to the needs of each individual trainee. A few are listed below.

Adapting to Individual Learning Styles, Experience and Knowledge

With classroom-based training it is difficult to accommodate the different academic abilities, different levels of experience, and different levels of knowledge that your trainees each come with. The result is that (roughly speaking) half of the class is bored with a pace which is too slow or depth which is too shallow, and the other half of the class is lost in a lecture  which moves too quickly or is venturing into topics which are too deep and complex. Classes happen at a specific pace and depth for all participants regardless of their inherent differences.  


If eLearning is a tool which you have at your disposal, it can help overcome these issues. A key aspect and advantage of eLearning is that it’s self-paced nature tends to accommodate these differences among learners. Instead of sitting in a lecture which covers a topic to a depth assumed to be “about right” for most of the trainees, each trainee can spend as much or as little time as they need on that topic. If they already have a strong background in it, they can move quickly over it. If it is completely new to them or presents a learning challenge, they can take as much time as necessary and dig more deeply by using additional company-provided or self-discovered resources. Although all trainees are required to reach the same level of knowledge in the end, each one can customize their learning experience to best fit their own needs. All trainees will therefore reach the same goal (having learned the required materials), but will have taken different routes to achieve that goal - routes that accommodate them each as individuals. Fewer bored or confused trainees can mean a better experience and better outcomes for all.

Creating the Mythical “Typical Student”

While it is true that eLearning can provide the benefits listed above in terms of adapting to different learning styles, and while it is an excellent tool for teaching knowledge, eLearning (aside from simulations) is not well suited to the training of skills. However, in the maritime industry, skills are a critical component of mariner training. So - if skills generally need to be taught in person, how can we help level the playing field so that the majority of trainees are neither bored nor confused with an in-person training experience aimed at the “typical student”? The answer is that we can try to help turn them all into “typical students” before the in-person training of the skills begins.


Blended learning is our friend here. Blended learning is the technique of combining training models to improve training outcomes. The specific example which is useful in this case is to break the training of skills into two parts. We can do this because skills really consist of two components.

  1. First, there is the foundational knowledge which underlies the skill. This knowledge is a critical part of being able to perform the skill reliably and under varying or unexpected conditions.
  2. Second, there is the performance of the skill itself.


Because competency in a skill requires both knowledge and performance components, we can break the training into two parts to separately recognize (and accommodate) each of the knowledge and performance. This is blended learning and there are real advantages to using it.


First, if we use eLearning to teach the knowledge underlying the skill, then this component of the learning process is inherently trainee-centered as indicated in the above section. Trainees can learn when and where they are able, and at the pace and depth required by them as individuals. But there is also another advantage. Once this first phase is complete, the trainees can move on to the in-person training for skill performance. Now, all the trainees begin in-person training with the knowledge required to inform the skill. They all arrive with a relatively uniform level of knowledge making them each more like the “typical student” that in-person training accommodates.


This general technique of using blended learning to create a two-phased training approach (where the first phase is eLearning and the second phase is in-person training) has been used with great success. It accommodates a greater variety of trainees, it makes the second phase shorter and much more efficient, and it improves training outcomes. I have written before of how this technique is used to great effect by British Columbia Ferries Services Inc. for their SEA job training and familiarization program.


Anytime / Anywhere Training

One of the most fundamental ways to accommodate the differing needs of individual trainees is to make the training location and schedule adapt to them. This is especially important today in the face of life-long education. Long gone are the days when a mariner trains once at the beginning of their career, and then works for the remainder of their career without engaging in formal education. With life-long training a necessary reality, it is now even more important that our training conforms to our lives - our families, our professional responsibilities and our personal responsibilities. Most face-to-face training does not. For example, if I am a mariner on a ferry working mornings this week, afternoons next week, and then traveling to a remote location the week after, it is impossible to engage in any face-to face training.  My only option is to leave work for some period (and often abandon my family and other personal responsibilities for the same period) to travel to the training, at the time the training is occurring.


Fortunately, the continually growing presence of eLearning is helping to solve this problem. As vessel operators, maritime colleges and maritime professional development programs employ eLearning the side benefit of student-centered learning emerges. In the example above, the same mariners who needs to take a course can be accommodated by eLearning. They can study on-line in the evenings the first week, in the mornings the second week, and from their remote location in the third week. If it is the case that the educational experience is blended (part eLearning and part face-to-face), then at least the duration of the face-to-face component is reduced, creating a concomitant reduction in the time away from work, family and other responsibilities.

Peer Learning - Giving Voice to Your Trainees

Another aspect of student-centered learning is giving a “voice” to your trainees. Instead of asking them to be passive receptors of knowledge and skills, you can engage them in the learning experience by having them share their knowledge with one another, thus taking them to the next level of learning. It causes them to reflect, analyse and interact. These are very important skills which are difficult to train, but can be learned through practice. Peer-learning (giving trainees an opportunity to share their knowledge with one another) gives them this practice and moves the focus from you, the trainer, to them, the trainees.


One of the most effective means of enabling peer learning is through the use of on-line discussion or community software. On-line communities and discussion forums allow:

  1. Participation from any location
  2. Asynchronous discussions (meaning that the participants do not need to be on-line at the same time in order to participate)
  3. Multiple, concurrent conversations
  4. User choice (a trainee can participate in those conversations to which they can contribute or from which they can learn, and ignore the rest)


I have found that the most effective way of engaging students in peer learning is to let them discover it on their own. By this, I mean that I never explicitly introduce them to the values of peer learning nor do I tell them that we are going to be using peer learning as an educational technique in the course. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing so, but I generally find that it happens so naturally (with the correct encouragement) that it is unnecessary.


Instead, I tell the students that the community (or discussion forum) exists as a place where they are free to ask questions which occur to them outside of class. In fact, I ask them specifically not to e-mail me with questions unless they have a question of a personal nature, saying that I would like their question and my answer to be available to all trainees. Generally, this is a very welcomed announcement because many trainees are reluctant to raise their hand in class, and having a second venue to ask a question is viewed as a real benefit.


Once you do this you’ll typically find that often before you can manage to answer the posed question, some other student in the course has answered it for you! And then, more often than not, a third student will add their opinion and knowledge. And then a fourth, and a fifth, and so on! What is happening is that students are teaching one another. You are not completely out of the loop, but you will only have to jump into the conversation now and then to add your expertise and guidance. Peer learning has begun, and your trainees now have a voice and are active and engaged participants in your training.


In all, student-centered learning is a valuable and effective technique to engage your trainees and increase the degree of reflection and analysis in the training you provide. These are abilities we would like all of our mariners to have. Additionally, by accommodating individual trainees needs and learning styles to the greatest degree possible, we are improving access to training, and likely improving training outcomes. Student-centered training is something we should always have in mind when looking at improving our training programs.


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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.


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