Anyone who has been to school knows that different teachers have unique approaches to how they work with students.

From the old-fashioned authoritarian style (which may have scared your primary school pants off) to the contemporary collaborative one, a teacher’s method comes from a combination of their education, teaching philosophy, subject matter and experience.

Why teaching styles matter

Teaching styles can either foster or inhibit learning. One woman – now a teacher herself – describes her experience of Year 11 mathematics. Her teacher would read aloud from the textbook and have students work through the problems, without providing any feedback, further instruction, or help.

“It was the classroom I remember as the most devoid of learning,” she writes. “His teaching style was a ‘non-teaching’ style.”

In contrast, an effective teaching style can help students engage with the subject matter and enjoy learning. From the 1970s to the 1990s, education researchers showed that teachers could do several things to improve students’ motivation. These include:

  • Providing regular positive feedback to support students’ beliefs that they can do well
  • Ensuring students’ success by giving them tasks that were neither too easy nor too hard
  • Helping students discover meaning and value in the learning material
  • Making students feel that they are a valued part of a learning community
  • Working with students’ strengths and interests.

An effective teaching style can even influence academic performance. For example, a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Research & Method in Education found that teaching using information and communication technologies (such as internet resources) was strongly correlated to students’ achievement when compared to traditional teaching methods.

Another 2018 study, published in the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, found that teacher self-efficacy and motivation had a significant impact on academic achievement in science education.

The impact of learning styles

Just as educators have different teaching styles, students have different learning styles. A learning style is a preferred way someone absorbs and processes information.

Researchers have developed several models to describe learning styles, grouping them into anywhere from three to ten categories. One popular theory describes three main learning styles:

1. Auditory

Auditory learners absorb information best by listening. They will likely do well in a classroom where the teacher verbally explains information and encourages class discussion.

2. Visual

Visual learners take in information through seeing it. They will respond to practical demonstrations and videos. They absorb information better from looking at illustrations and presentations than participating in discussions.

3. Kinaesthetic

Kinaesthetic learners do best when they can perform the task. They will learn best from activities such as field trips and practical, hands-on training. In class, they may need regular breaks and benefit from opportunities to move around

Teachers who get to know the learning styles of their students can tailor their teaching approach accordingly. Where there’s a mismatch between the learning styles of students and the approach of the teacher, this can lead to student frustration, boredom and discouragement.

Great teachers work around this issue by using what’s called a ‘diversified approach’. In this approach, teachers use various teaching styles, depending on the content students are learning and the diversity of student needs.

For example, a teacher might combine a lecture with a group task and an internet-based homework assignment.

What are the different teaching styles?

This is a great question, and one that experts answer in different ways. There are several ways of describing teaching styles.

  1. Teacher-centred versus student-centred

Teacher-centred

In the teacher-centred style, the teacher is positioned as the expert and authority figure, and the students as the novices. Students are seen as “empty vessels” who receive knowledge imparted by their teachers.

The teacher will usually use methods such as lectures and direct instruction. Some examples of teacher-centred approaches include:

  • Formal authority: in this style, the teacher provides the content and the student receives it. Teachers using this style don’t usually expect much student participation.
  • Demonstrator model: in this method, the teacher becomes a role model by demonstrating tasks and then guiding students to develop and apply those skills demonstrated. They teach by ‘showing’ and encouraging students to work through similar problems or activities. This teaching style encourages students to participate, take responsibility for their learning and ask for help when needed.

The teacher-centred approach has positives, including the ability to deliver a lot of information in a short time, control the content being delivered, manage many students and easily assess student performance. Evidence shows it is the most effective method for novice learners (see more below).

It also has downsides. If not delivered properly, it tends to promote passive learning and doesn’t encourage critical thinking.

Student-centred

In the student-centred style, teachers are still authority figures. However, students and teachers play a more equal role in learning.

The teacher becomes like a coach. They encourage and facilitate their students’ learning and measure it with formal and informal assessment tasks. These might include class participation, group projects and work portfolios.

Two student-centred teaching styles include:

  • Facilitator: teachers using this style often focus on activities. More emphasis is placed on students taking initiative and responsibility for their learning. Teachers use activities such as group tasks and collaboration to encourage problem solving and creative application of course content.
  • Delegator: in this style, teachers give a lot of responsibility for learning to their students. They will allow students to create and manage their own learning projects and consult with them as needed. The students are responsible for staying focused and motivated.

The student-centred teaching style has benefits, including encouraging students to take ownership of knowledge and fostering critical thinking. It becomes more useful as students gain greater mastery over content.

It also has drawbacks, such as being more difficult to implement with large numbers of students and more time consuming than the teacher-centred styles. Students who are more passive or less motivated may also struggle with this style.

2) High-tech versus low-tech

Technological advancements have had a huge impact on education over the last few decades. High-tech aids such as interactive screens are the new norm in most classrooms.

Many teachers are adopting a high-tech teaching style, using tools like laptops and tablets in the classroom, and setting homework requiring internet research. Numerous educational apps and software programs are available, and students can even get help at home from online tutors.

The use of technology for teaching has many advantages. It is often more engaging for students, especially when combined with gaming technology. For students with disability, technology can make learning more accessible.

Despite these changes, some teachers prefer a low-tech teaching approach. This also has advantages. For example, some research has shown that low-tech classrooms may be better for learning. Students who hand-write notes, for example, have better recall than those who type them.

Furthermore, students who use tools like spell check and autocorrect from a younger age may be weaker in spelling and writing skills.

The hybrid or blended teaching style

In the contemporary classroom, it’s likely that teachers will encounter students from diverse backgrounds with a range of learning styles.

Good teachers will often use what’s known as ‘differentiated instruction’, where the needs of all students are kept in mind while teachers are developing learning plans.

What is the most effective teaching style?

What the evidence shows

This question has been examined for decades by educational researchers. Evidence from controlled, experimental studies almost universally supports direct, explicit teaching for novice to intermediate learners, rather than partial or minimal guidance. This teaching style is more effective and efficient when teaching new skills and content.

Explicit instructional guidance involves fully explaining the concepts and skills students need to learn. Various teaching methods might be used, including lectures, videos, demonstrations and computer-based presentations.

In contrast, the more student-centred, partially guided approach (also known as problem-based learning, inquiry learning and experiential learning) requires students to make their own discoveries about new concepts and skills they are expected to learn. Numerous studies have shown that this approach is ineffective for novice learners.

Some problems with it include:

  • Increased likelihood that students will become confused, frustrated and disengaged
  • It caters to only the best-prepared and brightest of students
  • Students make false discoveries and draw incorrect conclusions, which must later be corrected and “unlearned”
  • It is slower and significantly less efficient.

While not ideal for novices, the partially guided approach becomes increasingly valuable as learners achieve growing levels of mastery. For all learners, there is a “sweet spot” where direct instruction, supplemented with inquiry-based learning, achieves optimal learning outcomes.

Why direct instruction works

Cognitive neuroscience – a field that explores how people learn – has helped to explain why full instructional guidance is more effective and efficient for novice learners.

Effective learning requires the use of both working (or short-term) and long-term memory. Working memory is the limited, moment-to-moment thinking capacity. It is often said to manage a maximum of seven items at a time. Long-term memory is the storehouse of information and ideas that we know and can recall.

Successful teaching is about making sure new concepts and skills move from working memory into long-term memory.

Partially guided instruction causes problems for novices because it depends heavily on working memory – which has limited duration and capacity. Solving a new problem requires searching for a solution, which means a student must continually hold and process the problem in working memory.

Without clear guidance, learners without a ‘framework’ stored in long-term memory are left blindly searching for answers.

For example, under a partially guided approach, a maths student faced with a new problem must concentrate on:

  • what the problem is
  • what it means
  • why numbers and/or symbols are sequenced a certain way
  • different possibilities for solving it.

Without instructional guidance or a frame of reference, this strain on working memory often leads to confusion, frustration, failure and disengagement from the task.

As a result, novice learners can exhaust their energy and efforts on problem-solving activities and learn almost nothing. In contrast, clear guidance and instruction reduces the burden on working memory and facilitates comprehension of new skills and concepts.

Evidence-based direct instruction techniques

Some proven strategies teachers might use to provide direct instruction include:

  • Starting a lesson by reviewing previous learning – to strengthen what students have already learned and help transfer it into long-term memory; thereby freeing up working memory for new information
  • Presenting new material in small steps, with opportunities for practise between each step – this helps to reduce the burden on working memory and avoids overwhelming students’ thinking processes
  • Using models and worked examples – allowing students to focus on concrete examples and specific steps reduces the strain on working memory
  • Guiding student practise – supervised rehearsal, combined with feedback, helps ensure new material makes a successful transition to long-term memory
  • Checking for understanding of new material – to reduce the risk of errors and misconceptions, and foster processing of new material into long-term memory
  • Providing scaffolding for difficult tasks – teaching support when students are learning complex material is a form of guided practise, and can be withdrawn as students develop mastery
  • Requiring and monitoring independent student practise – significant practise is needed for knowledge and skills to become fluid and automatic.

The learning issues associated with working memory only apply to information not yet stored in long-term memory. This explains why partially- or minimally-guided instruction can be effective for more advanced learners. They have both their working memory and a repository of relevant knowledge and skills stored in long-term memory to draw upon.

Other aspects of effective teaching

Along with applying evidence-based teaching strategies, effective teachers use a style that combines the best of their skills, knowledge and experience.

It blends the teacher’s personality and interests with the needs of students and curriculum requirements.

Regardless of their style, the best teachers remain focused on the goals of their instruction and the needs of students in their classroom.

The changing nature of teaching styles

As teaching styles mature based on an increased understanding of how students learn, teachers are progressively reviewing their approaches in accordance with evidence-based practices and their students’ learning needs.

The most effective teachers can use different styles depending on what they are teaching and the goals for their students. For example, they might use a combination of computer-based activities, lectures and group problem-solving to cover an element of their curriculum.

Naturally, no teacher can use every teaching style to suit every individual student’s needs in a classroom. Rather, they need to consider how to balance the needs of different students without diluting the learning experience by trying to be all things to all students.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

William Arthur Ward