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.

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. 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.

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 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.”1

In contrast, an effective teaching style can help students to 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; and
  • 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.

Students have different learning styles, which means that they absorb and process information in different ways. Auditory learners, for example, learn best by listening, and will likely do well in a classroom where the teacher verbally explains information. Visual learners take in information through seeing and will respond to practical demonstrations and videos. Kinaesthetic learners do best when they can perform the activity. They will learn best from activities such as field trips and practical, hands-on training.

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

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 is expected to receive it. Teachers using this style don’t usually expect much student participation and are not especially committed to building relationships with their students.
  • 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 some 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.

It also has downsides. It tends to promote passive learning and one-sided communication, doesn’t encourage critical thinking, and isn’t an optimal way of learning for many students.

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 many benefits, including engaging students in their learning, encouraging students to take ownership of knowledge and fostering critical thinking. It encourages active learning and is suited to multiple learning styles.

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.

Overall, however, educational research and anecdotal evidence suggest that student-centred teaching can lead to better outcomes for a range of learning styles.

The best teachers can find a good balance of teacher-centred and student-centred strategies to help their students learn effectively.

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 learning 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 when they are developing learning plans. This means an ‘ideal’ teaching style involves a hybrid approach that combines the best of a teacher’s skill, knowledge and experience.

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

This inclusive method has clear benefits. It encourages teachers to tailor their classroom instruction to different student needs and subject material.

However, it also poses a problem when teachers try to be all things to all students. This could lead to a watering down of learning, not to mention teacher overwhelm or burnout.

In theory, the harder teachers work to develop a student-centred classroom, the more difficult it becomes for them to develop their own well-focused style that’s based on their unique personalities, strengths and goals.

However, student-centred teaching doesn’t necessarily have to mean that teachers sacrifice their preferred teaching method. It does mean that teachers tailor that style to accommodate the diverse needs of students in their classrooms. For example, they might use a combination of computer-based activities, lectures and group problem-solving to cover an element of their curriculum.

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

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