Classroom Styles

The way professors prefer to teach may not match the way students can gain the most, writes Robert J. Sternberg.

September 27, 2011

When I received my first test score – a 3 out of 10 -- in college introductory psychology, I realized that I had some hard slogging ahead, especially after the professor told me that "there is a famous Sternberg in psychology and it is obvious there won’t be another one." I eventually pulled a C in the course, which the professor referred to as a "gift." That professor was probably as surprised as I was when I earned an A in his upper-level course, and I certainly was grateful to him when, as chair of the search committee, he hired me back to my alma mater (Yale University) as an assistant professor, where I would remain as a professor for 30 years. My instructor probably wondered, as did I, how I could have done so poorly in the introductory course and so much better in the upper-level course.

There may have been multiple contributing causes to the difference in performance, but one was almost certainly a difference in the styles of learning and thinking that were rewarded in the two courses. The lower-level course was pretty much a straight, memorize-the-book kind of course, whereas the upper-level course was one that encouraged students to formulate their own research studies and to analyze the research studies of others.

Psychologists and educators differ as to whether they believe in the existence of different styles of learning and thinking. Harold Pashler and his colleagues have claimed that the evidence for their existence is weak, but a number of scholars, whose work is summarized in a 2006 book I wrote with Li-fang Zhang entitled The Nature of Intellectual Styles, and in a forthcoming edited Handbook of Intellectual Styles, have provided what we believe to be compelling evidence for the existence and importance of diverse styles of learning and thinking. I have often felt that anyone who has raised two or more children will be aware, at an experiential level, that children learn and think in different ways.

My own thinking about styles of learning and thinking has been driven by my "theory of mental self-government," which I first presented in book format in a volume entitled Thinking Styles. According to this theory, the ways of governments in the world are external reflections of what goes on in people’s minds. There are 13 different styles in the theory, but consider now just three of them. People with a legislative style like to come up with their own ideas and to do things in their own way; people with an executive style prefer to be given more structure and guidance or even told what to do; people with a judicial style like to evaluate and judge things and especially the work of others.

From this point of view, the introductory psychology course I took, like many introductory courses, particularly rewarded students with an executive style – students who liked to memorize what they read in books or heard in lectures. In contrast, the advanced psychology lab course more rewarded students with a legislative or judicial style, in that students came up with ideas for their own experiments and evaluated the research of others.

In a series of studies I conducted with Elena Grigorenko of Yale University and later with Li-fang Zhang of the University of Hong Kong, we had both teachers and students fill out questionnaires based on my theory of mental self-government. In one set of studies with Grigorenko, we then computed a measure of the similarity of the profile of each student to his or her teacher. We also evaluated the styles preferred by the diverse educational institutions on the basis of their mission statements and descriptive literature. There are three findings from that study of particular importance to college classrooms.

The first finding was that institutions differ widely in the styles of thinking that they reward. For example, in the study, one tended to reward a conservative style (characterizing people who like things to remain more or less the way they are) and tended to penalize a liberal style (characterizing people who like things to change), whereas another rewarded exactly the opposite pattern. The correlations of styles with academic success were statistically significant in both schools, but in opposite directions. Teachers also value different styles. Hence it is important for students to select a college or university and, to the extent possible, professors who value at least to some degree the kinds of learning and thinking that best characterize a particular student. Similarly, it is important for professors to select a school at which to work that values the ways in which the professors prefer to think and to teach.

The second relevant finding was that teachers tend to overestimate the extent to which students match their own profile of learning and thinking styles. Teachers often teach in a way that reflects their own preferred styles of learning and thinking, not fully realizing that the styles that they prefer may not correspond to the styles that many of their students prefer. They believe they are teaching in ways that meet the needs of diverse students, when in fact they often are not. In essence, we are at risk for teaching to ourselves rather than to our students.

The third key finding was that teachers tended to grade more highly students whose profiles of learning and thinking better matched their own. In showing this pattern, the teachers were not purposely favoring, nor probably were they even aware they were favoring, people like themselves. But the fundamental principle of interpersonal attraction is that we are more attracted to people who are like ourselves, and so it is not surprising that teachers would value more students who think in the same ways they do. Ideally, teachers will be flexible, both within and between courses. (The psychology professor to whom I referred earlier was flexible between courses, but not within each course.)

Where these preferences particularly become a problem is when the styles that lead to success in a particular course do not match the styles that will be needed for success either in more advanced courses in the same discipline, or, worse, in the occupation for which the course prepares students. For example, in most occupations, one does not sit around taking short-answer or multiple-choice tests on the material one needs to succeed in the job. The risk, then, is that schools will reward students whose styles match the way they are taught but not the requirements of the work for which the teaching prepares them. As an example, 35 years after receiving the C in introductory psychology, I was president of the American Psychological Association — the largest association of psychologists in the world — and did not once have to sit down and take fact-based quizzes on the material I needed to succeed on the job. Indeed, the factual content that would be taught in an introductory-psychology course, and in many other courses, had changed radically in the 35 years that had passed since I took the course.

In my own teaching, I have had run-ins with the importance of styles. For example, when I first started teaching introductory psychology, I taught it the way I ideally would have liked the course, with lots of emphasis on "legislative" activities — students coming up with their own ideas for structuring their learning. It became obvious to me within a couple of weeks that the course was failing to meet the learning needs of the students. I later realized it was for the same reason that the introductory psychology course I had taken had not worked for me. I was teaching to my own style of learning, not to the diversity of students’ styles of learning. I now try to teach in ways that encourage a mix of legislative, executive, and judicial activities. For example, students come up with their own ideas for papers, but also have to answer some short-answer questions on tests and have to analyze the theories and research of various investigators.

Similarly, in teaching an advanced statistics course, I had pretty much pegged some of the students as "stronger learners" and other students as "weaker learners." One day, I read about how to teach a technique I was covering geometrically rather than in the algebraic way I had been teaching that and other material in the course. When I started teaching the material geometrically, I found that many of the students I had identified as "strong learners" were having difficulty, whereas many of the students I had identified as "weak learners" were easily absorbing the material. I had confounded strength of students’ learning skills with match of their learning style to the way I happened to be teaching.

In sum, styles of learning and thinking matter in the classroom. We best serve our students when we teach in a way that enables all students to capitalize on their preferred styles at least some of the time, but that recognizes that students must acquire flexibility in their use of styles and so cannot always learn in their preferred way. My own institution, Oklahoma State University, has a Learning and Student Success Opportunity Center that intervenes with students in ways specifically oriented toward meeting the needs of their diverse learning and thinking styles. Our Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence teaches teachers how to meet the stylistic needs of students. Our goal in higher education should be to prepare students for the diverse demands later courses and careers will make on their learning and thinking styles so that they can be successful not just in our course, but in their later studies and work.


Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University.


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