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Teaching Styles

Fostering Student Engagement

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What are Teaching Styles or Instructional Approaches?

The higher education teaching and learning literature distinguishes between two main approaches to classroom teaching: teacher-(or teaching-)centred or student/ learner-(or learning-)centred. Teacher-centred instruction has a distinct path of learning designed by the teacher. The most common form of this method of instruction is the lecture. Key features of teacher-centred instruction tend to include a low level of student choice, a high level of student passivity, and power in the classroom is primarily with the teacher. 

Student-centred instruction is also designed by the instructor but allows a greater amount of student involvement/engagement or student choice and control over the activities they learn by. Power in a student-centred classroom resides primarily with the student learner. The outcome of the activity is less predictable and less controlled. Some of the more popular student-centred approaches include group work, problem-based or inquiry-based learning, or experiential learning.

These two general categories (teacher-centred and student-centred) can be conceived of as two sides of a continuum about how instructors conceptualise teaching. There are many different ways of conceptualising teaching, but a commonality among them are that they are always linked to learning and to the subject matter which is being taught. Instructors, however, who hold conceptions of teaching that relate to transmission of information are more likely to conceive learning as the accumulation of information. Instructors who conceive teaching as a process of facilitating conceptual change in students are more likely to see learning as conceptual change.

Very simply, these ideas can be represented as:

Teacher Centred (TC)
Student Centred (SC)
Low level of student choice
Student passive
Power is primarily with teacher
Focused on transmission of content
High level of student choice
Student active
Power is primarily with student
Focused primarily on conceptual change
in learners

It is important to know that you do not need to design your course around one of these two instructional approaches. In fact, it is often appropriate for instructors to consider a blending of these two approaches in order to address the needs of your students and the realities of the class context. The conception of teaching (and learning) along with the strategy employed, as argued by Prosser and Trigwell (1999), can lead to categorisations of approaches to teaching used by the instructor:

Balancing Process versus Content – Threshold Concepts

Regardless of students’ learning styles, or the instructional approach used by the instructor of a course, the process of teaching needs to be balanced with the content requirements of the course. There is a bias in the educational literature towards focusing on process over content, and indeed research has shown that teaching techniques that are more process-focused have better learning outcomes (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999).

After years of focusing almost exclusively on the process of teaching, the higher education literature over the past five years has refocused on issues of content across all disciplines. Every discipline has what has been described in the literature as “troublesome knowledge” that serves as a barrier to student understanding – knowledge that is conceptually difficult or counter-intuitive. Within these core concepts in all disciplines “there seem to be particular concepts (or threshold concepts) that can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. A threshold concept represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” further in that discipline (Meyer and Land, 2006: xv). 

The characteristics of a threshold concept, across all disciplines, are that they are likely to be: transformative (its potential effect, once learned, often results in a significant shift in the students’ perception of a subject); irreversible (in that once learned the chance of that perspective being forgotten is highly unlikely); integrative (in that it exposes the previously hidden interrelatedness of subject matter); bounded (in that the conceptual space has frontiers or thresholds into new conceptual areas); and troublesome (in that students often struggled to ‘pass through the threshold’ to truly understand that conceptual space) (Meyer and Land, 2006). As students master these threshold concepts over the course of their education, they increasingly are able to think or practice effectively in their disciplines (for example, rather than thinking and acting like a student in science, they think and act like a scientist).

Every instructor in higher education must teach these threshold concepts to students, whether you are conscious of them or not, and must explore how best to help students overcome the barriers of this troublesome knowledge, which leads us to consider the best instructional approaches used to facilitate students’ learning.

References and Resources

  • Boyer Commission (1998). Reinventing Undergraduate Education. Stony Brook, NY: SUNY, Stony Brook.
  • Brew A. (2006). Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.
  • Dunne, D. and Brooks, K. (2004). Teaching with Cases. Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
  • Entwistle, N. (2009). Teaching for Understanding at University. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Hudspith B. and Jenkins, H. (2001). Teaching the Art of Inquiry. Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
  • Martion, F. and Saljo, R. (1976) “On Qualitative Differences in Learning — 2: Outcome as a function of the learner’s conception of the task” Brit. J. Educ. Psych. 46, 115-27.
  • Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2006). Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. London: Routledge.
  • Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K., (1999). Understanding Learning and Teaching: the experience in Higher Education. London: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
  • Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education: 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
  • Wuetherick B. (2009). Unpacking the Teaching-Research Nexus and its Influence on Academic Practice. Academic Matters. Web Exclusive Article.