A one-size-fits-all approach never worked in higher education—for learning or teaching. Just as no two students learn the same way, no two educators can deliver their courses identically. Teaching styles offer a more flexible course experience, for both students and educators.1 Mixing and matching teaching styles, or simply re-evaluating your current ones, can make your course delivery feel fresh and inviting to your students.
In this guide, you will:
- Learn what teaching styles are and how they impact learning
- Get resources to help you figure out your own teaching style
- Review a teaching style inventory, informed by higher ed experts like Anthony Grasha, Kay Mohanna, Ruth Chambers and David Walls
- Receive methods for experimenting with a range of teaching styles (including the demonstrator and facilitator teaching styles) to improve your course delivery
1. What are teaching styles?
Teaching styles are linked to a professor’s educational value system and stem from their philosophy of education. Being aware of your own teaching style (or styles) can help you improve your teaching methods, by designing your course to increase student engagement and, ultimately, enhance student outcomes. The types of teaching styles you adopt will depend on your course goals, course material and learning objectives.
Teaching styles not only refer to the instructional strategies and methods employed but also the use of certain types of rhetoric. In fact, Daniel K. Schneider, an associate professor at TECFA, a research and training unit in the faculty of psychology and education at the University of Geneva, says that educators are usually not aware of their own teaching style and it could even be described as an “emergent property.”
One educator, for example, might be more teacher-centered, viewing themselves as an authority figure on a particular topic. Another, meanwhile, might approach teaching from a mentorship perspective, functioning more in an advisory role and giving students the latitude to work more independently. Neither would be making a necessarily conscious decision to teach in that way.
Anthony Grasha, the late Professor of Psychology at the University of Cincinnati, and a noted expert on teaching styles defined five types of teaching methods: expert, formal authority, personal model, facilitator and delegator. Ideally, educators can experiment with multiple styles, consider their strengths and develop an approach that they’re comfortable with that can maximize student engagement. Often, this will involve making conscious use of a mix of teaching styles.
2. How different teaching styles affect learning
Harry and Rosemary Wong, former teachers and co-authors of The First Day of School: How to be an Effective Teacher and The Classroom Management Book, believe that there are three goals of teaching styles: to develop effective classroom management skills, to achieve lesson mastery and to have positive expectations.
Teaching styles can vary considerably based on individual classroom settings, the subject you’re teaching and the diverse group of students in your class. An authority or lecture-based teaching style, for example, is well-suited to large classes and subjects that require heavy memorization, like history. A delegator or group teaching style might be more conducive to subjects that require lab activity, like chemistry, or subjects that involve significant feedback, like debate and creative writing. In the latter style, the teacher inspires and observes rather than recites facts.
The goal of any teaching style is to remain focused on teaching objectives and engaging students as best you can. Not all students respond well to a particular style, which is why many professors who are versed in teaching styles use a combination of them based on the subject matter or environment.
Students are the most important factor in building your course environment: and it’s essential to use a teaching method to engage students at all levels of learning and ability. Using a balanced mix of teaching styles that blend the best of what you have to offer will reach every student effectively.
2.1. A teaching style inventory made for any course or instructor
The first step in developing and understanding your curriculum delivery is to review a teaching style inventory.2 There are several resources that can offer structure to this self-reflective exercise. The most effective resources that can help you understand the different teaching styles are below.
- Mohanna, Chambers and Wall’s Staffordshire Evaluation of Teaching Styles (SETS) is a self-evaluation questionnaire and scoring sheet that helps educators select their own teaching style from a list of six options. The types of teaching methods include: a) all-around flexible and adaptable, b) student-centered and sensitive, c) official curriculum, d) straight facts; no-nonsense, e) big conference and f) one-off.3
- The Teaching Behavior Preferences Survey by Behar and Horenstein (2006), meanwhile, includes statements (such as “My teaching is guided by instructional strategies”) to determine if you are more teacher- or student-centered, and into which of four subdomains you might fall.4
- The Principles of Adult Learning Scale by Conty (1983) includes 44 self-administered questions to determine where you fall on the spectrum of teaching styles.5
- Another option is the Constructionist On-Line Learning Environment Survey by Taylor and Maor (2000), which measures the quality of an online environment and teaching styles.6
3. What are the different types of teaching styles?
There’s no canonical group of teaching styles. The concept can be sliced in many different ways in terms of definition. One group of classifications, for example, is based on content while another is based on student communication.
The important consideration is that teaching styles identify the gaps between where learners are and where they need to be and find a way to help bridge that gap.
Teaching styles can range from strict authorities to, more commonly nowadays, those that promote active and collaborative learning. Here are two of the most commonly used sets, which stem from Mohanna, Chambers and Wall’s teaching styles and Grasha’s teaching methods.
3.1. Types of teaching styles proposed by Mohanna, Chambers and Wall
Kay Mohanna, Ruth Chambers and David Wall developed SETS in 2007, with the purpose of discovering if there were distinct teaching styles that could be measured.7 They were familiar with the idea of learning styles but felt that these did not take into account the importance of the teacher in the learning process as well. They also wondered if a mismatch between an educator’s teaching style and a student’s preferred learning style could stand in the way of positive educational outcomes.
The researchers analyzed aspects of teaching by studying educational literature and looked for patterns and associations. The themes they came up with fit into six identifiable teaching styles: all-around flexible and adaptable; student-centered, sensitive; official curriculum; straight facts, no-nonsense; big conference; and one-off. From there, they created a self-evaluation questionnaire and scoring sheet to provide professors with personal scores in each type to identify their strongest preferences. Plotting these points onto a Staffordshire Hexagon provides a visual representation of an educator’s personal teaching style matrix.
Below, we break down the six types of teaching styles as proposed by Mohanna, Chambers and Wall.
3.1.1. Student-centered, sensitive
This teaching style emphasizes emotions and gives students more responsibility for their own learning. It’s used by educators who are not comfortable delivering lengthy presentations, or when a subject does not necessarily call for formal lectures. Roleplay and drama can even be involved.
This student-centered teaching style promotes greater interaction and uses an active learning environment to help students develop critical thinking and meta-cognitive skills. However, this teaching method might not be effective for all students—many people can quickly get frustrated or lose a sense of direction with personal, unsupervised learning.
This teaching style is best used in smaller classrooms, and where discovery and exploration would be more effective in the learning process than reciting facts and note-taking. It can be used in disciplines such as medicine and teaching a patient-centered mindset. It’s also ideal for a subject where activities like role-playing, lab work and drama can be used, such as debate and creative writing.
3.1.2. Official curriculum teacher
Teaching styles like this one are for the well-prepared and accredited educator who is aware of and wants to follow, the formal curriculum to a tee. As Wall explains, “As well as being familiar with the curriculum statements, this teacher is very careful to match their teaching with these curriculum statements so that over the course of time, the whole curriculum has been properly covered.”
This teaching style focuses on external targets for teaching, as well as faculty development and “teaching the teacher,” and offers dependency and security to instructors and students alike. Knowledge of the curriculum itself, of course, is paramount and this teaching style cannot work without it. However, one major disadvantage to this is that teaching with a structure in place means that one cannot deviate from it, even for subjects that students may find interesting or worth more time. As a result, student engagement can potentially suffer.
3.1.3. Straight facts, no-nonsense
Similar to the official curriculum teaching style, this style describes educators who like to teach facts and figures, typically in a lecture format. These educators are less focused on multi-disciplinary teaching and learning and place more value on specific course material that needs to be taught. It’s most appropriate for students at the beginning of a subject who need to absorb the foundations of a topic. This teaching style also works well for subjects that involve heavy memorization.
Content-based, teaching styles like this align well with the cognitive domain in Bloom’s taxonomy. For skills, Miller’s pyramid may be more useful. But aligning to structure could be hard for educators who prefer to take a more personal approach to their class—the authors recommend anybody who wants to adopt this teaching style attend ‘teach the teacher’ courses.
3.1.4. Big conference
This teaching style is adopted by professors who like to get up on stage in front of a big audience to share their knowledge on a topic. These teachers can potentially be very engaging speakers who can hold students’ interest, even if there is little interaction in class.
This teaching style works well when applied to subjects like psychology, philosophy or law, especially for first-year courses, which are large in size.
Of course, stage fright or fear of public speaking can be a significant problem for many teaching in this particular teaching style. Being able to network, engage others and engender respect are vital parts of speaking at a conference and teaching in a conference style. And, just because somebody can give a compelling presentation, it doesn’t mean they can necessarily teach. As Chambers says, “Quite often when a charismatic speaker has given a rousing lecture, you can think afterward, ‘Well, what did they actually say?’ and not be able to voice a single take-home message.”
The one-off teaching style is defined by professors who prefer to deliver small, self-contained bits of teaching on a one-on-one basis versus lecturing on a topic for an hour in front of a big audience. There are no props or fancy presentations—just the teacher and student. It can also cover any impromptu teaching time or guest workshops. The downside to this teaching method is that students often have little-to-no connection with their professor, making learning feel highly impersonal.
“One-off teaching is impersonal, flexible, self-confident, self-contained, resourceful, centered more on the purpose of teaching than learners’ needs [and] discontinuous,” Chambers writes. A one-off teacher ultimately might be brought in to fill a knowledge gap so that curriculum goals can be fulfilled.
3.1.6. All-round: Flexible and adaptable
Those who prefer this teaching style are comfortable using different skills and methods in the classroom. Educators take into account both the environment and individual student needs and adapt on the fly—knowing that students differ in needs and learning styles. The integrated approach is inclusive and allows professors to adjust as needed, thus potentially reaching more students effectively.
Some educators might feel that it’s easier to stick to one teaching style, but a base awareness of different teaching styles and how they can apply to different students is a good first step towards developing an all-around mentality. “The all-around flexible teacher does however possess one skill we should all aspire to as teachers; the main role of any teacher is to create an educational environment that supports learning,” says Mohanna.
3.2. Teaching styles proposed by Grasha
Anthony Grasha coined five approaches to teaching styles in 19968: expert, formal authority, personal model, facilitator and delegator.
Grasha believes that all educators possess each of these five teaching styles to varying degrees, though they gravitate to some more than others. He likens teaching styles to an artist’s palette: the teacher’s primary or dominant teaching style(s) are similar to the foreground of a painting, while the other qualities still exist, but are farther into the background. All styles and colors, however, are needed to some degree to create a painting with dimensions and layers.
Many educators and educational institutions use Grasha’s styles to help define their approaches to learning and teaching. One study with English as a First Language (EFL)9 educators found that this group most frequently adopts the facilitator teaching style, followed by delegator, personal, expert and formal authority. The study determined that these types of teaching methods helped create an environment that was more conducive to learning, promoted higher levels of motivation and helped students achieve their goals.
The expert teaching style defines professors who want to showcase a high level of knowledge and expertise in a subject and use the information to challenge students. The goal is to transmit information to students to prepare them for assignments, exams and further studies. This tremendous knowledge transfer can be helpful for students looking to soak up information from credible resources in their field. But this method can be intimidating for students if it’s overused. And while this style focuses on facts and figures, it might not successfully show the processes used to find answers to problems.
Similar to the official curriculum teaching style—and the one-off style, for parachuted-in knowledge—the expert style is ideal for large and more mature classes in higher education, including introductory sophomore classes where there are countless facts and figures that students need to grasp.
3.2.2. Formal authority
Educators who use the formal authority teaching style establish status among students, clearly define their learning goals and expectations and follow a set list of rules of how things should be done. This teaching style is great for students who need structure since there are clear guidelines and expectations, and an understanding of the acceptable way to do things.
However, this teaching style can also be too rigid and standardized for many students who appreciate more active learning settings, interaction and better engagement. This teaching method can work effectively in disciplines like law or music where there are established rules that need to be followed, and where an instructor can lead by example by playing an instrument or discussing legal procedures.
3.2.3. Personal model
In the personal model, educators use any opportunity they can to teach by using real-life examples and establishing a prototype of how to think and behave based on their own beliefs and methods. Educators oversee, guide and direct work, but don’t necessarily present themselves as authorities on a subject. Rather, they show students how to do things and encourage them to observe and follow directions in order to complete tasks. This educator, then, is essentially a role model.
This type of teaching style provides hands-on experience and direct observation. But some educators run the risk of pushing their own way as the best way, which can cause some students to feel inadequate if they can’t live up to the standards. This method could work well, however, in a higher education setting where students already have a good grasp of the material and abstract concepts, and where all students are working on the same level, like in advanced medical studies.
Providing a warm, more emotional climate, the facilitator’s teaching style focuses on teacher-student interaction on a personal level. Students are encouraged to ask questions, explore different options and suggest alternatives, and are guided along the way as they learn by trial and error. The goal is to help students think independently and take more responsibility for their own learning process.
In this teaching style, the instructor works in a more consultative role, providing support and encouragement. This style allows for much greater flexibility in the classroom and focuses on student needs and goals. But it can be time-consuming and ineffective if the subject matter is one where a more direct approach is needed. Some students might also be uncomfortable with a less structured approach. Facilitation can work well in smaller classroom settings or upper-level and graduate courses where creativity and exploration are encouraged, and if students are at a point they feel willing to take risks.
The ultimate goal for someone adopting this teaching style is for students to be able to function autonomously, working independently on assignments and projects or as part of small teams with peers. The instructor is available, when needed, to be used as a resource. Educators who use the delegator teaching style don’t host formal lectures.
A teaching style like this can help students develop the tools to be confident and independent learners. Still, students who aren’t ready for such autonomy could become anxious and not perform well. This method is great for upper-level studies where students already have an appropriate level of knowledge and don’t need much hand-holding. They are ready to rise to the next level of learning and view the educator as a guide, not someone who’s there for standard instruction.
4. Why teaching styles are important
4.1. Teaching style examples in higher education
Teaching styles used in K-12 classroom settings won’t necessarily work in higher education settings. Younger children will initially respond more to authoritative teaching methods, and while older students might benefit from blended learning or working on their own projects, incoming college students will be expected to do a great deal of research and work on their own.
Many studies have found that there is value in higher education instructors sharing some aspects of their personal lives with students. It humanizes them and makes them appear more relatable and approachable. Doing so could be as simple as mentioning your love of a popular TV series as an aside (bonus points if you can relate it to the course material) or even some family circumstances. “When [a faculty member] shared that she has a daughter beginning college at another university, she showed that she understands from multiple perspectives what it is like to be a college student,” says Dr. Sarah M. Ginsberg, associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, in an essay entitled Shared Characteristics of College Faculty Who Are Effective Communicators.
Content isn’t the be-all, end-all of classroom management. More important than having the knowledge is being able to use effective instructional strategies to share it. In other words, how you teach something is just as important as what you teach.
“I think that deep engagement is really hard work for students. If they become engaged that means they’re applying effort, it means they’re exposing themselves to possible failure, it means they’re taking risks. One of the best ways to engage students is to challenge them. To really push them to the outskirts of their ability and even a bit beyond. For all of those reasons, engagement is hard work for students. I view it as offering them an open hand to succeed.”Professor Sarah Rose Cavanagh, author and psychology professor, author of Hivemind and Spark.
In addition to trying to make your curriculum more personal, seeking feedback from students throughout the year (not just at the end of a course) can help educators gain a better understanding of how well their teaching style is working, and how they can adjust it to better reach students. Technologies like clickers and in-class polls and surveys can help, as well as simply observing student behavior to gauge their interest and enjoyment in the class.
Change doesn’t have to be drastic. Employing simple tactics can go a long way to increasing student engagement. It could be asking students to write their own questions, comments or responses on assignments for your feedback—taking some inspiration from the more student-centered teaching styles—or structuring an otherwise lengthy lecture to include breaks, which would require some flexibility in teaching.
4.2. Teaching styles and academic performance
Many studies have found a relationship between teaching styles and academic performance. In Malaysia, one study10 found a “significant but moderate” relationship between a lecturer’s teaching style and student academic engagement. More support for the relationship between student engagement and a teacher’s teaching style can be found in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (2000).
A student’s ability and willingness to learn also depends on how suitable a teaching style is to the way they prefer to absorb course material. Psychological investment and the institution’s culture can also impact student participation.
Overall, student involvement is an important predictor of academic performance. The more students are involved in and engaged with their studies, the better they are likely to perform.
4.3. Teaching styles and active learning
Not surprisingly, some teaching styles lend themselves more to active learning than others. Any teaching style that involves less lecture time and more student interaction are conducive to active learning. This includes teaching styles like the delegator, facilitator and personal model in Grasha’s classifications, and the student-centered, sensitive, one-off and all-around, flexible and adaptable teaching methods in Mohanna, Chambers and Wall’s. Any blended teaching style, of course, incorporates some active learning components.
To encourage an active learning environment, and ensure that it thrives, find a comfortable balance between both the cognitive and affective dimensions of teaching, and work to develop a genuine relationship with students in some way.
Even if you gravitate more to an expert or authoritative teaching style, try and make yourself more approachable by carving out some time to create meaningful activities for students. Presentations, demonstrations, and responsive feedback—part of the delegator or facilitator teaching style—are vital aspects of active learning.
Even teaching styles such as a formal authority or a one-off lecture can incorporate some active learning strategies. Flipped classrooms can be achieved with a curriculum-based teaching style; a ‘straight facts’ approach melds well with a ‘muddiest point’ exercise.
4.4. Teaching styles versus learning styles
Teaching styles and learning styles can work hand-in-hand. And when they match, it can result in a positive experience all around.
Learning styles, in general, describe ways that students prefer to absorb and understand information, and the classifications they put themselves in based on their preferences. Some sets include visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners or verbal learners. Since there’s no common definition for learning styles, there’s no scientific basis to them: nevertheless, taking the student’s perspective is valuable when considering your teaching style.
Like learning styles, it’s widely acknowledged that teaching styles fall on a spectrum and are contextual rather than fixed. An educator doesn’t necessarily adopt just one type of teaching style but they might employ a secondary or tertiary style when necessary. Or the instructor might switch styles based on subjects, students, course curriculum or other mitigating factors as part of a plan to adopt more effective learning strategies.
At least one study has found a statistically significant correlation between successful teaching styles and learning styles.11 But a mismatch between the two, for example, could in some ways actually be beneficial for first-year students and those in the early stages of learning. Some students can benefit from being pushed to learn in new ways outside of their comfort zones, and thus develop new learning skills.
Regardless of the primary teaching style, the goal should always be to adopt a balanced method that doesn’t favor one style too much, that is open-minded to different types of teaching and can accommodate different learning styles.
Teaching styles are not set in stone, and course delivery shouldn’t be placed in specific boxes. Every educator falls somewhere on a spectrum, from the authoritative expert to the student-centered facilitator and delegator. More important than defining where you fall on the spectrum—though this is useful to determine—is analyzing and observing your curriculum, students and subject matter and finding the best teaching style to match.
Teaching styles that match students’ learning styles, and that put student needs and learning at the forefront, can lead to more positive academic outcomes. Students tend to be more engaged, and thus better grasp the material.
Educators who are aware of their teaching style, who re-evaluate it, try new things and get feedback from students can take teaching to a new level.
- Bohren, A. (2019, March 8). Teaching styles: Everything you need to know about teaching methods and strategies. CogniFit. https://blog.cognifit.com/teaching-styles/
- Teaching Styles. (n.d.). Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, University of Michigan. https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsts
- Mohanna, K., Chambers, R., & Wall, D. (2007). Developing your teaching style: increasing effectiveness in healthcare teaching. Postgraduate medical journal, 83(977), 145–147. https://doi.org/10.1136/pgmj.2006.054106
- Teaching Style. (2018). ART 601: Teaching Assistant Seminar. http://art601.weebly.com/uploads/2/2/5/1/22512830/teaching_style.pdf
- Principles of Adult Learning Scale. (n.d.). Conti-Creations. http://www.conti-creations.com/Online_Page.htm
- The Constructivist On-Line Learning Environment Survey (COLLES). (n.d.). Curtin University of Technology. https://surveylearning.moodle.com/colles/
- Mohanna, K., Chambers, R., & Wall, D. (2008). Your teaching style: A practical guide to understanding, developing and improving. Oxford: Radcliffe.
- Grasha, A. F. (1994). A Matter of Style: The Teacher as Expert, Formal Authority, Personal Model, Facilitator, and Delegator. College Teaching, 42(4). 10.1080/87567555.1994.9926845.
- Heydarnejad, T., Fatemi, A. H., & Ghonsooly, B. (2017). An Exploration of EFL Teachers’ Teaching Styles and Emotions. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research, 4(2), 26-46.
- Shaari, A. S., et al. (2014). The Relationship between Lecturers’ Teaching Style and Students’ Academic Engagement. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 118. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.02.002.
- Hussain, Nasreen & Ayub, Nadia. (2012). Learning Styles of Students and Teaching Styles of Teachers in Business Education: A Case Study of Pakistan. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 69. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.12.122.