Explore the extent to which personality traits explain student preferences for specific learning approaches and teaching modalities

Explore the extent to which personality traits explain student preferences for specific learning approaches and teaching modalities

Review of the Literature

1.1 Introduction

To learn more about education and to be able to improve the system to best provide for the individual needs of its learners, this study aims to investigate the link between an individual’s personality and their preferred learning style and teaching modality.

There is a shortage of current research on how a student’s personality influences their learning style and preferred teaching modality. There is however, a large body of research that analyses the relationship between personality and learning.

Curry (1983) describes learning as a future focused process that involves adaptation of constructs to bring about a change in an individual’s cognitive, practical, affective, social or moral skills which can be observable as a change in behaviour. The learning approach of an individual reflects the way in which they go about the process of learning with regard to their chosen setting, their internal goals, treatment of information, and desire to succeed. Understanding the motives for these individual differences in ways of learning and how this may apply to disparities in achievement has always been a concern for those studying educational practice.

Teaching modalities refer to the way in which information is delivered to the student, and the learning environment that is created by the teacher. Higher Education employs several teaching modalities, including traditional lectures, small tutorial groups and one-to-one mentoring. Teaching modalities can vary as a product of the subject being taught, assessment criteria, and the individual preferences of lecturers, who may emphasise more theoretical or more practical approaches, or a combination of the two (Chamorro-Premuzic, Furnham & Lewis, 2007; Chamorro-Premuzic, Furnam, Dissout & Heaven, 2005). Despite this large scope for variability, there is little research into students’ preferences for different teaching modalities, especially into what factors contribute to these preferences.

Fielder (1993) suggested that for the most effective teaching, a variety of approaches to teaching should be recruited in order to appeal to the different learning styles and personalities of the students. This hypothesis is supported by a study showing that a variety of teaching modalities was beneficial in engaging more individual learning styles (Dunn & Dunn, 1979). Whilst there has been debate surrounding whether there is a scientific basis for learning styles (Curry, 1983; Pashler et al., 2009), this evidence appears to highlight their relevance to teaching.

The large variation in teaching style, learning approach and academic performance poses several questions. Does student personality and their preferred learning approach account for preference of certain teaching modalitiesWhat is the relationship between personality and an individual’s learning approachIt is therefore important to ask, are certain learning approaches suited to specific teaching modalities?

The following hypotheses will be tested to investigate the relationship between student personality, preferred learning approach and preferred teaching modality

(a) There is a significant relationship between certain personality characteristics and learning approaches. OR Is there a relationship between student personality traits and preferred learning approach?

(b) There is a significant relationship between student personality traits and their preferred teaching modality. OR Is there a relationship between student personality traits and their preferred teaching modality?

(c) There is a significant relationship between students’ preferred learning approaches and their preferences for teaching modalities OR Is there a relationship between students’ preferred learning approaches and their preferred teaching modality?

1.2 Learning Approaches

Recent research has emphasised the important contribution of students’ learning approaches as determinants of how much knowledge they acquire, and how this translates into academic performance (Duff, 2003; Duff, Boyle, & Dunleavy, 2004). In a series of investigations, Biggs (1987, 1992) conceptualised three major learning approaches to classify the way students approach their learning. These were classified as ‘deep’ surface’ and ‘achieving’. A deep approach to learning is characterised by intrinsic motivation, engagement with subject matter, and the desire to learn more detail and thoroughly understand the subject. Deep learners will aim to make the content of a lesson meaningful and develop a thorough understanding. Conversely, students who adopt a surface approach to learning show less interest in the task, avoid any challenging activities, and aim to pass exams rather than enhance their understanding. These students tend to receive information superficially and memorise isolated and unrelated facts (Biggs & Tang, 2007). The achieving approach to learning is characterised by goal-oriented study strategies; based on competition between other students and ego enhancement. This approach lends to students that are motivated by the desire to achieve the top grades regardless of whether they find interest in the task at hand (Biggs, 1987; 1988). Biggs (1987) further divided each of the ‘deep’, ‘surface’ and ‘achieving’ approaches into ‘motive ‘ and ‘strategy’ as student goals may differ from the ways that these students go about achieving them.

Previous research shows support for a direct relationship between student personality characteristics and student’s learning approaches (Zhang, 2003; Disth, 2003;). Zhang (2003) indicated that there are positive relationships between extraversion and surface learning, and between agreeableness and surface learning. This finding is supported in a study by Duff et al. (2004), who demonstrated a positive relationship between extraversion and a deep learning approach. Additionally, individuals with conscientious and open personalities have been shown desire to develop deep learning strategies (Zhang, 2003) and those showing strong openness to experience have shown less propensity to being surface learners.

Literature has examined several models of learning styles and proposed criticisms of such tools that purport to measure learning styles. One such tool is the Kolb Experiential Learning Model (ELM) (Kolb, 1976). Kolb’s ELM has received criticism that it is neither valid nor reliable, which has detrimental implications for education that could be if employed (Bergsteiner, Avery & Neumann, 2010; Geiger, Boyle & Pinto, 1993). However, an alternative model, the Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ) (Honey & Mumford, 1992) has shown good test-retest reliability. Critics have suggested limitations to the LSQ, suggesting that the tool is useful for those students already interested in a particular career choice and would not be reliable enough for students attending non-vocational courses (Reynolds, 1997).

Although there has been a debate as to the scientific basis of learning styles (Curry, 1983, Pashler et al., 2009), studies in the literature have provided irrefutable evidence that learning approaches and personality traits are strongly related. It may also be possible to infer that learning approaches have a distinctive value in explaining human behaviour, as learning is such a pervasive feature of being. This is supported by research from Busato, Prins, Elshout and Hamaker (2000), who assert that a learning styles inventory has a diagnostic value for identifying both strengths and weaknesses in the individual study behaviour of students.

The present study will explore the extent to which personality and learning styles influence preferred teaching modalities.

1.3 Personality

The discovery of the “big five personality traits” can be interpreted as one of the major accomplishments of psychology in the twentieth century. These traits are agreeableness, conscientiousness, culture, emotional stability (versus neuroticism) and extraversion (Goldberg, 1990). Tokar (1995) proposed that the five-factor model is the one of the most “prominent and heuristic models of personality structure”. Several studies support Tokar’s view finding that the personality traits of the big five model accounts for a large amount of the variability in personality (Goldberg, 1993; Taylor & McDonald, 1999).

McCrae and Costa (1995a) acknowledge that personality has many other dimensions, proposing their ‘Model of Person,’ which uses the term ‘characteristic adaptation’ to explain personality traits that are not fundamental characteristics described by the big factor five. These characteristics adaptations are proposed to develop over time and are influenced by environment and experience, yet mediated by personality traits. These include characteristics such as habits and attitudes.

The learning approach construct may well be one of such characteristic adaptation. This has been emphasised by a large research base into personality and how it is influences by a variety of variables. These include intellectual satisfaction, student self-esteem, teachers’ perceptions of their control over their students, teaching effectiveness and course type (Lieberman, Stroup-Bernham, & Peel, 1998; McCaffrey, 1996; Parker, 1997; Rimmer, 1997). Additionally the role and influence of thinking styles has been addressed (Zhang & Huang, 2001; Zhang, 2000a; Zhang 2000b). This emphasises the many possible influences that may be at work on the development of one’s learning approach.

The work of Costa & McCrae (1985-1992) has been successful in accommodating the big five personality constructs already assessed by Biggs (1987) and Eysenck (1975). They investigated the NEO Five-Factor Inventory and found that it was able to reliably assess the five personality dimensions. Other research into this inventory showed that it provided both good internal validity (Holden; 1994; Furnham 1996) and external validity using Holland’s (1994) Self Directed Search (Tokar & Swanson, 1995; Fuller, Holland & Johnson, 1999). This is all suggestive that these five predominant characteristics are reliable, replicable and representative of distinct traits.

Neuroticism (N) at the extreme end of the scale may be characterised by anxiety nervousness and emotional lability. Individuals high on the N scale tend to have a pessimistic outlook and experience negative feelings that include emotional instability, guilt, embarrassment, and low self-esteem. The extraversion (E) subscale tends to be associated with the sociable and assertive individuals who prefer to work in a team with other people. Openness to Experience (O) is characterised by preference for variety, openness to change and variety, active imagination and independence of judgement. Additionally, people who score high on the O scale tend to be less conservative and traditional, however they also value and respect other people’s beliefs and conventions. Individuals scoring high on the culture (C) scale are characterised as being strong-willed, responsive and trustworthy with a strong sense of purpose. They also tend to be focused on task and goal outcome and are achievement oriented (Goldberg, 1990).

Murray-Harvey (1994) observed that some descriptions of learning approaches are best formulated in terms of individual personality. For example, Shabolt (1978) demonstrated that those showing introverted or neurotic personality traits performed in conditions of structured teaching than when exposed to unstructured teaching methods. Eysenck (1978) also noted that personality and learning are closely linked, finding that extroverts tend to socialise during learning periods, are easily distracted from academic work and find concentration more difficult. Eysenck (1978) also postulated that those showing the neuroticism trait tend to let nerves interfere with their work. Furnham (1992) expanded this work, using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975; 1991) and the Learning Styles Questionnaire (Honey & Mumford, 1992). Findings revealed that all elements of learning style were related to at least one of the elements of the personality traits, suggesting an inextricable link between the two. Furthering this hypothesis, Jackson and Lawtey-Jones (1996) found evidence for a reversal of the relationship, finding that whilst learning styles could be fully explained by personality scales, additionally, all learning styles correlated significantly with at least one personality trait. Furnham (1992) however, suggested that an individual’s learning approach may be interpreted as a derivative of personality rather than a separate entity.

Findings from Zhang (2003) strongly suggest reason for further research into the field of personality and learning, finding that the two are related, but are individual constructs (reporting a quarter overlap), whereas Duff et. al. (2004) report an even greater relationship between learning approaches and personality traits. Duff (2004) and Zhang (2003) reported similar associations between openness and a deep approach to learning and neuroticism and surface approach. Extroverts were proposed to adopt a surface approach (Zhang, 2003), however Duff et al. (2004) found that agreeableness purported a surface approach.

Furthering this, one may deduce that learning approaches act as indirect influences of personality traits on learning success. This may be highlighted by some personality traits being more strongly related to some learning approaches than others. These mediating factors may be identified through the consideration of how an individual may adapt their behaviour to suit their personality. For example, the surface approach, which accounts for a potential of failure and comparison with others, is related to neuroticism, and openness, which is associated with curiosity, imagination, and intellectual values, is related to the deep approach. Again, the personality trait of conscientiousness is reflected in the thorough nature of the deep approach. Other research highlights that it is a variety of personality traits that are associated with each learning approach and that there is not a single distinct contributing trait per approach (Diseth, 2003).

There are arguments to suggest a dubious link between personality traits and learning approaches, with belief that it cannot be modelled (Zhang & Sternberg, 2006) due to the dubious nature of learning approaches. Despite this resistance, others authors have found evidence and argument that the learning approach concept is associated strongly with personality (Furnham, 1992; Gelade 2002; Jackson and Lawty-Jones, 1996). Messick (1994) proposed that learning approaches, when in conjunction with other influence and constructs can be seen to provide a metaphorical bridge between cognition and personality. This implies that learning approaches can act as mediators in bringing learning material to the individual and making it relevant. The connection between personality and learning approach has been under investigation for many years (Jung 1921; Myers & Briggs, 1962), which highlights the importance that has been placed on the understanding of this construct.

Information on the relationship between personality and learning approaches allows for insight into the motivations and strategies that may be used by individuals when learning from a very young age. This will be especially useful for those personality traits that show persist throughout life, and will enable tailoring of education and learning advice appropriately. Additionally, it is important to know if personality and learning approaches are distinct psychological constructs and if so whether these can account for students’ teaching preferences. This is important as teaching methods are a strong influence on students’ learning and, in turn, their academic performance.

Teaching Modalities

Fischer & Fischer (1979) define teaching style as a “pervasive way of approaching learners that might be consistent with several methods of teaching”. Conversely, Conti (1989) argued that teaching style is less pervasive, suggesting that it a construct of the personal characteristics and qualities of the teacher and remains consistent in various situations. Knowles (1970) emphasised the importance of teaching style on the learning experience, asserting that “the behaviour of the teacher influences the character of the learning climate more than any other single factor”.

Teaching itself has been suggested to consist of an instructor’s personal behaviour and the media used to transmit or retrieve data to or from the learner (Gregorc, 1982). The success of teaching style and the accomplishment this data transmission and retrieval may depend largely on matching. Matching is defined in terms of a compatibility of the environment and the interactive effects of the person (Hunt 1979).

Early studies carried in the US such as that by Simon (1987) aimed to determine the relationship between students’ preferred learning approaches and their preferred teaching styles of college tutors. He administered the Cranfield Learning styles inventory to 4,000 students. His studies revealed that students indicated a preference for fewer lectures and a more hands on experience. Students showed preference for less faculty directed learning and more student independence, also preferring peer and instructor affiliation. Implications from this study were that instructors should decrease the number of lectures in favour for an increase direct experience where students become more involved in the course and programme direction.

One of the strongest measures of learning success is academic achievement (Zimmerman, 1990), therefore the success of learning approaches and teaching modalities may be assessed through individual performance. Personality type has been shown to be a predictor of academic performance, with those with conscientious personality types achieving academic success across a range of subjects (Busato et al. 2000). Additionally, Lieberman, Stroup-Benham and Peel (1998) found that conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion correlated with intellectual satisfaction at medical school. When considering this relationship, it is important to consider the influences that personality type has on learning approach and how much this may contribute to the outcome of academic success. There have been many further studies relating to personality and academic achievement, which as discussed above is likely mediated through learning style, however there is an absence of research investigating the influence of teaching modalities.

Current studies pertaining to academic achievement, learning approaches and teaching modalities found that students whose preferred learning approaches matched with their teacher’s preferred teaching modality received higher grades than those whose did not match (Mathews 1995; Rains, 1978; Hunter 1979). This highlights the importance of matching and concordance between student and teacher. This is supported by research suggesting that teaching modalities and students’ learning approaches interact to affect student learning (Saracho, 1990; Saracho & Spodek, 1994; Taylor, 1994; Wentura, 1985). The current research base would be greatly improved by further investigation into the relationship between learning approaches and students’ preferred teaching styles, especially how these are both mediated by the individual student’s personality.

Recent research carried out by Furnham (1996) begins to explore this avenue. 221 students took the Neo Five-Factor Personality Inventory, were assessed on their learning approaches and also their preferred teaching modalities. Personality trait correlated with learning approach, and both of these individually had an effect on preference for certain teaching modalities. The study employed Marton and Saljo’s (1976) strategy to assess teaching modalities and covered students’ approaches, styles, motivations and study methods (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Entwistle, 1997). Conclusions were that emotional stability, agreeableness, and deep learning approaches were associated with preference for interactive teaching and lessons. These personality traits were also negatively related learning via a surface approach. Findings showed that those with a preference for interactive teaching were likely to have a personality which combined emotional stability and agreeableness, and these students would prefer a deep learning approach.


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