Over the years I have taught quite a few people with ‘unusual’ personalities. In some cases, these have been people with diagnosed conditions such as Asperger Syndrome. In others, it has been people who were highly anxious, people prone to depression, people who were shy to the extent of having social anxiety disorder and many who were simply just very introverted. Then there were students with dyslexia, students who were somewhat hyperactive – especially during lectures! – students with a highly developed sense of entitlement and students who were so bored and/or tired that they regularly put their heads down and went for a snooze right under my nose. In other words, all of humanity is to be found in university classrooms and lecture halls.
It is simplistic, therefore, for us to think in terms of a generic student. While personalised teaching is not practical, we should be conscious of the fact that how a student wishes to learn, and learns best, is very much linked with their personality. I’m not talking about ‘learning styles’ which is a controversial concept to say the least. The learning style idea has more to do with a person’s supposed cognitive preferences rather than their personality. For example, in theory (and if such a thing as a learning style were to exist), both introverts and extroverts could be ‘visual learners’. When talking about the effect of personality on learning we are really talking about creating the right environment in which someone of a given personality will learn well. It’s not about the precise way in which the material is presented. That is ultimately determined by the course content.
For example, I recently decided to divide one of my classes into groups so that they could tackle a number of problems in a cooperative way – I had believed the hype about learning in groups. But once the groups got going, I could see that there were quite a few students, good students too, who did not seem to be enjoying the experience, while others were taking to it with gusto. It was clear that many students were of a personality type that was not conducive to working in a group. These students, more introverted and of a ‘thinking’ personality (in the Jungian sense), and needed a bit of peace and quiet to be able to work effectively.
One can argue that working in groups is part of normal working life and it should not be avoided in the education system. But we do need to be aware that in activities that require some hard thinking, there are many people who are much more effective if they can work alone without taking part in a brainstorming session. Indeed the whole issue of whether brainstorming sessions work at all is the subject of a lot of discussion and argument as a quick perusal of the management and psychology literature will readily prove.
Students who may not take very well to a brainstorming session often perform perfectly adequately when taking part in team-based activities. Indeed, in the course on which I teach in DCU, we run a final year module that is team-based and it is very rare that a student has any difficulty in taking his or her full part in the team project. But this kind of project, which is laboratory-based, is quite different from one where a tricky conceptual problem is being addressed. It is more task-oriented and the success of the team depends on each member playing a full part in ensuring that their respective tasks are completed as required. It’s not a question of people sitting around a table shouting out suggestions.
One can make the same arguments about many different modes of teaching and learning. For example, although it is fashionable to criticise the traditional lecture as a mode of teaching, many students are clearly quite comfortable in that environment. Despite many statements by commentators of all kinds about the ‘uselessness’ of lectures, there are many students who attend lectures assiduously, who have the ability to concentrate and who are avid note takers. They often sit close to the front, are not afraid to ask questions and are clearly benefiting from the experience. There is also a large group who like the anonymity of the lecture and are happy to learn in their own quiet way.
So, what does all this mean? We obviously cannot cater for every personality type but we should be conscious of the fact that teaching innovations that assume that all or even the majority of students will respond in a certain way should be treated with a lot of scepticism. Indeed, many innovations are strongly biased in favour of extroversion in my view.
The reality is that education is a not a science and to talk about education without considering the personality of students is a bit like economists trying to understand economic systems without taking human behavior into account.