Choosing an Instructional Method? Consider Teacher-Student Interactions

by Sara Sanchez Alonso

One of the most challenging aspects as we prepare to become effective teachers is to understand the variety of instructional methods that we can implement in the classroom. If we think about the most recent classes we have attended as students, we might have been exposed to very different formats: lectures, group discussions, presentations and class projects are among the most frequent ones. The instructional method is crucial in the classroom: it ultimately determines the roles of both the student and the teacher and thus how the information is presented and received by the student. Intuitively, the teacher in a traditional lecture format is typically regarded as the “producer” of knowledge, whereas a group discussion expects more input from the student. In this post, I would like to reflect on this particular aspect of instructional formats: how the format we implement in the classroom determines the interaction between the teacher and the student and the implications it has for learning.

Betsy Barre, Assistant Director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, provides a description of two different roles the teacher may play in a recent article titled What is the Point of a Teacher? (Barre, 2015). The author describes the responsibilities of the teacher with respect to a scale that has two poles: the teacher as author and the teacher as tutor. This is how she characterizes the differences between the two views:

  • The Teacher-as-author view defines the pedagogical value of the teacher with respect to three main roles: 1) a producer of knowledge, 2) an organizer of knowledge and 3) a role model of scholarly production. Under this view, engaging students in the classroom is not one of the responsibilities of the teacher.
  • The Teacher-as-tutor perspective considers that the main role of the teacher is to pay active attention to the development of the students. Thus, teachers should know the background of their students, how they change during the semester and what their final stage is. In this way, teachers are aware of the needs of the students and are able to respond to them.

How the student perceives the teacher, as either author or tutor, will have an impact on how the student engages with the material. If the teacher is seen as the provider of information, students might still be able to critically think and become involved with the material. However, the expectations on the students are different because they are not prompted to become participants in building their own knowledge. They are not required to express their opinions or argue in favor or against a particular aspect, as it would be expected in a group discussion. They are also not asked to explain the materials to their peers or explicitly establish relations with previous lectures, as in a class presentation. The level of engagement is different because the expectations are different. We can capture the interrelation between the roles of the teacher and the student as in the following figure:

Teacher-Role-Sara_BlostPostThis figure shows that the closer the teacher acts as an author, the more passive the student will be. On the other hand, a teacher that regards himself as a tutor will aim to have more interaction with the student. How does this impact the instructional method we implement? For example, a traditional lecture format typically leads to a more passive role on behalf of the student, but actively engaging student improves the process and retention of information (Freeman et al., 2014). Thus one might ask, should we still be lecturing? The answer to this question is very much still under debate and there are opinions that reflect both sides of the debate. For example, The New York Times recently published an article by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor in the History Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, arguing in favor of the lecture format of teaching humanities as an “exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout” (Worthen, 2015). For Worthen, lectures are not passive learning experiences, but instead they are an opportunity for students to synthesize and structure information, as well as to react to this information. On the other extreme, Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist, commented that “it is almost unethical to be lecturing” (Bajak, 2014) in response to a recent study on STEM instructional methods (Freeman et al., 2014). This study demonstrated that teaching formats, which promoted student engagement with the material and activity in the classroom, increased student exam performance and reduced the risk of failure by almost one-half standard deviation.

There are certainly benefits to lecturing. Lectures provide focus on important points or ideas and help clarify difficulties in the course materials. Since the teacher is seen as the “producer” of information, s/he can present an overview of the topic and provide depth with new examples. Clearly, such a format requires a more passive role on behalf of the student. However, certain topics might be more amenable to such a format and work well in combination with other techniques that require more active engagement with the material, such as group discussions or think-pair share activities. Perhaps the most ethical thing instructors can do is to build awareness of the strengths and limitations of the instructional methods we use.

Overall, what seems clear is that the instructional method (or combination of formats) that we choose to implement in the classroom will have an impact on the kind of relationship we establish with our students. Ultimately, it will also influence the level of engagement of the students with the material. Choosing an instructional method then requires the instructor to consider at least three main aspects: 1) the learning objectives, to make sure the method is appropriate, 2) the nature of the materials and 3) how we want students to interact with this information. It might be that one instructional method is not enough to meet our needs and we need to combine different formats to make sure students engage with the materials at different levels and practice skills that meet our learning objectives.



1. Bajak, A. (12th May, 2014). Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds. Science. Retrieved from:

2. Barre, B. (23rd October, 2015). What is he point of a teacher? Blog: Principled Pedagogy. Retrieved from

3. Freeman, S., Edith, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., Wenderoth (2014), M. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS 111(23), 8410–8415.

4. Worthen, M. (17th October, 2015). Lecture me. Really. New York Times, Sunday Review. Retrieved from

Categorizing Learners: Bad Uses for Good Tools

by Kyle Skinner

Over the last couple of years, while becoming more invested in developing myself as a teacher, I’ve been asked to take the VARK inventory three or four times. VARK was presented to me as a learning style inventory, or a sort of personality quiz that tells you what kind of “learner” you are—visual, auditory, read/write, and/or kinesthetic. If you haven’t taken the VARK inventory before, you can take it for free here. Whether you’ve taken it or not, you’ve probably taken something like it before. Quizzes or inventories of learning styles like VARK, Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, or the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire are easy to find and seemingly ubiquitous. While they follow slightly different models from one another, they are all built to sort students into categories of learners. One study included a list of more than seventy available learning style models, and another even cites statements on an old version of our very own Yale Graduate Teaching Center website to demonstrate the extent to which the idea of learning styles has become popular in the world of pedagogy.

When asked to take these inventories in the context of teaching workshops, facilitators often justify their use of the quiz with vague allusions to the “matching hypothesis,” or the notion that learning outcomes can be improved by matching your presentation of course material to the style of learning that individual students prefer.

I have always been suspicious of VARK and learning inventories like it, but the last time I was asked to take it I got stuck on one particular question:

You are helping someone who wants to go to your airport, the center of town or railway station. You would:

-write down the directions.
-draw, or show her a map, or give her a map.
-go with her.
-tell her the directions.

One of the things I like about the VARK inventory is that you can select multiple answers to any question. But this question in particular (and a few other similar questions) makes me want to explain myself. Depending on whether the recipient of my directions is a beloved friend or a stranger, I might have different feelings about walking her to the airport. I might decide to write down directions instead of drawing a map if the directions would be simple and my piece of paper was small. Most importantly, I might give directions in different ways based on the navigational prowess of the recipient (my sister has such good directional memory that I could give her verbal directions once, but I would rather just put my mother in an Uber to save us both the inevitable frustration). The way I would answer this question would be dependent on context, not on my own personal learning preferences.

Even if the questionnaire did accurately diagnose my learning preference, I find myself skeptical that such diagnoses for my students would be particularly helpful to me as a teacher. When asked what their favorite days of class were over the course of a semester, I would be disappointed but not surprised were some of my more honest students to rank the lessons featuring active learning and hard work below the one day I screened a film. And I wouldn’t blame them—everyone needs an easy day every once in a while, but if curriculum were driven simply by what our students prefer to do, I think we’d see very little learning while YouTube would see a moderate increase in ad revenue.

My intuition seemed to pan out as I looked for evidence-based considerations of the usefulness of the matching hypothesis. A meta-analysis of relevant research revealed no reason to believe that the matching hypothesis is real. I far prefer to learn by reading silently to myself—but that’s because I’m impatient as a listener (as many close friends and former girlfriends would agree) and find that diagrams make me work too hard. But I could probably learn a lot more by becoming a better listener and analyzing diagrams. In fact, when I “match” my learning style, my intuition is that I get less out of it because I end up putting less effort into the learning.

I was feeling pretty misled about the VARK inventory and the like until I found this punnily named article, co-authored by a higher-ed consultant and Neil Fleming, the designer of the VARK questionnaire. I was surprised and delighted to find out that the questionnaire was never designed to be diagnostic, but rather was intended to be the starting point of useful conversations about meta-cognition that might help students themselves become better learners by thinking more about circumstances that aid or stifle learning:

“I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants. It is a beginning of a dialogue, not a measure of personality. It should be used strictly for learning, not for recreation or leisure. Some also confuse preferences with ability or strengths. You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it or any point between. VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.”

Using VARK as a diagnostic tool to determine what “kind of learners” our students are is a missed opportunity. Used to determine how we can match our teaching to our students’ learning styles, VARK encourages a one-sided teacher-centric classroom. For example, after finding out which learning modalities my students prefer, I can change my curriculum to match their preferences. Teachers should, of course, tailor their curricula to make sure they are meeting learners half-way, but providing information only in a student’s preferred learning modality means the student won’t get practice in learning in other styles. Instead of using VARK to dictate how we should teach or to inform our students that they should focus on particular methods of learning, the inventory could be used as the first step in a series of conversations with students about metacognition, ultimately helping them to develop their own notions of how to learn most effectively in the classroom or while studying on their own time.

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with the VARK inventory. Or any of the learning styles inventories you might find—but even the best tools are only useful when used well.


  1. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
  2. Fleming, Neil, and David Baume. “Learning Styles Again: VARKing up the Right Tree!” Educational Developments 7.4 (2006): 4-7. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <>.
  3. Fleming, Neil. “Introduction to VARK.” VARK. VARK Learn Limited, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <>.
  4. Fleming, Neil. “The VARK Questionnaire.” VARK. VARK Learn Limited, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. <>.
  5. Pashler, Harold, Mark Mcdaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9.3 (2009): 105-19. Web. 19 Jan. 2016. <>.