Connect for Success: Matching Teaching and Learning Styles

Celeste Fenton, Brenda Ward Watkins
Innovation Showcase

Educational institutions feel the imperative to improve retention and graduation rates, and political and corporate interests have amplified the focus on institutional success. The general consensus among policy-makers holds that an indicator of institutional effectiveness is student learning (Erisman, 2009). Fifty-five percent of the nation's 25- to 35-year olds will be degree holders by the year 2025. It is an ambitious challenge and a necessary aspiration to elevate America's status as a world leader in educational attainment among its citizenry. And it is a compelling goal as the global economy exerts enormous pressure on the U.S. to produce an educated workforce. Following the release of the College Board's College Completion Agenda 2010 Progress Report, interest and support from President Obama's administration, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the National Governors Association, states, school districts, and institutions of higher education from across the nation have intensified for finding ways to increase educational completion rates.

An assumed manifestation of student learning is graduation rates. The elevation of student learning as a measure of accountability and indicator of institutional excellence has tested historical perceptions of the characteristics and functions of the student and faculty role. Instructors and institutions are encouraged to adopt policies and practices that are student centered. At the classroom level, researchers are intrigued by the relationship between student learning preferences and teaching styles. There has been much investigation of this dynamic. The examination of varying teaching, learning, and assessment strategies has presented educators with a diverse collection of options for instructional delivery. However, the reality is that most students' learning style needs are totally different from the instructors' teaching style, and that is where the trouble begins. This conundrum begs the question: How much more successful would students be if they could match their learning needs with instructor strengths?

A Positive Approach

Incompatibility between learning preferences/styles and teaching preferences/styles is likely to result in student boredom, discouragement, poor test performance, low motivation, shattered self-esteem, and decisions to quit the course or program (Oxford et al., 1991). The disconnect between learning styles and teaching styles occurs across all disciplines, resulting in problems of low retention and graduation rates in U.S. schools. We propose developing a positive approach for matching student-teaching styles across all subject areas, which can have a powerful impact on learner/instructor satisfaction, potentially raising completion and graduation rates. 

There is little debate in the U.S. that teaching and learning practices are in dire need of change. The concepts of learning preferences and teaching preferences include information processing, instructional method, interaction, and achievement. The concept of matching learning preferences and teaching preferences can help students respond more positively to instructional methods, and inform faculty about effective teaching practices. Aligning learning style and teaching style encourages better collaboration between faculty and student and reduces classroom management issues, allowing more time for facilitation of learning by faculty and time on task by students.    

Identifying Challenges

One of the difficulties institutions encounter in meeting learners' needs is the appropriate linking of student learning preferences with faculty instructional philosophies. Congruence between learner preferences and teaching preferences is an essential key. In every classroom, no matter the subject and no matter the delivery format (traditional or online), students will have diverse learning styles. Kumaravadivelu (1991, 1998) maintains that alignment of learner and teacher preferences facilitates a greater chance of achieving desired learning outcomes. Several researchers (Miller, 2001; Sitt-Gohdes, 2003, Brown, 2003, Hayes & Allinson, 1997; Kumaravadivelu, 1998; Van Lier, 1996; Breen,1998; Kolb, 1981) believe that the alliance of learning and teaching styles plays an important role in empowering students to maximize their educational experience, to persist, and to complete. 
In a recent study, Paschler et al. (2009) stated there is little evidence that teachers should change their teaching style to match students' learning styles. Yet, best practices, fueled by anecdotal evidence, empirical research, and student/teacher reports, are clear that consideration of learning styles is important for students' success. It is questionable that students would react favorably to a professor facilitating a teaching strategy with which he/she felt awkward. Traditional systems of course registration do not assist the matching of student learning preferences with teaching styles. Kolb (1981) maintained that all individuals are oriented to a preferred method of learning, and that confronted with accomplishing a best fit of teaching/learning styles, college students should, at the very least, choose a major compatible with their learning style. Another important consideration is that many faculty may not be comfortable with changing their teaching philosophy and/or adopting certain teaching methods for the purposes of responding to student learning styles. Zeeb (2004) states that the fact for instructors is this: the way you learn is the way you teach because we believe that what makes sense in our own brain must make sense to everyone else. Consequently, even when armed with knowledge of students' learning styles, faculty, although willing, are often not prepared to alter teaching styles and frequently fall back on that which is familiar and comfortable.

The fact that learners are not always aware of their learning preferences, or how to maximize their learning based on these preferences, presents another challenge. Learning how to facilitate their own learning in a postsecondary environment is an important skill for students to acquire. A necessary step in this process is self-awareness, whereby students have opportunities to recognize and make the most of their learning preferences. While there are many academic and non-academic factors that impact students' abilities to persist and complete their academic goals, research indicates that of the non-academic factors, academic self-confidence and achievement appear to have the strongest relationship to retention and completion (Lee & Rawls, 2010).

Using Technology to Match Learning and Teaching Styles

The power of web technology allows students and parents to harness information and manage educational needs. Students and parents use the Internet to research and make choices concerning degree programs, institutional profiles, scholarships, and financial aid. However, the promise of the Internet and data management has not yet been employed to match a student's learning preferences with an instructor's teaching style. An example of one such attempt is the popular website. Millions of students offer their opinions about instructors and classes on the site, but the information is unreliable. Disgruntled students may provide a less than accurate account of faculty and courses. Due to the informal nature of the site, interaction and information is restricted to student self-reports, and students must spend time searching for information may--or may not--have been posted about a particular professor.
The good news is that technology has the capacity to match learning preferences with teaching preferences, to enable students to learn about potential faculty, and to allow faculty to provide pertinent information about their teaching philosophies and styles. Information about faculty teaching philosophy helps students make choices that are more likely to enhance their capacity for learning, increase their academic confidence and motivation, and move them toward their goal of graduation.

Connect for Success

We are currently researching the development of a system to address the problems of (a) matching teacher/learner styles to empower more effective learning, (b) increasing student success and course completion across all disciplines and subjects, and (c) improving retention and graduation rates. This tool, Connect for Success, would link learners to instructors by connecting instructors' instructional philosophies to learners' instructional preferences. 

The intended outcomes for Connect for Success are:

  1. Create a secure online environment whereby faculty can identify teaching styles and philosophies for each course taught;
  2. Create a secure online environment whereby learners identify preferred modes of learning, problem-solving, and decision making;
  3. Create a valid and reliable system of coding profiles to create teaching style and student learning style matches;
  4. Generate a report for students that lists the best-matched instructors as they relate to the students' desired courses and the instructors' courses for the current term;  
  5. Generate a report for students on their learning preferences, to include suggestions for maximizing their strengths and managing other learning modalities; 
  6. Provide an opportunity for students to access the system at the end of the term to provide information on the instructors/courses they have just completed; 
  7. Provide feedback to the instructors as well as to new students who are planning a future registration for the specified courses; 
  8. Integrate the data system with an institution's academic records management and student recruitment software, and construct the system to also be a stand-alone data records management tool option.

The primary components of Connect for Success are depicted in Figure 1. The sequential process of Connect for Success is illustrated in Figure 2. The feedback loop is identified in figure 3.

Figure 1:  Components of Connect for Success Report Generator

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Figure 2:  Connect for Success Process Steps
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Figure 3:  Connect for Success Follow-up and Feedback

Innovative Value

Matching teaching and learning styles helps students and faculty interact in positive ways that help sustain enthusiasm and interest across disciplines. Instructors respond to a series of profile questions designed to identify the instructor's teaching style and philosophy; students respond to a series of profile questions that identify the student's learning style and preferences. Using pre-programmed statistical analysis, the Connect for Success system matches the individual student's preferred modes of learning with the instructor's teaching style and philosophy. The Connect for Success report to each student identifies that student's specific learning preferences and makes suggestions for exploiting strengths and managing other learning modalities overall as well as in specific courses. With this information, students are better informed to make decisions that will help them succeed and complete their academic programs.

What Do You Think? 

A link to a prototype of the system and a survey to assess institutional interest are available at We encourage your examination of Connect for Success and your participation in the survey as we assess the interest and value of this educational tool.


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