Three Teaching Styles

The most effective teachers vary their styles depending on the nature of the subject matter, the phase of the course, and other factors. By so doing, they encourage and inspire students to do their best at all times throughout the semester.

It is helpful to think of teaching styles according to the three Ds: Directing, Discussing, and Delegating.

Teaching Styles

The directing style promotes learning through listening and following directions. With this style, the teacher tells the students what to do, how to do it, and when it needs to be done. The teacher imparts information to the students via lectures, assigned readings, audio/visual presentations, demonstrations, role playing, and other means. Students gain information primarily by listening, taking notes, doing role plays, and practicing what they are told to do. The only feedback the teacher looks for is “Do you understand the instructions?”

Suggestions for using the directing style:

  • Start with the big picture. Provide the context before launching into specifics.
  • Be clear and concise. Students need to know exactly what they must do to succeed and by what criteria their work will be evaluated. Clear goals, specific deadlines, and concise directions increase student motivation and eliminate confusion. Wordy, sloppily written, and poorly organized instructional materials confuse, overwhelm, and discourage students.
  • Provide sufficient detail. Communication breakdowns occur when important details are omitted or instructions are ambiguous. For example, when I once neglected to specify the font size students should use, the papers they turned in had font sizes ranging from 8 to 14!
  • Don’t sugar-coat the message. There are times when teachers need to be very direct and candid to get through to students.

The discussing style promotes learning through interaction. In this style, practiced by Socrates, the teacher encourages critical thinking and lively discussion by asking students to respond to challenging questions. The teacher is a facilitator guiding the discussion to a logical conclusion. Students learn to have opinions and to back them up with facts and data.

Suggestions for using the discussing style:

  • Prepare questions in advance. Great discussions don’t just happen. Ask one question at a time. Be open, curious, and interested in learning what each student thinks.
  • Don’t allow one or two students to dominate the discussion. Solicit everyone’s ideas and opinions. Gently draw out students who seem insecure and reticent to participate. I sometimes start my classes by saying, “I want to give each of you one minute to discuss your views on this topic. Let’s go around the room and hear from everyone.” Get closure by reviewing the key points you want to make.
  • Have students create questions. I like to have my students read a case study and formulate three questions to ask their classmates. We then discuss their answers in class.
  • Utilize clickers. Clickers are an easy way to get students involved during class. Pose a multiple-choice question and their responses are tabulated on the screen. You can then open it up for discussion as students share why they selected a certain answer.

The delegating style promotes learning through empowerment. With this style, the teacher assigns tasks that students work on independently, either individually or in groups.

Suggestions for using the delegating style:

  • Assign research projects. In my management course I require students to interview a manager of a local business to get answers to questions like the following:
    • What are the main performance measures your company uses to evaluate each employee’s performance?
    • What are the key lessons you, as a manager, have learned about conducting effective performance appraisals?

  • Assign team projects. Have each team select a team leader, define roles and responsibilities, and hold each other accountable for completing the project on time. In my management class, I have teams of students analyze the management and leadership behaviors on movies like Remember the Titans and Crimson Tide.
  • Assign a capstone project. Let students show you what they can do when working independently on a topic that’s important to them.

Use an appropriate mix of each teaching style. I typically structure each of my classes to include some amount of each teaching style. However, during the first part of a semester I use more of the directing style. In the middle part of a semester I typically rely more on the discussing style. And in the latter part of a semester I generally lean more heavily on the delegating style.

Using an appropriate mix of teaching styles helps students learn, grow, and become more independent. Too much reliance on one style causes students to lose interest and become overly dependent on the teacher.

There is no one best teaching style. Effective teachers use a variety of styles, and they know how and when to choose the most appropriate one for the specific situation. In essence, the three teaching styles boil down to this:

  • Direct — Tell students what to do
  • Discuss — Ask questions and listen
  • Delegate — Empower students

Paul B. Thornton is speaker, trainer, and professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA. He teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. He is the author of Leadership—Off the Wall and twelve other books on management and leadership. He may be contacted at