Teaching styles

May 09, 2024 •

10 min reading

What is my teaching style? Ways to improve as a teacher


Where to begin when evaluating the effectiveness of a course and its teacher? What criteria to follow if a teacher wants to improve their delivery style and program objectives? In this article, Dr. Sebastien Fernandez, EHL Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, looks at how the art of teaching can be enhanced by understanding one’s teaching ‘signature’, i.e., a teaching style or personality that can be broken down into measurable compartments so that both teachers and students are better equipped for evaluations upon which improvement and progress depends.

Analyzing one's teaching style

I vividly remember my first teaching experience. I was going into the classroom with a lack of confidence and paralyzing thoughts such as "I am just slightly older than they are," "I will never have enough time to prepare a good lecture," etc. My first three months at EHL were tough, I wasn’t sure if I would make it.

I was hired in July and had to teach two different programs in September. Each course comprised 40 hours of class which meant preparing eight hours of content per week. The pace was intense, and very often, the class content was planned only a few hours beforehand. I thought I would not survive more than a few weeks, but much later I learned that this stage is inevitable for most lecturers. It is called ‘the survival semester’, and fortunately, 13 years later, I am still here at EHL, still teaching and loving the exchange with students.

Teaching is more challenging than it seems to some outsiders. On one hand, teachers would like to transmit as much knowledge as possible to students. On the other hand, students do not necessarily want to invest as much time as their teachers would like. Teachers must then find the right compromise between developing students' competencies and maintaining students' motivation during their courses.

Lecturing becomes as much an art as a science; teachers must find the right balance between several disciplines: engaging others, responding to questions and concerns, and preparing well-crafted material and exercises.


The concept of a teaching style

Greg Fisher recently proposed the concept of teaching signature from Kelley School of Business to promote self-reflection and self-development for faculty members. This model recognizes eight dimensions:

  1. Preparation, organization, and communication;
  2. Practicality;
  3. Rigor;
  4. Entertainment;
  5. Empathy;
  6. Experiential engagement;
  7. Enthusiasm;
  8. Novelty and surprise.

These dimensions have been generated by a content analysis of student comments collected over 10 years by the author. According to Fisher, each teacher has his/her own strength and it is possible to analyze one's effectiveness in all these dimensions. If the dimension is judged too low, it will negatively impact student evaluations of the teaching. If judged too good, it may also negatively impact student evaluations of teaching - since anything which is present in excess can have a detrimental effect.

For example, too much enthusiasm might appear as inauthentic and could exhaust the students. Similarly, too much organization and structure could seem boring and overly rigid. It is better overall for a teacher to reach a minimum threshold of effectiveness in all dimensions without exceeding levels that could be referred to as excessive.

After reviewing hundreds (if not thousands of student comments) over the last decade and reflecting on my teaching approach, I want to share what I have discovered about my teaching signature, hoping it will motivate others to undertake the same project.


Understanding the teaching dimensions: Insights from my analysis

The program I am teaching is called "Human Behavior and Performance" and is delivered in the first year of the EHL bachelor degree. My aim is to familiarize students with the fields of management, applied psychology and organizational behavior. The mission of the course is for students to master the essential theories and factors that influence people's performance in work contexts. Students learn, for instance, how to memorize information, how to set appropriate goals, how to make effective decisions, how to motivate themselves and others, and how to assess others.

Based on the model of the teaching signature, I recently analyzed my teaching, and these are my conclusions.


How the teaching dimensions impact me as a teacher

1. Preparation, organization and communication

Students need to see the global picture and be offered adequate learning material. My tips and tricks to ensure that students are not lost in the course are to provide learning outcomes, i.e., start each lesson with a graph that depicts where we stand in the overall structure of the course and communicate through weekly emails on what comes next.

Some students mention that the slides do not contain enough information, but this is ‘my style’; I do not like to overcharge slides. Students need to take notes in class to be fully prepared for the examinations. Over time, I gave more and more information to students, e.g., a glossary of the main concepts.

Last year, I started to generate topic summaries with the help of AI. These summaries constitute a double-edged sword because they help students prepare for the evaluation but can also lower the effort and preparation needed to fully understand the course. Indeed, a lot of research has shown that self-generated information is better remembered than other-provided information. For these reasons, my effectiveness in this dimension is satisfactory.

2. Practicality

Students want to learn information that will be useful for them. It is probably the teaching dimension where I score the lowest. This can be due to the subject and the need for more professional experience of the students. The course serves the following purposes:

  • Learning more quickly
  • Being more focused
  • Being capable of recognizing other personalities
  • Making better decisions
  • Motivating oneself and others

Despite the apparent applications of this course, they are so broad that they can appear paradoxically limited. We discuss goal-setting theory across contexts, and I ask students to identify a goal for themselves, but the goal can be academic, in sports or at work. As most students have limited professional experience, they might need help to relate to all the concepts discussed in class.

For instance, we have one lesson on perception and discuss perception biases. However, most of the students never had to conduct a job interview or a performance assessment. Despite the numerous activities done in this class, I can understand that this course might lack the ‘practical flavor’ expected by some of them.

Considering the contrasting fact that 1-2 students mention that my course is among the most useful each semester, while 1-2 students mention the opposite, I rate my performance in this domain between unsatisfactory and satisfactory.

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3. Rigor

Each course needs to be optimally challenging. Concerning the course I teach, it is satisfactory in this area. It is not perceived as challenging as other more quantitative courses, but some students do perceive it as difficult. Many of them believe it will be easy at the start of the semester because they believe human behavior is rather intuitive.

However, the exam is a closed book and requires the retention of a large amount of information. Some students find it difficult to retain so many pieces of information and so many theories and need help understanding why the exam is in a closed-book format. I explained in class that open-book exams would not permit the assessment of the skills students need to possess at the end of the course. As future leaders, students need to be mindful of what happens in their surroundings. They have to recognize when goals are not set appropriately in a meeting or they have to identify why their team is not functioning properly.

In the future, they cannot interrupt their interlocutors and say, "Please give me time to check my notes!” Very often, they will have to make decisions on the spot. For this, they have to recognize behavioral patterns and respond accordingly.

4. Entertainment

The topics of the course apply very well to make the lessons entertaining. For instance, I start with a fun anecdote or video in most classes. When we discuss time management and procrastination, I present the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment. When discussing personality, I show a video describing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test and its shortcomings. Most of the time, I use short, engaging and lively videos. Of course, it is not possible to only teach fun facts, but I try to make sure to make some portions of each lesson are interactive and fun to maintain students' interest.

5. Empathy

Students appreciate when their teacher knows them and creates a bond with them. It is unlikely to occur if the teacher does not interact with students. I would not rate myself very high in this dimension because I am more introverted than extroverted. Also, I still refer to my teaching style as interactive lecturing; there is not much teamwork, and my subject matter is not as complex as more quantitative subjects. It means that students only solicit my input occasionally outside of class hours.

However, in the first lesson, I ask students to introduce themselves and I manage to remember most of their names after a few lessons. I also invite them to ask questions and to participate. For instance, I like to discuss the topic of interviews by asking some students in the class to respond to the famous question, "Please give me three of your weaknesses." All in all, we have many fruitful discussions in the classroom, but not so much outside of class time.

6. Enthusiasm

In this dimension, I perceive myself in the high end. Students very often remark in their teaching evaluations that I am "passionate" and "enthusiastic." How do I exude this enthusiasm? The rhythm of the class helps a lot. Long moments of lecturing can be exhausting for both students and teachers. When one has to provide lengthy explanations, it is challenging to exude energy or enthusiasm.

So I vary the pace of the course as much as possible to keep my energy at its maximum. I show a video, ask a provocative question or tell a personal story to better illustrate a concept. For instance, when I present Perception Biases to students, I provide anecdotes on how I recently suffered from the fundamental attribution error or the similar-to-me effect.

I also allow many questions from students, which makes me meta-communicate on their questions. When I’m not sure how to answer a question, I tell the student, "You know, this is a brilliant question, let me think about it…. hmmm… in fact, I think science has not yet provided an answer, so I can give you my intuitive answer but take it as it is". I feel that the authenticity of my answers also gives life to the course.

7. Experiential engagement

Students learn better when they are actively involved (i.e., learning by doing). Therefore, teachers must lecture and involve students in activities that can demonstrate their competencies. I involve students in many experiential activities across the semester: each week, they have to write a short self-reflection, and students are asked to fill in personality questionnaires and reflect on their personality. Part of their final grade depends on this analysis. Students are not graded on their personality, but on their understanding of their results. Despite many experiential activities, a few students still lament the large amount of information they must absorb throughout the semester. It shows that I have room for improvement in this area.

8. Novelty and surprise

Students need to learn about the most recent discoveries, be updated on new trends and be capable of challenging their assumptions. The danger of teaching Organizational Behavior is that students already know quite a lot about this field intuitively. They know that money motivates people to a certain extent (of course, it is a bit more complicated than that) and that diversity of minds can help a team generate ideas.

Therefore, I spend time in class on what may seem counterintuitive. For instance, we discuss that money can demotivate employees or that trying to do as well as possible in a task can lead to lower results. It is also essential for me to transmit scientific, robust and unchallenged knowledge. To accomplish this goal, I base a lot of the content on meta-analyses. Some of these studies were published in the 90s or at the start of the century, so some students wonder if the findings are still relevant today. This is, of course, a legitimate question.

Despite my confidence and my asserting that no other study has proved the opposite, not all students are convinced of this. My will to share best, proven practices might go in the opposite direction of the novelty and surprise dimension. I want to keep fads away from students as fads might not be proven. I must recognize that my teaching can be perceived in some aspects as lacking novelty because I rely on well-established findings instead of the latest trends. All in all, my performance in this domain is satisfactory.


Additional considerations about the teaching signature

Here are the elements that stand out from the teaching signature approach. First, it considers good teaching as multidimensional, where each teacher has their areas of excellence and expertise. One consequence is that we should not strive to excel in all dimensions. However, we should reach a minimum level in most, if not all, dimensions of teaching.

Second, this model implies, on the one hand, that there is no linear relationship between the dimensions of teaching and overall teaching effectiveness and, on the other hand, that there is an interdependence across dimensions. This model recognizes that it is possible to be too good in one dimension and can have negative consequences on other dimensions of teaching effectiveness and overall teaching effectiveness. For instance, a too structured and organized course could hurt other dimensions, such as enthusiasm and empathy. However, if a teacher puts too much emphasis on experiential learning, it could lower the course's perceived rigor, organization and practicality. It means that effective teaching also requires the right balance between all dimensions.

Third, I like that the teacher builds the teaching signature. They are the person who defines the domains in which they score low, slightly below or above the baseline threshold, high or too high. In that regard, it can be an alternative or a complement to traditional portfolio systems and student teaching evaluations. As the teaching signature does not require any precise criteria to be fulfilled, teachers have the autonomy to reflect on themselves. Of course, this self-reflection cannot occur in a vacuum. There should be some correspondence between external benchmarks and the teaching signature.

I cannot rate myself as an excellent teacher in most dimensions if the student evaluations of teaching point in the opposite direction. Similarly, I cannot affirm that I am good in enthusiasm if most students comment that the course is boring.

For all these reasons, I highly recommend that teachers reflect on their teaching signature. I also recommend for business schools and universities to implement faculty development systems where reflection around the teaching signature is developed.

This tool, in conjunction with other metrics, provides the following benefits. First, it encourages faculty members to reflect on their teaching and improve it. Second, it empowers them to use constructive student evaluations of teaching. It is widely known that student evaluations of teaching suffer from certain flaws. By implementing a portfolio evaluation in which faculty members have to submit their teaching signature with supporting documentation (if necessary), deans and program managers might initiate more fruitful conversations with faculty where the focus is not so much on proving that they are doing a good job but about identifying areas in which they could improve their teaching, and hence identify the resources needed to do so.



Written by

Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at EHL

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