From where I sit - Adventures in like-minded learning

July 21, 2011

Many of us are able to choose our partner, our friends and, sometimes, our colleagues. That is not often the case with our students, who do not have the same freedom to choose their classmates or teachers.

Students are, and often remain, anonymous. Whether or not students' personalities match with one another or with their teachers is often a neglected issue.

One day, we may be able to offer any student at any level of higher education the opportunity to choose not only between various subjects or majors, but also the type of pedagogy and even the teacher who best suits him or her. For now, this is only a vision for the future.

But even if students are stuck with their teachers and vice versa, as they are in today's educational system, personality can and should be taken into account as a learning opportunity.

At the University of Nottingham Ningbo in China, I diagnose the personalities of the students in my classes in organisational behaviour. I do this after half a semester by getting them to fill in a questionnaire based on the personality typology developed by the psychologist Carl Jung.

On this basis, students are divided into homogeneous groups, which work together for the remainder of the semester. Separating the class into these groups allows the students to discover more about themselves and their personalities by working with people similar to them.

They become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their own personality type and those of different types. The students discover the experience of working with peers who have similar personalities; these can then be compared with their experiences from the first half of the semester, when they worked in randomly selected groups, most of which were heterogeneous.

In my experience, students feel very comfortable working within homogeneous groups. They observe differences between groups, notice variations in personalities and generally agree that personality typologies are a helpful instrument by which to understand themselves and others. In addition, and as should always be the case within higher education, the students reflect upon and critically examine theories on personality and group constellation.

I have also noticed that students whose personalities are similar to my own have a better understanding and appreciation of my methods. There is even reason to suspect that they achieve higher marks.

I am not completely convinced that individual students should always be given the opportunity to choose their teachers. I am equally unsure whether it would be ideal for all students to have only teachers with whom they are matched in personality terms. It is quite possible that students would learn more from being exposed to teachers with various personality types. Clearly, there is much scope for future research in this area.

One thing, however, is evident to me: we, as teachers in higher education, must never stop reflecting on ourselves and what we do. We should be as critical about ourselves as we expect our students to be in their thinking. And if you disagree, well, that's not because I am wrong, but because you have a different personality type ...

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