To Teach or not to Teach – A Dilemma

Is it possible for my students to do the messy work of learning for themselves? Can they construct knowledge when they do not know the theories and formulae? Isn't it a waste of time for them to pursue answers in places where they won't be found? Sound familiar! They are the standard objections from lecturers who are requested to practise student-centred teaching which rests on the socio-constructivist theory. The approaches to learning are quite distinct between the soft and hard disciplines. The former tends to be free-ranging, with knowledge building being a formative process where teaching and learning activities tend to be constructive and reiterative. On the other hand, the hard discipline emphasises on teacher informing the students about teaching and learning activities which are more focused and instructive. According to Biglan (1973) and Becher (1994), academic disciplines are conceptualised into “hard” and “soft” paradigm as well as “pure” and “applied”. That is, disciplines with dominant paradigm are indicated as “hard” and those with the competing paradigm as “soft”. It is further categorised as “pure” or “applied” on whether the disciplines have an interest in the application. In my study, where a total of 12 lecturers and 408 students from three institutions were involved, the results indicate that there is a significant difference in the learning outcomes between the hard-applied and soft-pure disciplines. The fantastic turnout is, it is only significant for the conscientiousness personality, and it is not significant for all personality traits. One possible explanation is conscientiousness students are more organised, achievement-oriented and persevering; they want to have more say in the learning process rather than being dictated by the lecturer. They prefer teaching methods which emphasise on transferable skills, reflective practice and lifelong learning. Consequently, when a lecturer from the Financial Reporting and Audit course (hard-applied), due to her students’ performances were not up to her expectation and they needed more guidance from her, she changed her teaching method from student-centred to be more instructive in the second half of a semester. The change in the method of instruction to a direct instruction from the content experts may not be favourable to the conscientiousness students. 

If the hard-applied lecturers had not altered the teaching approach to be more instructive, the results might have been different. The hard-applied lecturers are adamant in claiming that their students need to be taught the theories and formulae so that they know how to apply them in the assignments. No doubt, theories and methods may be necessary, but students can acquire them while working on the assignments, either indirectly through readings and group discussion or directly from the lecturer at the time when it is required (on-demand knowledge). The hard-applied lecturers need to give more latitude to their students, especially the conscientiousness students, to take control of their studies, to decide and lead and to be responsible for their actions. The lecturers must learn to trust their students' abilities and do not jump to the conclusion that students cannot think. As students are more motivated to learn if they have some choice and control (Pintrich 2003). 

Another interesting observation from this study is that the learning environment may have a positive influence on the student personality, notably, the student of neuroticism trait as demonstrated by the selection of group members using the Belbin Test. The neuroticism students tend to be self-conscious, shy away from group discussion, and student-centred approach may be a problem with them as they prefer highly structured learning environment. By placing the students according to the "team roles" derived from the Belbin Test, each member of the group can capitalise on each other strengths and manage any weaknesses so as to improve his or her contributions to the team. Hence, a shy student may have a team role more suitable to his or her personality. In this way, students may be able to participate more positively in the group work, and when the contributions are accepted by the peers, it gives them a sense of worthiness and may have encouraged them to open up and socialise with the other group members. Students who are shy may not seek actively for opportunities to show off their abilities. However, given a chance via the learning environment to prove themselves, it may help them to improve their critical thinking skills, analytic ability and conceptual understanding. Lecturers can assist by placing them in a group of maximum three members, avoid teaming them extraversion (talkative) and conscientiousness (achievement-oriented) students. They are better off with agreeableness (forgiving and tolerant) and openness (broad-minded and open to culture and different experiences) students. 

In the online learning environments, either the individual or group-based activities are suitable for students of neuroticism trait. They tend to be more at ease and participate more actively when compared with face-to-face environments; simply because the online environment is not so intimating, and there is room for errors or wrong ‘answers’. The Malaysian students still emphasise heavily on right or wrong answer, and they are intolerable to lecturers telling them the response could be this under such a context and otherwise in another situation. In the online environment, where their peers share many different views or opinions on a given scenario or problem, may have influenced them indirectly to accept multiple responses instead of focusing on the right or wrong answer. 

Using the findings of this study, the author concludes that the instructional approach employed by the lecturers teaching the hard-applied discipline may need serious reconsiderations. In the modern world where information is easily available on the Internet, the teaching approach should focus more on acquiring knowledge through the learning strategies and not on direct delivering of content like in the teacher-centred approach. According to Garrison (2016), the traditional educational system focused on acquiring disciplinary information while the current focus is increasingly on the process of thinking and learning in a connected world. There is an urgent need for students to attain the learning skills so that they can regularly advance their knowledge, even after graduation, to stay employable. 


  • Becher, T. (1994). The significance of disciplinary differences. Studies in Higher Education, 19(2), 151-161. 
  • Biglan, A. (1973). The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas. Journal of Applied Psychology, 57(3), 195-203. 
  • Garrison, D.R. (2016). Thinking collaboratively – Learning in a community of inquiry. New York, NY: Routledge. 
  • Pintrich, P.R. 2003. A motivational perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology 95(4): 667-686.

By Dr Chan Chang Tik, Senior Lecturer and Programme Coordinator in GCHE