Personality and learning – an examination

Dr Kate Martin's Research:

Personality and learning – an examination of the relationship between personality domains and learning approaches.

A recent review of a small amount of literature in the area of learning approaches has revealed that there is capacity for further research in the area of the link between personality traits and learning approaches. This research project is a small scale undertaking designed to discover whether there are links between deep and surface learning approaches and individuals high and low in neuroticism or high and low in openness to experience. Following is a brief overview of the current literature relevant to the learning approaches and the personality traits, with the development of hypotheses for testing in conclusion.

Personality and learning – an examination

Burton et al (2012) describe the five factor model of superordinate personality traits as the most widely accepted model to examine personality structure. The five factor model includes neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness, and although some authors (McCann and Roberts) identify that advances in personality theory lend themselves to the expansion of the five factor model to capture differences between people, the use of this model is sufficient for the purposes of this research. In fact, given the limited reach of this research project, it is proposed that only the two ends of the five factor model be incorporated, namely neuroticism and openness to experience.

Neuroticism is commonly used to define a ‘continuum from emotional stability to instability’ (Burton et al, 2012, p.442). Facets of this factor include anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsivity and vulnerability (Burton et al, 2012, p.443). Commonly, people demonstrating neuroticism report feelings of anxiety and often have low self-esteem (Burton et al, 2012, p.442), with a tendency to experience negative emotions (Burton et al, 2012, p.589). This state also renders them more vulnerable to stress (Burton et al, 2012, p.589).

In comparison, openness to experience as a personality trait is at the other end of the five factor model spectrum and includes facets such as an active fantasy life, artistic interests, emotional openness, flexibility in actions, intellectual ideas and unconventional values (Burton et al, 2012 p.443). Those individuals displaying the lower order traits of openness to experience are less vulnerable to stress and anxiety when compared to those in neuroticism.

The learning approaches to be examined in this research include deep learning and surface learning, with one of the aims of the research being to discover or confirm the relationship between personality differences and learning approaches. A deep learning approach is defined as a conceptual learning experience where a student not only knows the facts of the subject being studied but also the underlying concepts and theories. This is most commonly seen in study of the social sciences and humanities (Biggs & Tang, 2007; Baeten et al, 2010; Busato et al, 1999). A surface learning approach is commonly associated with ROTE learning and is a learning experience where a student learns the facts of the subject in response to the demands of assessment, but shows reduced ongoing depth of knowledge about the subject matter (Marton & Saljo, 1997; Biggs & Tang, 2007; Baeten et al, 2010; Busato et al, 1999). This is commonly seen in the study of sciences (Biggs & Tang, 2007; Baeten et al, 2010). The literature does contribute the difference between the learning approaches in the different disciplines as the assessment style and demands on the students, and this seems to be a valid summation (Biggs & Tang, 2007; Baeten et al, 2010; Busato et al, 1999; Marton & Saljo, 1997)

Biggs and Tang (2007) present a useful discussion of the deep learning and surface learning approaches and create a direct correlation between these learning approaches and the student/teacher contribution to the outcomes. They rely primarily upon three levels of learning, being who the student is, the teacher contribution, and the student contribution (Biggs & Tang, 2007, pp17-19), and fail to consider personality traits as contributing factors. Advancing upon this, Baeten et al (2010) widen the scope of examining learning approaches and consider the factors encouraging or discouraging deep learning. Their study is interesting and useful, although is limited to the student experience within the teaching environment. Again, it fails to consider the personality traits of the individual student and/or teacher, and nor does it contextualise the student experience outside of the teaching environment.

Personality and learning – an examination

Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham (2009) found that there is a connection between openness to experience and deep learning approach, but could not conclude any relationship between the remaining four personality traits and either learning approach. Even with the limitations of their research, their outcomes appear valid, even so much as to conclude that the nature of the openness to experience personality is such that they adapt to learning better than most other personality types and therefore the connection between the learning approach and the personality trait is tenuous at most (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2009; Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2005).

This is an interesting basis for further research and as such, the following hypotheses are relied upon for this research:

1. There is a clear relationship between a deep learning approach and those high and low in openness to experience.

2. There is no relationship between a deep learning approach or surface learning approach and those high and low in neuroticism.



Baeten, M., Kyndt, E., Struyven, K., & Dochy, F. (2010). Using student-centred learning environments to stimulate deep approaches to learning: factors encouraging or discouraging their effectiveness. Educational Research Review, 5, 243-260. doi: 10.1016/j.edurev.2010.06.001

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Busato, V. V., Prins, F. J., Elshout, J. J., & Hamaker, C. (1999). The relation between learning styles, the Big Five personality traits and achievement motivation in higher education. Personality and individual differences, 26, 129-40. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00112-3

Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2012). Psychology (3rd ed.). Milton: John Wiley & Sons.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. & Furnham, A. (2005). Personality and intellectual competence. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. & Furnham, A. (2009). Mainly Openness: the relationship between the Big Five personality traits and learning approaches. Learning and Individual Differences, 19, 524-529. doi: 10.1016/j.indif.2009.06.004

Marton, F. & Saljo, R. (1997). Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell, and N.J. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning (pp. 39-58). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

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