Types of Students and Relevant Input

Written by: Milka Hadjikoteva, NBU

Among the myriad tests available in psychology books and on line (for example, enter the site http://www.queendom.com/tests/alltests.html) there are personality tests which measure the so called personal traits, temperaments, or dispositions. Supposedly these tests increase the ability to predict probable attitudes and behaviours that could ultimately influence the one’s success or failure. Many employers are interested in such tests due to the impact the personnel has on company’s profitability and efficiency.

One of these tests sprang up from a theory developed by the American psychologist John Holland who in 1995 received the prestigious American Psychological Association award for Distinguished Contributions to Knowledge for his theory of careers that “provided an intellectual tool for integrating our knowledge of vocational intentions, vocational interests, personalities, and work histories.” Holland’s theory presents a theoretical connection between personality and environment. While working as a classification interviewer with the army, Dr. Holland realized that many people seemed to be examples of common personality types. This led to his first formulation of the 6 basic categories in a person-environment typology. His classification system can be used for both persons and fields of study or occupations.

Thanks to the academic roots of the theory as well as its further applications, this session attempts to relate the results of surveys carried out to the relevance of the input in foreign language education in groups comprised of different types of students.

Many career assessment tools use the typology so that people can be categorized according to their interests and personal characteristics. The on-line version of the Self-Directed Search http://www.self-directed-search.comhas been designed to help people make career and education choices that match their own interests and abilities. It has been used by over 22 million people worldwide and has also been translated into 25 different languages. Its results have been supported by over 500 research studies.” (as written on the web page)

According to Holland there are six common personality types, namely Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional. Not only people but occupations and work environments can also be classified by the same categories. If people and the respective environments they chose match, there is a high probability of both success and happiness. Holland suggests the presence of codes both in people and environments. If the codes are the same or similar, for example Investigative person in an Investigative environment, then the person will most likely function well and persist in that environment. If the environment is supportive and includes other people who have the same or similar personality traits, the personality can be easily expressed there. It is important that neither people nor environments are exclusively one type but rather combinations of all six types. Their dominant type is an approximation of an ideal, modal type.

A hexagon presented in Holland’s site is used to show the similarities and differences among the six types. Holland claims that types that are next to one another on the hexagon are most similar. For example, Realistic and Investigative types tend to have similar interests, but Realistic and Social types tend to be most different. Conventional types are related to Enterprising and Realistic types, however they are quite different from Social and Investigative types, but tend to be most different from Artistic types, and so on.

It is important to note that the theory had its roots in higher education and later focused on occupations. However, almost any social setting, e.g., a family-owned business, a classroom, or a work group, might be characterized in terms of an environment. Every aspect of the theory can be applied to different kinds of environments which is especially valuable for university environments preparing students for their professional fields.

Smart, Feldman, and Ethington (2000) examined longitudinal data over a four-year period of study (1986-1990) on approximately 2,309 college students participating in the Cooperative Institutional Research Program  which shed light on the expectations of students in academic environments. Holland’s six types together with some of the specific findings of Smart regarding the impact of the environment on different student types are summarized below. It will be noted that a match between the person and the environment indicates congruence, while the lack of it indicates incongruence.

The Investigative type in Holland’s typology pursues the careers of biologist, chemist, physicist, geologist, anthropologist, etc.; has abilities in the fields of math and science; likes to work alone and to solve problems, to explore and understand things or events, rather than persuade others or sell them things; and can be described as analytical,  complex, critical, intellectual, pessimistic, and reserved.

In Smart’s survey the Investigative academic environment has proved to develop analytical, mathematical, and scientific competencies, though little character and career development were observed. The teaching/learning style is described as formal and structured, subject-matter centred, having specific course requirements. The focus is put on examinations and grades. This environment has proved to increase students’ abilities and interests in the area, and make them even stronger if the students were Investigative type at entry, while Investigative students in disciplines outside of the Investigative environment did not increase their abilities and skills in the Investigative area.

The Artistic type pursues artistic careers: composer, musician, dancer, actor, and writer; has artistic skills, enjoys creating original work, and has a good imagination; likes to work with creative ideas and self-expression more than routines and rules. This type is described as complicated, disorderly, emotional, idealistic, and original.

Artistic environment in its turn focuses on aesthetics and emotions, sensations, and the mind. The curriculum prompts learning about literature and the arts, as well as becoming a creative thinker and its emphasis is on character development, student freedom and independence in learning with varied instructional strategies are used. Artistic students majoring in Artistic environments have shown stronger interests and abilities in this area. Students majoring in Artistic environments have shown an increase in Artistic abilities and interests. Artistic personalities not majoring in Artistic environments did not increase their self-rated interests and abilities over the four years of Smart’s survey.

Holland’s Social type pursues social careers: teacher, counselor, psychologist, nurse; likes to be around other people, interested in how people get along, and likes to help other people with their problems, teach, and counsel people more than engage in mechanical or technical activity. The type is described as convincing, cooperative, responsible, sympathetic, and warm.

The social environment presupposes community orientation characterized by friendliness and warmth, developing a historical perspective of the field and an emphasis on student values and character development. The focus is put on humanitarian, teaching, and interpersonal competencies. Colleagueship and student independence and freedom are supported, and informal small group teaching is employed. It has been observed that social disciplines seem to have the least impact and Social students reported the least gains in related interests and abilities. Stated another way, the Social environments appear to be the most accepting and least demanding of the four environments studied by Smart.

The Enterprising type is interested in the careers of a television producer, business executive, salesperson, travel agent, supervisor, manager and is able to act as a leader and speak in public; likes money and politics, as well as to influence people and persuade or direct others more than work on scientific or complicated topics; described as ambitious, domineering, impulsive, self-confident, and sociable.

The Enterprising environment has been characterised as preparing for career and status acquisition, focused on leadership development as well as the acquisition and use of power to attain career goals. The teaching strategies are balanced. Enterprising students have increased their Enterprising abilities and interests, which has been also true for non-Enterprising students in the Enterprising environment. Enterprising students not majoring in Enterprising environments have not increased their self-rated Enterprising abilities and interests.

The two types described by Holland though not elaborated on in the survey of Smart due to the lack of impact such environments have had on their students are the Realistic type pursuing the careers of mechanic, electrician, and farmer with abilities in the mechanical and athletic fields, whose preferences are to work outdoors, with tools and machines more than with people and is described as honest, materialistic, persistent, practical, and thrifty and the Conventional type pursuing the careers of a bookkeeper, banker, secretary, who likes to work indoors, to organize things, to follow routines and meet clear standards, avoiding work that does not have clear directions; described as careful, efficient, obedient, orderly, persistent, practical, thrifty, and unimaginative.

In summary, it is apparent that congruent students in Investigative, Artistic, and Enterprising environments increased their pattern of self-reported interests and abilities over four years by further developing what was already present in their personality. These three environments also increased these related traits for incongruent students, but the gap between the congruent and incongruent students continues to exist. Though it is not possible to expect that all students progress in the same way, it is evident that students in congruent environments have higher levels of interests and abilities. Investigative and Enterprising environments have been observed to have the most impact on student characteristics.

The foreign language classroom environment is comprised of students who choose majors that match their own types (congruent) as well as students who change their majors or do not fit the environment (incongruent). Both categories of students should be encouraged to study in their own style and at their own pace. Investigative and Enterprising environments are observed to both develop analytical, mathematical, and scientific competencies and prepare for career and status acquisition, focusing on leadership development as well as the acquisition and use of power to attain career goals, which are in fact the aims of higher education in general. In this line of thinking it is reasonable to adapt the style of teaching to formal and structured requirements and at the same time focus it on the specific subjects, i.e. subject-matter centered. It is not enough to pay attention to examinations and grades but to increase students’ abilities and interests in their own areas.

In this case the issue of the relevant input becomes of utmost importance. How much input is enough, relevant, and comprehensible? Krashen has made an attempt to explain the acquisition process using a model in which the comprehensible input plays the crucial part. The input goes through an affective filter which according to the Affective Filter Hypothesis is ‘a mental block, caused by affective factors … that prevents input from reaching the language acquisition device’ (Krashen, 1985, p.100). The Language Acquisition Device can be thought of as a program which enables the learner to set the parameters of the Universal Grammar, a specific module at the base of all human languages which handles any specific language, and consists of a series of parameters which are set differently for different languages.

In the case of the suggested schema, the affective filter may be regarded as one of the major features in student’s aptitude to master a foreign language. The greater the incongruence between the students in a particular group, the stronger the affective filter will be. It may inhibit the mastery of a foreign language, though it is doubtful whether it is going to block the LAD leading to the universal grammar patterns, in case the latter do exist, of course.

According to Krashen’s Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis  ’adults have two distinctive ways of developing competences in second languages .. acquisition, that is by using Language for real communication … learning .. “knowing about” language’ (Krashen & Terrell 1983). The only way to use language for real communication in the foreign language classroom is to engage students in meaningful activities related to their fields of study. The knowledge about language goes hand in hand with the subject-matter centred knowledge and can easily function as a monitor of the flow of “specialized” flow of language. (Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis claims that ‘conscious learning … can only be used as a Monitor or an editor’ (Krashen & Terrell 1983)).

If relevant input is the essential part of the foreign language acquisition, it should be the main focus in the process of teaching. “Comprehensible” input in this case means analysis of the style and features of subject-matter centred texts, grammar-related clarifications, and terminology issues which may take place during the initial Silent Period, through which every learner of a foreign language goes, i.e. the development of analytical, mathematical, and scientific competencies students need to deal with a language typical of the Investigative Environment, followed by the traits of the Enterprising environment, preparing for career and status acquisition, i.e. presenting materials, discussing issues, and giving short talks which presuppose not only knowledge but the implementation of the respective competencies as well.

The relevant input can be provided via various activities, i.e.

  1. Affective-Humanistic activities (dialogues, interviews, personal charts and tables, preference ranking, personal information, strategies development, all of which focus on analytical thinking as well as use of language)
  2. Problem-solving activities (describing processes and tasks, charts, graphs, maps, developing speech for particular occasions, advertisements, typical for both academic and professional environments)
  3. Content activities, e.g. academic subject matter (The most important thing is students’ own choice of materials to be analysed, processed and presented in different styles and even registers).

It is claimed that immersion teaching is successful because it provides comprehensible input and that bilingual programs succeed to the extent they provide the above-mentioned input. Though it is difficult to provide immersion in a non-native environment, it is possible to provide comprehensible input which is at a bit higher level than the level of the students. In Krashen’s terms it is the “i+1” (“input+a bit more”). The “a bit more”, in my opinion, means exactly the subject-matter terminology and materials in the students’ specific fields. Because any foreign language teaching devoid of the forethought for professional development of the respective students aims at achieving abstract skills applicable in imaginary circumstances. Real life situations related to the pursuit of career are much more important than the abstract ones, that is why the comprehensible input provides the much needed background for meaningful communication. Naturally, the lower the level of the students, the more structured and formal the teaching methods are, whereas the sooner professionally-oriented activities are introduced, the more comprehensible the input becomes.

In conclusion, let’s wrap up with what successful bilingual education means in Krashen’s views: “Properly organized bilingual education programs introduce subject matter teaching in English as soon as it can be made comprehensible and provide a great deal of instruction in English.” Stephen Krashen, (Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education, wrote for Teacher Magazine, available on-line at www.edweek.com)


Gregg, K. (1984). Krashen’s monitor and Occam’s razor. Applied Linguistics, 5, 79-100.

Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices: A theory of careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Holland, J. L., Reardon, R. C., Latshaw, R. J., Rarick, S. R., Schneider, S., Shortridge, M. A., & St. James, S. A. (2001). Self-Directed Search Form R Internet Version 2.0 [On-line]. Available: http://www.self-directed-search.com.

Krashen, S.D. (1982). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York, Longman.

Krashen, S.D. & Terrell, T.D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. London: Prentice Hall Europe.

Smart, J. C., Feldman, K. A., & Ethington, C. A. (2000). Academic disciplines: Holland’s theory and the study of college students and faculty. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

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