TALK ABOUT TEACHING
Learning in Style by Myrna L. Cohen
An intellect is someone whose mind watches itself. -- Albert Camus
Our individual learning styles have been compared to our fingerprints, a representation of our unique selves. Learning styles play an important role in directing the ways we structure our teaching and the ways our students read an assigned text, synthesize information, solve problems, and demonstrate knowledge on a test. An understanding of learning styles and their congruent learning strategies has the potential to transform passive students into actively involved learners. The more information students have about their learning preferences, the more responsibility they can take for their own learning.
Learning to learn in the '90s goes well beyond the isolated study skills lessons represented by workbook pages and first attempts at an outline. Today's postsecondary representation emphasizes self-reflection, self-knowledge, and the building of the self-efficacy needed to experience active learning and the actual enjoyment of studying. The understanding of learning styles and approaches to learning is a vital component of building the most satisfying path to scholarship.
Classifications of Learning Styles
Learning styles can be classified and defined along a variety of dimensions; generally, they address cognitive, affective or physiological elements. These varied categorizations provide perspectives for understanding the multitude of factors that comprise learning for each individual student. As they describe and categorize, these theories attempt to bring order to the complexities of teaching and learning. They are not meant to create additional labels or to compartmentalize students. Rather, they may help us realize the varied paths to understanding that our students choose to travel. And with our more complete knowledge of the diversity of learning styles and strategies, we may be able to assume the role of guide, encouraging students to reflect and discover their particular strengths. Cognitive learning styles (the most pertinent to our discussion) describe the ways individuals approach an academic task, structure study sessions, analyze and remember information, and solve problems. For example, impulsive students may respond quickly, motivated by a refreshing curiosity; but they may also become easily bored, frustrated or distracted. Their reflective peers, on the other hand, proceed more cautiously and with attention to details. Described from another perspective, the social learners among our students prefer to work in study groups and interact during office hours, while those identified as independent are self-directed and usually choose to study alone. Perhaps the perspective that provides the widest range of identities is derived from theories of multiple intelligences--the Howard Gardner theory receiving much current attention. Broadly defining and redefining intelligence allows us to recognize that differently, but equally, talented students may absorb and express knowledge according to an assortment of styles. Viewing our classrooms from this perspective, we realize that they are filled with communicators, discoverers, problem-solvers, and dreamers--all contributing to the excitement and challenge of teaching.
Discussions of learning style most often describe sensory modalities through which individuals receive, process, store, and communicate information. They categorize students as visual, auditory, or haptic (or kinesthetic) learners, while acknowledging that these labels indicate preferences and strengths rather than absolute descriptors. For example, university students, studying the same challenging bulkpack article, might use color to highlight and separate main ideas (visual), explain the main concepts to a friend (auditory), or manipulate ideas written on notecards to show relationships (kinesthetic). While these students approach the reading assignment differently, they share the experience of being actively engaged in the task. The underlying, but most important, message in all these learning style classifications is that students' knowledge of their particular learning styles can lead to more productive studying. Conversely, difficulties arise when there is a lack of self-understanding and appropriate study strategy development.
At Tutoring and Learning Resources, the learning instructors and I, recognizing self-reflection as the key to understanding personal learning styles and strategies, use the dynamic assessment methods of a self-evaluation questionnaire and an interview to focus on learning processes. This informal assessment encourages cogitation and provides the opportunity for the learning instructor to encourage the use of more strategic and less fragmented study methods. Students experiencing academic difficulty or those who simply want to incorporate additional or more efficient methods into their study repertoire have both internal resources (personal learning strengths) and external resources (office hours, review sessions) available to them. Initially, this assessment process provides a window for carefully observing each student's awareness and use of those resources. Subsequently, it allows us to intervene in the development of specific tactics or skills compatible with the student's learning style and academic tasks. For some of the undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who seek our assistance, responding to the one-page self-evaluation initiates a pivotal experience in thinking about their own thinking. It is a first step toward thinking about how they are studying, as well as what they are studying.
An example is provided by a student who recently expressed a need to improve both concentration and text comprehension. He also cautiously revealed an additional concern--a tendency to subvocalize as he studies difficult material. As our conversation continued, he described his preference for learning from a lecture or discussion rather than from reading. Even before completing a learning style inventory, it was apparent that this undergraduate was a strong auditory learner. Reading difficult portions of his text aloud reinforced his comprehension by drawing upon his auditory preference. Additional suggested strategies included talking through course material with a study group or partner and previewing and reviewing aloud when reading portions of a text assignment. Incorporating these study methods, he could address his concerns through his particular learning style and strengths.
Implications for Teaching
With its roots in the Graduate School of Education and the Division of University Life, our Learning Resources program has a strong history in collaborative design of learning strategies that respond both to the academic challenges of our students and to the wide array of learning characteristics they bring to bear on these challenges. But conversations about ways of learning need not be restricted to this context. Dialogues can also take place outside of and in conjunction with Uxniversity reading and learning centers. Just recognizing the diverse learning styles of our students and the nature of expertise within a field of study can provide the foundation for rich discussions between instructors and students about approaches to studying particular course material. During this semester, I have had the opportunity to participate in several classroom discussions which intersected studying for a specific course with particular learning strategies. Through personal and professional examples, the instructors demonstrated a variety of valuable approaches to studying within their particular disciplines.
While the implication from much of the research on learning styles-- both stated and implied--is that instructors should teach to the individual styles of their students, at the postsecondary level this suggestion cannot translate to separate lessons for individual students. We can, however, make meaningful pedagogical changes such as incorporating additional visuals into lectures or providing handouts with ample margins for notetaking. Also, with increased sensitivity to the variety of learning styles in our classrooms, we can lead our students toward self-understanding. And we can share the lessons of scholarship that we have learned on our own academic journeys. The result will be increased numbers of students who are actively engaged participants in our intellectual community.
Talk About Teaching is in its fourth year as a series co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. Dr. Cohen is Associate Director for Learning Resources in the Department of Academic Support Programs (VPUL Division of University Life) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education.