Putting on the (learning) style

How do people learn? It sounds like the easiest question in the World. So obvious is the answer that even people with years of experience in higher education spend little or no time at all thinking about it. So, whether you are academic or student or just interested bystander, what is your answer?
How you answer that question reveals a lot about how you learn personally. And, the problem for educators is that often we think that how we learn is the way everybody learns. To be honest to say “we think” suggests that lecturers spend time worrying about this, but it is probably more correct to say we assume that what worked for us as learners, will be effective for us as teachers.
I had been teaching in HE for 6 years before I came across the notion of learning styles. Like most ‘young’ academics I had wanted people to learn, and tried to make my lectures, seminars and workshops interesting and fun. But, and I guess I’m not alone in this, I’d never really thought too much about how students were learning. If they looked relatively happy and did okay in their assignments I assumed my teaching was in sync with their learning.
You might think I must have been self obsessed not to at least consider things from the students perspective. Perhaps I was, but I thought I was seeing it from their perspective because I was drawing heavily on my own experiences as a learner. I knew, or so I thought, what worked.
Sitting in a stuffy lecture hall for an hour didn’t work, except with a couple of exceptional lecturers.
Reading dry academic texts definitely did not work, my mind simply wandered.
Preparing seminar papers worked for me, but was not a group activity. When ever anybody had to give a paper the rest of us would sit there and then let the lecturer question them.
I knew that I liked to verbalise my thoughts, that I learned through solving problems, that sometimes things fell into place when I could see a practical use for an idea and that I learned best when I was interested in the topic. That last one may not seem like any sort of revelation, but how many lectures have we all sat in where we have no intrinsic interest in the topic ( and, I am not just thinking research methods here).
The concept of a learning style was a revelation, however. I was introduced to Honey and Mumford’s learning styles questionnaire when I began working for The Open University. To find your ‘preferred’ learning style you tick statements that you agree with from a list of 80 statements. You then count how many you have in each style and work out whether you are: activist, theorist, reflector or pragmatist. Each of these indicates a different way of learning. I was an activist, which I was quite pleased with. But, it was not so much discovering my dominant style but the realisation that 75% of people had a different style that struck me.
I started to adjust my teaching on the basis of the different learning styles that might be in the session (the equivalent of getting my retaliation in early). I figured that if I balanced all my teaching this way, every student would have, at least, 25% of the time where they were particularly confident with what I wanted them to do. In reality the figure would be higher because few people fall neatly into a single style. Their scores, rather, tend to spread between the different styles.
To take the questionnaire follow this link
And, for an explanation of what the results mean try this.


6 thoughts on “Putting on the (learning) style

  1. Very interesting thoughts as usual Dave. I’m quite sure it’s an excellent idea to ask the question ‘are we teaching in a way our students find useful?’. Actually this is one of the tricky things about online tutorials (like Elluminate), you don’t have the instant moment-to-moment feedback you get with a face to face tutorial (when doing the latter I’m always trying to tune into body language to pick up if the students are engaged, bored, lost, enthusiastic, panicking etc., and adjust as necessary). I hadn’t come across this particular model before, and have just done the Learning Styles Questionnaire – though as happens quite often when I take psychometric tests, I came out with almost identical scores on all four parameters. (E.g. with extraversion-introversion I have rather strong aspects of both of them, so tend to come out as a zero if it’s done as a continuum). Looking at the descriptions, I’m not that surprised, as all four of them have elements which are important parts of how I learn. Though I’m quite sure for many students this questionnaire would show they had a strong preference in one direction or other, and be a useful tool.

    I did find out within the first 4 weeks of my first degree (physics) that I just didn’t learn from conventional lectures – after 4 weeks of having 4 hours of lectures per day (9 till 1), then collapsing in Pepe’s coffee shop in St Giles for a caffeine fix afterwards, I realized I hadn’t learned a single thing, and didn’t go to another lecture for the rest of my degree! (Luckily they were optional, and intensive 1:2 tutorials were the main teaching method, so it worked out ok). I do enjoy lectures of a more informal nature, or to ‘top up’ where I already know the subject pretty well, but for learning substantial amounts of new material, usually doesn’t work for me. I find books are the thing I need for my primary learning (with other media as valuable additions, but definitely not a substitute for this). However, other students may well find they engage better with audio (or video) than printed text – so it’s good to have as many options as possible. And, as Dave says in his blog above, to actually find out what does and doesn’t work for our students!

    • Thanks Martin. Intensive tutorials would be great, but don’t work in a mass education system. Which is unfortunate. I have tried the learning styles questionnaire on lots of students and a significant number do not have a preferred learning style. What does that tell us? Well, it might tell us that the questionnaire is rubbish and simply doesn’t work. Or, it might tell us that people are not as easily categorised as people sometimes assume (four categories may simply be a couple of hundred too few!) The important point for me is not which style anybody is in, but more that whatever style they are, a good few of them are not the same as me, which means that I cannot assume they learn the same as me.

    • Really interesting to see this questionnaire Dave (again, I think; am afraid to admit I’ve never seen it at all before!). We need to stand back from our teaching and think through things like this. You also make me think through what type of learner I am. I’ve just been trying to learn some Italian, and I am definitely on the wing of wanting to do everything slowly and step-by-step; but it might be more productive for me to just try and learn what I can in a more rapid non-linear way…….. Keep up these well articulated thoughts; look forward to seeing some more politics also!

      • Thanks Andrew, I think everybody who teaches should put themselves in the position of learner from time to time. Though I’ve tried a number of times to learn Welsh and keep getting stuck. Perhaps I’ll try Italian next and see if that’s any easier. Thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated, and I’ll keep working on the manifesto……

  2. A few years ago when I was completing my PGCE, learning styles raised its controversial head and I found from my own practice that whilst they provide a useful starting point for planning teaching and learning with a group of students, they aren’t the be all and end all. One of the best criticisms of learning styles comes from Professor Frank Coffield who wrote ‘Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority’ 2008 – http://tlp.excellencegateway.org.uk/ecpd/ecpd_modules/downloads/coffield_if_only.pdf
    Based on a systematic review of learning styles he passionately states that there is no basis for dividing students up into four distinct VAKT learning styles and that it is a complete insult to try and synthesise the complexity of students into four distinct groups. If you follow the link posted above you will get to the report and be able to access Coffield’s Learning or Teaching Styles questionnaire (Clots 2008) in the appendix. He also wrote the seminal Running ever faster down the wrong road. An alternative future for Education and Skills which was a fairly controversial look at FE! Whilst I remain healthily sceptical of learning styles I believe they do provide a useful reminder to tutors that as people we all learn in different ways and I try and use these principles when planning learning opportunities.

    • Thanks Martha. I have followed your link and the comment about bright Arsenal fans bought me in straight away! I will read the full report. I too am sceptical that the whole World can be shoved into 4 styles, though I’ve long believed it can be divided into 2 social classes! My point is that as educators we need to be aware that students do not all learn in the same way and, therefore, as teachers we need to teach for different styles. Where I think I agree with you and Frank is that we should not assume because you learn in one way one day, that is fixed for the rest of your life. I have a low attention span generally speaking so like to be challenged, but that does not mean I cannot learn by listening, reading or watching. The trick is to understand that people learn in different ways on different days and adjust our teaching to that.

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