We’ve been having this interesting back and forth in the comments on my post ranting about how to deal with learning disabilities in Higher Education, and I said something about Learning Styles and Alison asked for a link, and I thought, I don’t have a link, but here, let me expound a bit.
Are you listening carefully? Then I will begin.
First, a bit of personal background. As a postgrad student in English, I did a bit of editing and tutoring, and this eventually led to a job that was in a Learning Skills Unit in a Science faculty, ostensibly teaching senior students in Agriculture and Psychology how to write essays, but more often than not, just editing drafts for them.
I had an absolutely awesome colleague and mentor in that job, who wanted to do more than just edit student essays, so she found a job at a different university, where the staff in the Learning Skills Unit were looking at student learning as something that needed to be supported and developed more creatively, and eventually she got me a job there, too.
There were bad things about that job, but one of the good things was a huge focus on professional development, learning about teaching and learning in a variety of ways, and one of the things we did was look at the MBTI (here’s a sample test, if you have never done one), and at learning styles, and in particular, Kolb’s approach to learning styles.
Let me pause here and say I know there are problems with the MBTI, and with learning styles tests and categorization, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and in particular, I found that it gave me a blinding epiphany, which was that not everyone processes information (ie learns) in the same way.
Yes, I can hear you all going “DUH”, but here’s the thing – I think my experience as a student is pretty typical of a lot of academics. I was a good student; I enjoyed learning; I tested well, and it wasn’t ever particularly difficult for me to learn stuff. Because I did well, I never had a moment when I had to evaluate how I learned (just like you don’t ask how your computer works until it fails to function), and I had never thought about learning as a process that might differ from one person to the next. I also know I wasn’t the only person to have this reaction, because after we learned this stuff in professional development sessions, we shared it with faculty, who also talked about it being a revelation.
So, what, then, did I learn from Kolb and the MBTI? Let me sum it up for you; you can go read Kolb’s books, if you are interested in more info, and there are some online sites that talk about him, even if they do tend to be off-puttingly business-oriented.
Essentially, Kolb says, learning is a process that has different steps, or stages, but it isn’t a linear sequence. He defines 4 categories of these steps, and we can argue about whether this is a good number, but for a working model, it’s okay. So, according to Kolb, there are these 4 processes:
- experiencing things – feeling
- reflecting on things – watching
- coming up with ideas – thinking
- experimenting with ideas – doing
Some people say, well, you do those in that order, but in fact, you can enter the cycle at any point, which is why Kolb diagrammed the process in a circle, rather than just as a list. His diagram had them working in only one direction, but I think, actually, it can happen in any order, so my circle (demonstrating my dire paint skills) has arrows on both ends.
Okay, so we have these 4 learning processes, and the key issue to understanding learning styles is to understand that people have different levels of comfort with these different processes. In order to learn thoroughly, Kolb argues, you have to do all 4 things, but each of us will do them with a different level of emphasis: some people prefer to learn by experience and experimentation more than thinking, others prefer to reflect for a long time before trying out new knowledge, and so on.
The next step in understanding this idea is to look at these 4 processes as a set of oppositional pairs. Thinking and feeling are opposites on one axis, and doing and watching are opposites on another axis. The idea here is to codify which processes you prefer, in order to present a learning profile. (I made a test for this, but it is not in a high-tech electronic version. I should really get on that.
It is important to remember that this graph (and the idea of the categories generally, too) represents a range of behaviour, so of course, you can have people who tend more or less strongly in one direction or the other.
NB: for those of you playing along at home, you can see that thinking and feeling relate to the T/F divide in your MBTI, too. The doing and watching line relates loosely to N/S in the MBTI. Additionally, if you imagine diagonal lines (like an X) bisecting the diagram, you can roughly equate the / as being an I/E divide (Face-planters are nearly all Extroverts, while Eggheads are introverts, and the other two groups have both types); and the \ similarly presents a P/J divide.
Kolb made up these really abstruse titles for the 4 types of learners, which I think make NO sense to most people. Let me try to explain them in a more accessible way, and with another awesome display of paint skills.
(Note that in this diagram, the groups adjacent to each other have elements in common, while those diagonally opposite do not; so Cynics and Procrastinators may find it more difficult to understand each other, while Cynics and Eggheads may have some approaches in common, and so on.)
So, we have 4 groups:
- Feeling Doers (ooh, er, sounds a bit rude), whom we can call Activists, or Keeners, or Jump in Feet Firsters, or even Faceplanters. These are the people who learn through trying things out. They are feelers rather than thinkers, which means they also tend to be extroverts (MBTI E-types), and that means they love to chat as they learn. Group work works really well for them as a learning strategy, especially if it is group work with an activity. They are often really good at running meetings. Their weakness is that they may zoom through the task and miss the embedded principle they were meant to learn, unless the teacher adequately debriefs the activity, or includes an item asking “What did you learn?” in the task. This group is usually the largest when I test my whole class, about which, more later.
- Watching Feelers (even worse!), whom we can call Reflectors, or Procrastinators, or, when things go badly for the Faceplanters, the Point-and-Laughers. These are people who prefer their experiential learning to come in the form of watching others. They like to observe others, and often, given time to ponder what they seen, are those really useful people who can come in and say “okay, here is what you did and this is the main problem”. Although they tend to prefer to observe, they aren’t necessarily introverts, and since they tend to rely on feeling, they can be very intuitive and have good people skills (N as opposed to S on the MBTI). Their weakness is likely to be procrastination, since they will wait until something is “finished” before pulling their ideas about it together.
- Thinking Watchers, whom we can call Theorists, or Nerds, or Eggheads. These are your stereotypical philosopher types, who like to think about ideas, and are always happy to geek out on the most arcane points of knowledge in whatever field interests them. They like to work with ideas and hypotheticals, and prefer conceptual learning – these are people who read manuals before they try a new computer game, for instance. They are more likely to pursue things that interest them (which can be a strength or a weakness because they get trapped in tangents instead of doing the assignment). They hate group work, and can be really uncomfortable in situations that require, for example, talking about their feelings. They are happiest with a “traditional” type of learning environment, you know, the kind we are so often encouraged to get away from nowadays. This learning type is also the most likely to question the validity of the learning styles test (trufax).
- Doing Thinkers, whom we can call Pragmatists, or Cynics, or Business Majors (srsly, the only students I ever get of this learning type are in Business, which does make sense if you think about it). These are people whose learning is very purpose-driven, and who see value in education only if there is a specific goal. I actually have a theory that a lot of people who have this learning style probably don’t go to college because they don’t see the point of it. They are great at figuring out shortcuts, and the most direct way to achieve a specific goal they are given, but they conversely hate it when they are given tasks that are nebulous or have unclear goals. They always want to know if this thing is going to be on the test, and they are also very keen on feedback. Their weakness is a lack of patience with the system, and the fact that they can get such tunnel vision about only studying for the exam that they miss the broader picture.
So, where does all this get us? Is having a label helpful? Well, maybe.
For me, this is a tool to approach understanding how you learn, and why some things are really really hard, and others are easy. As a personal example, since I am an Egghead, I find learning tasks that start at the feeling or doing point on the cycle make me tense and annoyed. I used to hate science and math being taught this way – one exercise I remember is having homework which asked me to measure the perimeter and diameter of a bunch of circular stuff, in order to work through equations to derive pi from first principles. This made me really, really irritated until my mother said “this is trying to get you to derive pi,” and then I was like “Oh, CHUH.” Now, this was probably a great learning activity for the kids who like to experiment and do stuff in order to figure it out, but I prefer to learn concepts first. Neither approach necessarily has merit over the other; the issue is that I found a simple task difficult because it was forcing me to learn in an uncomfortable way.
At the time, I didn’t understand this, of course. Understanding it gives me an ability as an individual learner to make choices about how I approach material. If I am presented with a situation where someone wants me to learn by doing, I can recognise that I am going to hate it and choose to suck it up, or perhaps to try to modify the task in some way to make it more palatable. I don’t think learning style ever ought to be an excuse not to learn, as in “Oh, I can’t learn by going to lectures, so I won’t” or whatever. Kolb emphasised doing all 4 things in order to really learn information, anyway.
As a teacher, I think it is valuable to know how you learn and how that stacks up against the majority of students, and this is where it can be absolutely key. A lot of academics are Eggheads. That is, they learn really well from having concepts explained to them first, as in lectures, and then they take those concepts and apply them. So they teach that way. But student populations have really changed in the last, say, 20 years, in part because primary and secondary education has started to focus on enquiry-based learning and other strategies that train students to learn by doing, and so tons of students, are Feet-Firsters. (There’s an issue here about whether learning style is nature or nurture – I think it is partly innate, but you can definitely shape it, especially in little kids, and current trends in primary and secondary education really select against thinkers, which IS a change.)
So it’s not unusual in a classroom to have a teacher who has always been a thinking/reflecting learner and students who are her polar opposite because most of them are experimenting/doing types. They think she’s a longwinded bore, or as Alison so eloquently put it “eccentric and emo”; she thinks they are dumbasses. Which is not to say they are not dumbasses and she is not a bore, but learning style may be exacerbating the problem.
On the other hand, if as a teacher I have some awareness of this (and in some classes, where there is time, and where it is relevant, I will test the class and get them to plot their results on the board so we can all see the distribution and where we are coming from), I can at least try to design some of the tasks in my classroom to appeal to a variety of learning styles. What I tend to do is give specific tasks as group work in class, and to limit the amount of time I just spend boring on about stuff. It depends on the specific class how well this works, of course.
In my comp classes, I try to take the time to get students to do the test and then talk about what it means in terms of how they learn (and write) comfortably, and how to approach “difficult” tasks. When I was working in Learning Skills, we ran workshops on this stuff for students, and I would love for it to be a regular part of a post-secondary student’s life. University ought to be about students understanding and taking charge of their own learning, after all. Most of the bitching I (and others) do about snowflakery is related to the fact that students want an individualised learning experience, but they see it as the responsibility of others to make that happen. To be fair, I don’t think most students have the tools to figure out how they learn and how to adapt the tasks they have to do to help them learn most effectively and efficiently. Professors may lack the time, the inclination and/or the tools to do anything about this.
The “broken” ones, the ones with diagnosed learning disabilities, are, perhaps perversely, the most likely to have at least encountered some of these concepts in the course of being tested and diagnosed, but that process is about diagnosis, not necessarily about learning how to learn.
And here I come full circle to my frustration about students with learning disabilities and the idea that their diagnoses ought to be kept secret from their professors, and shared only with a disability support person. I know what I am trying to teach. I know what the learning outcomes are, and what a student needs in terms of skills and knowledge to do well. I’ve got some idea about strategies to help them learn, and if I could sit them down and test them and have a conversation about learning style, I could even hone those more specifically to help the individual student. BUT. Students with learning disabilities are told that information about the way they learn and their specific challenges are private, and that I am in no position to comment on their learning in any useful way. I hate that our interaction on this topic is reduced to “Can I have extra time on exams?” and “Okay,” but privacy laws mean my hands are tied.
Metacognition is a wanky word, but it is also, I think, key to changing the weather in academic institutions. If I give my snowflakes the tools to customise their learning experiences, is that a way to actually disassemble the entitlement? Is it as simple as making students able to take control, or will they just hand the responsibility back to me and say, “I want to be in the section for to Reflectors with Red Hair”?