A post for Alison

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.

(Awesome, eh?)

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”?

8 thoughts on “A post for Alison

  1. Kelly

    I have ADD and a non-verbal learning disability (spatial relations stuff) that are severe enough that I did occupational therapy regularly as a kid and had a handwriting tutor for a long time in my early grade school years. I could read at a hs level in 2nd grade, but couldn’t make my hands make the letters. I had trouble spelling becuase I couldn’t picture the word correctly or memorize the physical order the letters went in. I was great at algebra, but almost failed geometry even while trying like crazy to understand. So. my LD/issues are severe enough to have drastically affected my education/ school experience. The testing people thought I had brain damage from birth until my mom told them they were describing my dad, so it was just genetic. She was right, I wasn’t deprived of oxygen and without sounding too full of myself, I don’t have any intellectual deficits. I was very verbal very early, so I never felt stupid or embarrassed becuase people told me I was smart all the time. I also learned about my issues and thought about my learning style and problems enough to know why I was doing well or poorly with certain school things by 9th grade (due in large part to my parents talking openly about it and helping me figure it out without acting like it was a problem, just something to figure into my school strategy. My dad being the same as me with spatial things, so that helped, too.)
    I didn’t need any school accommodation once I moved to a traditional Catholic school in 4th grade from my previous Montessori school were we did math using number tiles that we had to move around, and that I couldn’t keep in straight rows to subtract, etc. I needed to use graph paper to do math by hand for a while so the numbers lined up, but by 4th grade I was fine with standard schooling. When I got to college I taped some of my classes, but I just asked each professor’s permission and explained why taking notes by hand could trip me up, and all were ok with my recording things. I was a good student (teachers loved me b/c I came prepared and participated all the time- I’m a total egghead) and I waited until they knew me enough to know I wouldn’t do anything with the recordings except translate them to notes, then erase them. I have always been open about my issues, but that’s partly becuase there’s not much stigma and I’m confident enough to see it as a learning difference rather than a negative disability. It helps too, that I’ve always been successful in the classroom (except in geometry.)
    If I had a more traditionally psychiatric disorder with a lot of stigma, I would have felt differently, but I still would have talked about the accommodations I needed with the professors and given them documentation without revealing the specific problem. I assume that if a good student (good effort, etc, not necessarily good grades) came to you and said,”hey, I have a LD. Here’s the paperwork from the disability office, and the accommodations I need. I tend to learn best by xxxx and 1234. Will any of this be a problem? If I need something specific that hasn’t come up yet, can I talk to you about it? Is there anything I need to do to make the process run more smoothly?” and didn’t want to disclose their specific diagnosis, you would be more than happy to accommodate them. I’d guess it’s more about students who don’t communicate their needs and/or are not showing you any effort to learn. It sounds like a lack of personal responsibility more than a problem with HIPPA laws.
    Just my two cents (or 50 cents, b/c that was long and wordy!)

    1. whatladder Post author

      I think you are a really interesting example of how people with LD do have to come to terms with how they learn. I would love it if students who asked for accommodations would come this prepared and with a clear understanding of their process, but they either don’t have the understanding, or they can’t express it, or they don’t want to express it to me (or a combination of all 3, I guess). I know that most profs don’t have a Learning Skills background, so maybe that is part of the issue – if you said that stuff and got no response from the prof, you might not do it again, I guess.

      1. Kelly

        That’s probably true- I had a lucky combination of great, involved parents, great schools, and amazing, caring teachers. It helped that I was able to understand all of my issues and I had the ability to explain them clearly to my teachers, and later my professors. All of these things helped me to never even consider wishing I had a “normal” brain. I really couldn’t have had a better combination of variables.
        If I hadn’t had these advantages, and if I had been conditioned to be embarrassed, I would probably have taken a very different approach that might not have worked as well, but would have been what I could handle in terms of my past LD experiences. I still think, though, that regardless of how things have gone for them until then, by college a student is not just capable of being an advocate for their own education, but are old enough to be held accountable for their lives. Even if it’s a social anxiety issue, that student should have emailed (if he had too much anxiety in person or by phone) his professor and, without spelling the diagnoses out, explained what accommodations he needed and most importantly, how he was going to make sure he wasn’t missing the information presented in class. He could even have the LD office communicate that to the prof is he was too anxious to email him. If it were me, I would tell the professor the effects my issue would cause without telling them what the issue was. I would have explained that thought I would miss a lot of classes, I would get notes or a tape recording from another student or through the disabilities office. I would offer to email the prof some replacement for the participation I wouldn’t do in class, be it questions about the material, a summary of it, or a short journal about my thoughts on the material- whatever the prof thought would qualify. I can’t imagine any decent professor would not accommodate a student (with or without a disability) if the student explained their needs in an appropriate and timely way and was willing to put in the effort the prof expects from all of the other students and took steps to express/demonstrate that effort to the prof.
        I’ve taught (middle school) and I work as a swim coach and private tutor now, so I work with kids 5-18 all day. If a kid is trying, I’m satisfied. All I ask of any of my kids is respectful, appropriate behavior and effort. I don’t care if they’re the slowest kid in the pool or if it takes them a year to learn how to do long division- if they try hard, I am willing to do anything they need to help them succeed, and I think professors who are worth anything are the same way in terms of what accommodations they are willing to make.
        So, snowflakes: put some honest effort into your school work, and be respectful in the classroom. It’s not that hard! It will only serve to make things easier for you! It’s college- that’s how college works. You are an adult now, so act like it, or leave and come back when a few years of working retail makes you respect the benefits of a degree enough to work at getting one.

  2. Alison

    What a beautifully thoughtful entry. Thanks, Whatladder!

    I will continue thinking about this, and perhaps some further thoughts and questions will arise, but for now, some bits:

    I really appreciate the way you’re problematizing this two way lack of understanding. What’s even more remarkable is that you can see the big picture, and, considering your knowledge and your authoritative position, I’ve a feeling you’ll find a way to make that work for you, even if the most reliable approach hasn’t made itself obvious yet.

    I think you’re very right about the lack of metacognition, or of “learning how to learn” among students. There are usually extra curricular learning workshops available through the counseling department, but most students are usually too oblivious or overwhelmed to attend them. Another possibility is that they’re managing just enough not to have to bother with them, which is also a problem. High school was such a joke that I managed to get through it with very little attention and attendance, and part of my struggle in post secondary is that, not only did I fail to learn any learning skills or even learning awareness during grade school, but I learned terrible, terrible patterns and habits to boot. So I skated through all right until I started getting stuck in mediocrity, and then, not having the tools to meet real challenges and drag myself out of it, began to perceive myself as being helpless and began to fail. I suppose this is an oversimplified account of what recently went down in my life (there’s a lot of trauma and crap mixed in, which stole my learning energy from the outset), but the point is to say that I think there is often a helplessness of this kind in students, despite their current academic status. It’s a time bomb. Now I’m trying to learn skills that I should have learned more than a decade ago, and it feels ridiculously late to be enmeshed in this. And by “late,” I mean, a long time after I began trying to direct my education towards a career. I feel like I’ve been treading water this whole time, and poorly.

    Some ideas come to mind:

    Last year, my women’s studies prof circulated a brief questionnaire in one of the first classes, which included a segment for describing learning issues. Would this be a possible way of circumventing the confidentiality issue? I don’t think anyone was offended by it, and we still got to control the information we offered. For me, it served as an ice breaker, indicating the prof’s stance on teaching and making her seem more approachable. It would be a way of knowing what your students know, at least, before trying to gauge how much you can/will teach learning skills in the classroom.

    Also, is there a way that you could make some of the statements you just made here to your students at the beginning of a course? I’m sure you always do, to some extent, but being explicit about the necessity of the learning skills aspect of a post secondary education might prove really helpful. Perhaps instead of sectioning off precious class time to devote to learning skills, you can offer a list of resources on the syllabus, which would give your students their own tools, and at the same time, open up that dialogue and awareness about the real dimensions of the task (course) at hand, and letting them know that they can engage with you on a more complex level if they are struggling. I think that kind of exchange is more palatable all round, than the blind, frantic tedium of negotiating marks and deadlines, and putting out fires.

    My final point is just about my personal preferences for learning. First, I find working in class a real strain because I think very slowly, and am usually still apprehending what others are already playing with. It is a good way, however, to get students to communicate with each other, and to incite them to attend, so I see where you’re coming from. I see it as a good thing, although for me, it can also be tiring.

    The other aspect of the slow apprehension thing is a problem I have with readings… I find it very very difficult to become adequately acquainted with a text before the lecture, because I’m usually clueless about what to pay attention to (and am therefore also less motivated, since I don’t have a goal of extracting something specific from the reading.) I tend to have to sneakily wait for the lecture and THEN do the reading in order to be able to access certain texts at all. In lieu of this, it would be great if my profs could take a moment to preview the readings. If I had just a couple of indicators as to what the discussion for the next class will be dealing with IN RELATION to the assigned text, I’d have more of an idea of what to try to bring to the table. I don’t know if you do this, but I find that most profs don’t, which is a shame.

    Thanks again, Whatladder, truly. I’m flattered and inspired by all this response. You’ve made my day.

    1. whatladder Post author

      TIME is such a huge issue in my lit classes, it’s really hard to get to this stuff about learning at all. In Comp classes, I definitely do address learning styles (with an emphasis on how they effect producing writing – like, do you want to brainstorm, or do you prefer to think out your draft in your head, that kind of thing), and there is room to do it because it seems relevant to the content of the course.

      When I am trying to teach 800 years of lit in a Survey course; it’s just basically “hold on to your hat; here we go”.

      I am really glad you made me start thinking about this again, because I do want to think about it more, and think about how and if I can work more of it into my classes.

  3. fillyjonk

    Perhaps one of the problems is the “non disabled” (for lack of a better term) students never have to contemplate HOW they learn. (Unless you’re an Egghead who gets off on thinking about that kind of thing, like I do).

    I know there’s arguably too much stuff crammed in school curricula already, but maybe helping students come to some understanding of “what works for them” would save a lot of grief and frustration. But I think maybe it’s something that should start early on. I know my parents did some of that kind of stuff with me, encouraging me to follow study habits that seemed to work and drop ones that didn’t. But that takes having parents with the time to be that involved, and also (perhaps) parents with an academic background like mine have.

    Oh, and I LOLed at your Business Major crack, because, been there, done that SO much in one of my classes.

  4. redqueencjb

    I don’t mean to play devil’s advocate (or maybe I do), but a recent article came out by Pashler et al. (2009) that argues that there is no evidence for learning styles.

    PS: your blog is hi-LAR-ious

    1. whatladder Post author

      Yeah, I read that article, and they’re talking about a different concept of learning style: the one where people are auditory, visual or kinesthetic. I always thought that was pretty much bunk, actually.

      Kolb’s learning styles is more about how you like to approach information based on personality, not whether you are a talker or a fiddler.


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