There’s a little tangent in the course design tutorial I’m working through, and I think it’s worth considering outside the context of any particular course. How are my students different from me, in terms of how they learn best?
The tutorial uses the Index of Learning Styles to get participants thinking about how they like to learn, versus how their students like to learn. There’s an online questionnaire that anyone (students, teachers, blog-readers) can use to assess their own learning styles, and a description of learning styles that explains the results. The results are plotted on sliding scale for each of four dimensions, like this:
If you’re fairly well balanced, and can learn from either style, you plot in the middle for a particular dimension. For instance, I’m right in the middle of the active (ACT) vs. reflective (REF) scale – I like to jump in and try things (especially if I need to follow some kind of instructions), and I work all right with a group, but I also like to work on my own, and I know the value of looking before I leap. I’m fairly well balanced on the visual (VIS) -verbal (VRB) scale – more so than most of the participants in the SERC workshops, who had fairly strong preferences for visual learning.
On the other hand, it’s possible to have a moderate to strong preference for a particular style, and to find it challenging to learn in environments that favor the other end of the scale. For instance, I’ve got a moderate preference for global (GLO) over sequential (SEQ) learning. I like to work with the big picture; I’m not that good with details. (This is something I know – it takes some work for me to figure out the steps I use in my work, and to break things down into manageable pieces when I’m explaining things to students or in the methods section of a paper. And when it comes to following the instructions in a recipe, or in an intro chemistry lab? Eek.) And I’m on the extreme end of the sensory (SEN)-intuitive (INT) scale. I’m horrible with details and memorization, and I prefer ideas, abstractions, and innovation. I suspect that my fondness for deriving things from first principles (in physical chemistry or physics, especially) and my inability to remember ages of rocks beyond two significant figures are related to this.
The assessment of learning styles isn’t the same as an assessment of teaching styles, but I’ve got some idea of how my class activities fit into these scales. The things I do well – exercises in which students experiment with Silly Putty to help them understand the different changes in shape that rocks can undergo, for instance – work for a number of different types of learning styles. Students play with Silly Putty and discuss their results with members of their group – that’s active. But they each have their own piece of Silly Putty, so they can handle it and think about it on their own – there’s room for reflective learners there, as well. Both the Silly Putty and the sketches we make on the chalkboard are visual, but I also write a list of characteristics of the two end-member behaviors, so there’s some verbal learning, as well. (And we’re talking, too – that’s also verbal.) I’m not as good at helping sequential learners, but I’ve learned to accommodate them. (I would never have thought to write an outline of every lecture on the chalkboard until a colleague suggested it to me, but now I always do it. I think it helps students who get lost when I go off on tangents, or when we do some kind of long demonstration/experiment.)
And then there are the sensory learners. I know I’m not good at working with them. I wonder if some of the comments that I don’t understand from my teaching evaluations are related to this? For instance, when I first got my intro students involved in monitoring the water quality of a local river, I got some complaints that the project “wasn’t hands-on enough.” I haven’t gotten that complaint as much since I started having every group of students measure discharge, even though it’s impossible for every student to stand in the middle of the stream with the current meter.
And my biggest challenge in intro classes, especially, is pushing students to see the connections between different topics, and to answer the exam questions that appear unfamiliar (even though they use ideas that we’ve discussed in class). I’m not the only professor who has problems with this – I know our math department struggles to find ways to get students to figure out how to solve new problems on their own. (I agree with the math professors that those are important skills, and that giving exams in which all the problems fit familiar patterns isn’t a good solution.)
Part of my challenge in teaching The Control of Nature will be to make sure that I’m aware of sensory and sequential learning styles, given that I’ll be somewhat out of my element. When I’m in unfamiliar territory, I tend to revert to my preferred styles – jumping from idea to idea, with little order or detail. I don’t have an organized way to approach reading John McPhee. (In fact, his writing style isn’t very sequential.) And when I’m thinking about cultural differences or economic problems, I tend to arm-wave.
Something to think about, as I try to put some details into my class schedule.