All of My Faults Are Stress Related

Considering learning styles

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.


  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    April 5, 2009

    There is a school of thought that individuals have diferent temperments. Also there is a fairly small number of identifyable temperments. The book I read had a title something like, “Why don’t you understand me?” It included a questionaire which explored one’s temperment. I came out with a temperment which is common among scientists, but is found in only about 10% of the population.

    So, I teach like I would like to be taught. I doubt seriously that this is the best way to teach a general education class of nonscience majors. Students ought be grouped by temperment, and each group taught in an appropriate manner. This would, of course, be dicriminatory, inefficient and expensive.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 5, 2009

    Kim, what a great fucking post! This is one of the most difficult things about teaching and mentoring students and trainees: dealing with the fact that they are not likely to be just like you.

    I took the quiz: I am Act 3, Int 5, Vis 5, and Glo 7.

  3. #3 Mr. F
    April 5, 2009

    Hello, I’m a biology educator, and I find that addressing different learning styles should be a driving force of any course.
    Granted, it is difficult for an educator to find time to plan this way, however, education is no easy task
    For example, my students were learning about the structure of viruses, and instead of just talking about, or showing pictures, or even drawing pictures, I let students make them out of household items.
    It turned out to be an enjoyable learning experience.
    Unfortunately, curricula are packed tight with material, so often educators have to rely on lecture.
    Often unappreciated, there should be more focus on HOW to make lectures more interactive and involved, rather than moving away from lecture.

  4. #4 dreikin
    April 5, 2009

    The book you’re thinking of is “Please Understand Me” by Keirsey and Bates. Be careful with that, though – the basis is not as strong as they would have you believe. In psychology research, the Big 5 is usually understood as a better measure of such things, as well as avoiding the problem of false categories. Personality and related behaviors appear to fall on a spectrum, not boxes as advocated by Keirsey, MBTI, etc.. Same goes for the Enneagram and other such things.

    On topic: From a student perspective, I usually don’t have much of a problem unless the instructors leaves out or is incapable of addressing my favorable aspects. One example is that none of my organic chem instructors have been able to help me on the ‘global'(?) scale – they all how the reactions work and such, but it’s all rote, and (I’ve asked) they don’t know enough about the underlying physics to help me. (But then, I’m strange, it would seem – rote is useless to me unless I can derive it from underlying principles, like happens in math)

  5. #5 archaeozoo
    April 6, 2009

    I think this is relevant to all sorts of teaching. One of my day jobs is as a tutor for adult learners interested in archaeology. As a tutor, it would be very easy for me to teach the way I would want to be taught. However, not all of my learners learn best that way. This means I need to incorporate different types of activity to keep everyone included. This isn’t always easy, but it is one of the big factors I have to bear in mind when drawing up session plans.

  6. #6 working class
    April 6, 2009

    learning styles don’t exist.

  7. #7 Kim Hannula
    April 6, 2009

    working class: Tell me more. The survey that I linked to has been published and discussed, I think in the education literature – at least one group of peer reviewers thought the ideas were worth sharing. But I’ve heard comments about learning styles being bunk (though they were referring to the “multiple intelligences” idea, I think, and arguing that the teaching style needs to match the content rather than the audience), especially from psychology people.

    As someone who’s not a social scientist of any sort, and who generally accepts what psychologists and education researchers tell me, I want to know where the debates are.

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