Back home from Dundee, and with a plugged-in laptop, I can resume my reading and blogged reflections.
Jarvis, M., The Psychology of Effective Learning and Teaching (Cheltenham: Nelson Thomas, 2005), Chapt.4, Styles of Thinking, Learning and Studying (pp.72-94)
The first thing Jarvis makes clear is that popular references to ‘learning styles’ rather blur the finer distinctions that other experts have identified. According to Jarvis, your ‘cognitive style’ (how you think) is different from your ‘learning strategies’ (how you adapt to the learning tasks you’ve been set), and your ‘learning style’ is actually a catch-all phrase which can be interpreted in a wide range of ways. That’s a good start! He goes on to explain how psychometric tests can be used to assess how accurately a particular system of learning styles has been categorised, but says that actually, even using learning styles as a heuristic application (how the individual thinks it applies to them) can be worthwhile. It can help the learner, and it can help their teacher by giving them insights into how individual pupils or students learn.
Jarvis warns us not to assume that everyone learns the same way as us. Moreover, he informs us that there is a distinction between people whose learning is ‘field dependent’ as opposed to ‘field independent’ – and reports that even though it could be considered sexist, research has found that there is a tendency for women to be more field dependent – seeing a task in a particular context – whilst men tend to be the opposite, seeing a task in isolation. Students who are field dependent are more people-focused, whilst the others are more task or problem-focused. I’m not convinced by this, really. Does he mean that a woman might, arguably, ask, “how am I going to devise the bibliography for this assignment?” (or, “how are we going to devise this bibliography?”), whilst a man is more likely to ask, “how am I, in general, going to devise a bibliography?” Maybe I’m taking the distinction too literally, but I struggle to see how knowing about field dependency would affect the kind of teaching that I do. Leaving aside the alleged difference between the sexes, I don’t really see how I could improve my teaching by recognising this distinction. Indeed, when I’m asked to provide a ten-minute introduction to resources that will specifically be relevant to a particular task, then that is exactly what the students will be told. My colleagues and I established a while ago that students were more receptive to this kind of instruction when they had been given a specific assignment. It would be perverse to take the opportunity we had been offered and ignore the context in which we were providing training. However, I would always start with general principles then demonstrate relevant resources of the assignment that the students had been set.
Other theorists distinguish between logical and intuitive approaches to problems; between tackling a whole task or breaking it down into bits and doing a bit at a time; between actively learning by experience or by reflecting upon a topic; or between verbalising and visualisation.
Jarvis introduces so very many different ways of looking at learning styles that it is, frankly, rather confusing to pick out particular theories that might be helpful, especially when they’re all introduced in such close proximity. I can understand the broad distinctions that I’ve just summarised, and perhaps for me, it is enough to recognise that we do all learn in subtly different ways. Jarvis references the theorists P. Honey and A. Mumford, who revised their Manual of Learning Styles in 1992, and their four scales make good basic sense, describing learners as activists, theorists, pragmatics and reflectors.
Learning strategies are rather different, though. We’re introduced to deep and shallow learning, and to strategic learning, where students plan out what they need to study (and how they need to tackle it) in order to complete a task. I think I’m probably a bit like this myself.
What I take from this chapter, however, is basically that it is good if a student has an awareness of how they best learn – and, where a teacher has responsibility for a class or cohort of students, it is self-evidently helpful if they form an idea of different students’ approach to learning and completing assignments. For me, at the moment, parachuted into class situations to deliver one-off sessions, I cannot possibly know the majority of students well enough to recognise how they learn. Where I have worked with a particular disabled student, or a student seeking my help with an extended project, and got to know their preferred approach, then that is a little different. But otherwise, I take Jarvis’s theories as a reminder (a) not to assume that everyone learns in the same way as me, and (b) to ensure that – where possible – I assign varied group activities so that individual students will find something to capture their imagination, whatever their learning style. Field-dependency or -independency is not something that I’m likely to be able to observe in the context of my own teaching.