Tag Archives: Learning styles

So – How do you Learn?

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)

British Library Pinterest brain
British Library Pinterest collection: Anatomical drawing of the brain.

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.


Evidence that Learners Have Learned

Janet Robertson, one of my classmates on the Teaching Artist course, posted to the class collaborative space on 24 April after a session on teaching styles led by Kenny McGlashan.  Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend that session – I was flying back from Luton at the time!  However, reading through the comments, I realise there is quite a bit of discussion about deep and surface learning, and also about how we know our students have learned anything.  The day after Janet’s post, course leader Andrew Comrie posted a comment about surface and deep learning.

I don’t want to quote his words verbatim without permission, even with attribution, but I’d like to make a note of his main points so that I can refer back to them.  So here they are:-

  1. “Create opportunities for learners to demonstrate … question …. and set [further] goals, eg by
  2. “Reflective Journals” [we can use these to assess learning and guide students further]
  3. “Set formative tasks in future lessons” [giving students a chance to show what they’ve learned] …. and “allow time to give formative feedback for learning” …
  4. Getting to know about our students’ learning styles and preferences helps us cater for their various preferences. Again, we need to allow time to get feedback from students, to inform us of this.
  5. People do learn at different paces – some during the class, but others “continue to process after class and use opportunities to discuss aspects of lessons with their peers and others to make sense of what is happening.” So …
  6. If we can engineer opportunities for this post-class discussion to take place, it benefits all.

I’ve been mulling over how I’m going to construct my “digital artefact” to demonstrate my practice.  This blog will be the main vehicle, but if I can, I hope to send a small survey to my postgrad researchers after the class I’m going to be leading in a couple of weeks’ time.  It would be great if I could get some feedback and share it here.

‘One of your best ever learning experiences’

Strange to say, I am struggling with this.  Perhaps it’s because so much of my learning has been self-directed as an independent researcher, and I haven’t been in a classroom situation for a while.  I’ve twice attempted to learn Gaelic in a class setting, once joining in BA Scottish Music students, and once at local authority evening classes at the Gaelic School – but neither of those experiences would make it into my “top ten” of learning experiences.  The first was, unfortunately, just a more conversational approach than I have been used to for learning languages – that, combined with the fact that it meant studying through my lunchbreak once a week, which wasn’t ideal.  The second attempt would have been okay if there hadn’t been a succession of teachers, and some very icy weather at night.  And in both instances, although I really did want to learn, I think my timing was bad.  I should have known that my learning goes in waves, and after I’d just finished the PhD, perhaps it wasn’t the best time to start learning a language.  Maybe I’ve learned several lessons from all this, but more about how I don’t learn, than how I do.

Christine Lagarde official portrait, from Wikipedia

On the other hand, a few weeks ago we watched Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, give a televised speech.  Despite the fact that I have no interest in the IMF and had never heard of Christine Lagarde before, her public speaking was electrifying.  It was her delivery that so impressed me – to be so fluent, and so able to command attention, is a great gift, and I would love to watch some more of her presentations for that alone, quite apart from talking about the IMF!  Her timing was incredible. She looked all round her audience.  There was no hesitation, and if she had notes, you would never have known.  So, it was unintended learning for me, and if I was to think about the learning context, it was probably this: I had the time to listen and pay attention.  The speaker was excellent.  And probably most importantly, from an educational point of view, she was doing something that I was motivated to learn – I’m very interested in public speaking.  Clearly, the best learning is going to take place when the learner has a need to learn. As Phil Race says, two of the five factors underpinning successful learning are wanting and needing to learn.

However, I have to concede that this was probably not the kind of learning experience that I have been asked to reflect upon, and I would need to study her delivery in more detail to learn more from it.  Also, Race’s other points of ‘learning from feedback’, and ‘learning by doing’ were not present, though the fifth one, ‘making sense’ was arguably there, because I have attended seminars about public speaking before, and Lagarde did demonstrate many of the best practice principles that I already knew about.