“How do you learn?”
When the question was posed to me last week, it was the first time in ten years of work in educational publishing and design that someone wanted to know how I learn. As in, me personally, not how learning occurs generally. It’s a daunting question; and one I’m grateful to be asked.
I figure, if experience as a patient improves a doctor’s bedside care, and if self-analysis is a prerequisite for practicing good psychotherapy, then I as an educator should benefit from thinking deeply about my own learning style.
My firm creates multimedia instructional materials for clients in academia (primarily graduate level) and industry (corporate training and professional certification). Most of my career has been in the arena of adult learning, but I spent a short time early on in K-12 publishing, and one striking difference between the two is how central pedagogy is to the delivery of instruction at the primary school level—versus how peripheral it is to teaching in college and beyond. The person at the head of a typical elementary school class is a pedagogist—someone trained in how children learn. The person at the front of a typical university classroom is a subject matter expert, who may know extraordinarily little about how learning occurs. Those of us operating at the highest levels of education would benefit to spend more time contemplating learning theory. At the very least, deeper insight into how we ourselves learn might remind us of the challenges of being a student and rekindle some useful empathy.
Neuroscientists liken our brain to a computer: just like your laptop, the brain uses its working memory to process new information. The successful absorption of knowledge from its first entry point, short term memory, into the long-term storage part of the brain is called cognition. Cognitive load is the degree of effort a learner must exert to process the new information. Instructional designers spend much of their time devising programs that reduce cognitive load and accelerate comprehension.
Unfortunately, while neuroscience explains what occurs in the brain during learning, it doesn’t explain how learning is stimulated, nor does it suggest which outside interventions catalyze the process. Enter educational theory.
One measure that distinguishes adult learners from children is the degree of experiential learning we do: the wisdom we earn through life’s daily episodes. David Kolb, a leading educational theorist, presented a model of experiential learning in the 1980s that endures today: the Kolb Learning Style Inventory. It states that learning comprises both processing (receiving) and perceiving (interpreting) information. Processing occurs on a continuum, with active experimentation (learning by doing) at one end, and reflective observation (learning by watching) at the other. Perceiving takes place along a second continuum, from abstract conceptualization (learning by thinking about things) to concrete analysis (learning through feeling things). Where you are on each spectrum suggests the circumstances in which you learn best. Do you learn by careful observation, and interpret new information based on how it feels to you emotionally and physically? Then you fit the description of someone with a diverger style. Or perhaps you are an accommodator: you learn best through trial-and-error.
According to this model, I am a converger, which is to say I have a strong preference for learning by doing the new activity, analyzing the outcome, and forming new hypotheses before going at it again. It explains why I study best in solitude, with space to think deeply and work independently. My husband, in contrast, is an assimilator: he learns by watching others, consulting experts, devouring technical material, and assimilating it in a highly analytic way. Any instructor hoping to engage us both (our first dance wedding choreographer, for example) must incorporate multiple methods of instruction, or risk inciting marital discord.
I also examined my learning style through the lens of another popular model, this one from the field of childhood learning: VAK. VAK asserts that every student can be categorized as a Visual learner (favoring graphics and the written word); an Auditory learner (favoring lecture and audio materials); or a Kinesthetic learner (favoring hands-on activities).
The unambiguous results of the six independent online assessments I took confirmed what I’ve always known: I am a visual learner. My earliest childhood memories of studying involve doodles, sketches, and diagrams of lesson concepts. Today, I routinely use visual maps to break up new information into easily understood patterns, or to visually line up new data with what I already know. If I can visualize knowledge, I can absorb it. The research on visuals is evolving, but generally suggests that well designed visuals support positive learning outcomes among all types of learners: graphics minimize cognitive load, facilitate the transfer of learning, support attention and retention, and raise student motivation.
So there’s the answer: I am a visual learner. And a converger. A converging visualist? Or perhaps I have a different type of learning style altogether, a new label offered by one of the other countless models available to diagnose a student’s learning style. It turns out that the subject of how I learn, or how anyone learns, is a matter of great debate. For every study espousing a new theory of multiple learning styles, there seems to be another pointing to the dearth of evidence that such differences exist. Fortunate for me, that’s a matter for theorists to duke out.
The lesson for us practitioners, however, is clear. Whether or not learning styles meaningfully differ, the very nature of learning is sufficiently complex in a way that traditional post-secondary instruction (lecture+textbook) does not address. My firm works with clients to diversify the tools they bring to bear in their learning programs, specifically by adding rich multimedia―graphics, animation, video. We evangelize multi-modal learning (the use of various types of instructional material in the same program), not for it’s own sake or for entertainment value, but for its proven effectiveness and the value of pedagogic diversity. When most of us order dinner in a restaurant, it would never occur to us to order an entire meal of beets, or a three-course menu of raspberry tart. A far better choice is the meal that offers a variety of nutrients and flavors, a combination of foods that furnish the necessary calories and also appeal to the palette.
At least that’s how I eat. It’s also how I learn.
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