What’s Your Learning Personality?
When it comes to learning and study, students and teachers alike are well advised to take note of the impact of personal preferences and proclivities that influence each individual’s learning experience. In fact, this is the stuff of which educational psychology and learning theory are made. Each individual certification candidate must normally study long and hard to earn various credentials that may be of interest—or even required for certain positions. Some knowledge of the concepts and terminology involved, as well as a sense of what your preferred learning styles might be, can be a real godsend when considering or selecting study materials, classes and so forth to help the certification preparation process along.
Without going into too much detail just yet, it suffices for now to say that individuals who stick to their preferred learning styles will usually do better on certification exams than those who overlook or ignore this aspect of the learning process. It’s also broadly observed, both anecdotally and in academic literature, that those who cater to their personal learning styles usually learn more easily, retain learning better and longer, and enjoy the learning experience more than those who don’t.
About Learning Styles
Although types and taxonomies of learning styles come in many shapes and sizes (see, for example, Richard Felder’s “Matters of Style” paper, which documents no less than four different models for learning style), there’s wide agreement among educational psychologists and professional instructors that various students tend to learn in multiple, generally recognizable ways. Because Felder’s work stresses teaching and learning on technical matters (he’s based in a chemical engineering program, rather than in an education or psychology program, as you might have expected), I’ll use his model as an example here, but it’s important to recognize that there are numerous ways to flesh out the notion that different people learn in different ways and respond best to certain kinds of input and activity. This model represents only one set of choices out of a number of well-documented and -recognized sets defined by other educators and researchers.
Felder’s model is formally known as the Felder-Silverman learning style model, because he collaborated with educational psychologist Linda K. Silverman in its research and development. This model classifies students by learning style into five distinct categories (the list that follows is taken from Felder’s work):
- Sensing vs. Intuitive: Sensing learners (concrete, practical, oriented toward facts and procedures) or intuitive learners (conceptual, innovative, oriented toward theories and meanings).
- Visual vs. Verbal: Visual learners (prefer visual representations of presented material—pictures, diagrams, flow charts) or verbal learners (prefer written and spoken explanations).
- Inductive vs. Deductive: Inductive learners (prefer presentations that proceed from the specific to the general) or deductive learners (prefer presentations that go from the general to the specific).
- Active vs. Reflective: Active learners (learn by trying things out, working with others) or reflective learners (learn by thinking things through, working alone).
- Sequential vs. Global: Sequential learners (linear, orderly, learn in small incremental steps) or global learners (holistic, systems thinkers, learn in large leaps).
The guiding principle behind this system is one that recognizes that different people learn best in different ways. Some people are action-, fact- or experience-oriented and work by collecting lots of close-ups to develop a big picture (sensing, inductive, active and sequential learners). Others prefer to understand principles, theories and concepts and start from the big picture to give structure to individual close-ups and details (intuitive, deductive, reflective and global learners). Some people do better with pictures, diagrams and flow charts (visual learners), while others do better with words or speech (verbal learners).
It’s important to understand that each of the Felder-Silverman categories represents a continuum, rather than a pair of discrete tendencies. That is, individuals can be placed on a line that goes between one pole and the other, rather than simply being either one or the other. Thus, for example, a learner might be more visual than verbal, but this is not to say that their preference is completely visual and not at all verbal.
What’s important about this scheme is to understand where one fits into the various categories. This helps individuals decide what kinds of training approaches or materials are likely to work better or worse for them, and to seek specific kinds of input that will help them learn–and review–when preparing for exams. Thus, someone who’s more visually than verbally oriented will probably benefit from using flash cards to prepare for an exam, while someone who’s more verbally than visually oriented might do better by recording a tape of important points to recall or consider to listen to during commute times to and from school or work. The same kinds of observations apply to each of the various categories and help define what’s desirable in classroom or e-learning courses, study guides, exam crams, practice tests and other forms of certification prep materials.
To help individuals understand their learning styles better, Felder has even created a self-scoring assessment tool that reports on four categories in the Felder-Silverman model. Interested individuals can visit and use this tool to help them understand where they fit on the continuum. (See the list of “Resources” for more information.)
Learning Styles in Action
Some of the most interesting material in Felder’s “Matters of Style” paper reports on the results of applying any of the four learning style models. Although methods of application and approaches to structuring learning materials based on those models differ in the 10 specific case studies cited, all show some evidence that students who understand which learning styles work best for them tend to experience improved learning and academic performance as a result. Certainly, certification candidates can benefit from the same kinds of self-analysis and understanding as they learn and test their way into various IT credentials.
Accommodating Learning Styles
Felder also makes some interesting observations about how training materials or courses can best be structured to deliver information that appeals to various learning styles. Though not all of these will apply to each certification candidate, this information is extremely useful because it essentially defines a “wish list” that can help candidates examine and analyze courses and training materials to see if they fit their particular learning styles. It’s a pretty good set of metrics that can help would-be buyers distinguish the “good stuff” from the merely adequate. Here are some suggestions for accommodating specific learning styles:
- Teach theory by presenting real-world cases and problems, then provide theory in the form of concepts, tools and ideas to help learners better understand, interpret and solve those problems. This appeals to sensing, inductive and global learners, while also providing opportunities for intuition, induction and sequence.
- Seek a balance between concepts and concrete information so that intuitive and sensing learners can benefit equally from materials. This means moving from ideas, formulas and theoretical models to actual data, practical applications and problems to solve in a predictable rhythm.
- Use visual means of information delivery and organization (sketches, models, diagrams, flow charts, graphical plots and displays, and demonstration) coupled with verbal discussions and a