August 12th, 2015

How Do You Learn?


How do you learn? How do you teach?

We are definitely way more interested in learning than we used to be. In the early years of my teaching and faculty development work, it was all about teaching: improve it and students will automatically learn more. Now the focus is on how students learn and the implications that has for how we teach.

Lately I’ve been wondering about the learning practices of those of us who teach—what we know about ourselves as learners and how that knowledge influences the decisions we make about teaching. I’ve been trying to recall what I’ve thought about myself as a learner when I was in college. I think I self-identified as a student. I took courses and learned content. I liked some subjects and didn’t like others, which was sort of related to what I thought I could do. But the concept of learning as an entity was pretty much a big amorphous fuzz.

In a workshop on using reflection to promote professional growth, I asked participants to spend some time thinking and writing about what they knew about themselves as learners. Teaching Professor Blog When we moved to a whole-group discussion, people talked about learning in general, not about themselves as learners. I didn’t have much luck getting the group to make it personal. Did it feel too risky? That didn’t seem right. This group had been working together for almost eight weeks. Was the question unclear? Or was it simply that these college teachers hadn’t thought much about themselves as learners and didn’t have any good answers at the ready?

Many of us have done the learning styles bit. We’ve got some broad parameters. I learn from text. If findings are explained in the text, I get it. Make me get the conclusions from a table and I struggle. I like questions that generate an array of answers without definitive right ones. I’m better with details and don’t always see how they can be assembled into a big picture. I’m betting you can come up with your own descriptions for how you like to learn, but these are all general characteristics, starting points. The wave of neuroscience research is making it clear that learners are unique, that understanding and sense-making is very much an individual process. Our thinking about how we do it needs to be more precise and specific.

I also tried to get my workshop group to talk about the relationship between what we study and how we learn. We find our way to these disciplines where knowledge is configured, organized, shaped, and structured in particular ways. Do we feel at home there because those ways of dealing with content fit with how we manage material—or is it the other way around? We get into these disciplinary domains and they start shaping how we think, question, analyze, discover, and learn. Or, maybe it’s some synergistic relationship that we have yet to figure out.

It’s interesting to try to learn something new and unlike what you know well. That takes most of us outside our comfort zones, and pretty quickly we start looking and acting a lot like our students. I’m trying to learn how to kayak this summer. A phys ed teacher who lives next door has been helping me. I hear myself telling her that I’m a motor-skills moron and may be too old to learn. My kayak mostly moves in clumsy circles. She glides around smoothly and with such precision that I’m embarrassed to be in her presence. I apologize for my stupid questions. The learning strategies I rely on to read, write, think, and make presentations simply don’t work with this learning task.

I’m convinced that how we learn influences the decisions we make about how to teach. It starts with the commitment to teach the kind of course we’d like to take. Many of us talk a lot when we teach because we learn well by listening. We assign lots of reading because that’s how we master new information. But those are the easy, obvious connections. I suspect there are others that are more subtle and complex. How we learn and its effects on how we teach are intriguing. It’s important because it affects how students learn. I’m wondering if the kind of teaching that helps students learn begins with a clear understanding of how learning works for us.

I welcome your thoughts. Please share them in the comment box.

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  • Angela Linse

    Great thought piece Maryellen! It is quite timely as we head into the new year and new faculty orientations.

  • John Bruno

    This is very timely as the new academic year begins for many of us. I have been training teachers how to teach for the last 30 years. This topic is one I ask of my future teachers and current teachers to reflect on constantly. Just as you describe, it is important to have participant be "Reflective Practitioners", using a term from Schon's book. You mentioned learning styles in passing but hinted that you are thinking there needs to be more depth than that. I find that at least starting with the idea that depending on the learning task, each of us tends towards a more visual, auditory, or kinesthetic style. When I walk them through activities that ask them to reflect on how they are accessing that knowledge, they are surprised to realize how visual, auditory, or kinesthetic they are. To the point that even their language reflects their preferences "Do you see what I am saying?" vs "Listen to the differences there.." vs "Are you with me?" for examples of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic styles. The second piece that resonates for me from your article is the idea that we are actively constructing our knowledge based on our prior experiences. Helping teachers understand that focusing on helping learners make connections to their prior learning, understandings, and existing knowledge increases the active learning that is taking place. My goal is for my teachers to plan lessons that allow all of the learners to access their lessons with activities that call on more than one learning style and allow participants to connect the new learning to their prior experiences.

    • Nqabomzi Gawe

      I guess our early teaching styles are, to a certain extent influenced by those who taught us. My teachers did not have access to teaching aids and reference books. Therefore, in order to ensure that as learners we proceeded to the next grade our teachers resorted to enforcing rote learning. Had we not got opportunity to have books donated to our church some of us would have remained with the teacher’s view, which, although correct, was limiting.
      later, I was introduced to cooperative learning styles which opened up and enriched not only my teaching practice but my thinking as well. I stopped being the source of knowledge to be open to the many ways of knowing.
      Thank you for this article which reinforces my perspective.

  • This is something I am very interested in – the relationship between how we learn and how we teach. When I was Assoc Dean of Teaching I would have faculty try to make these links between their best and worst learning experiences with their best and worst teaching experiences. It produced some interesting insights for faculty in terms of explaining why some of their courses seemed to unfold better than others. Have a look at these two short pieces that Maryellen and myself wrote last year. The link to the Teaching Professor article on students' learning philosophies is incorrect on the Faculty Focus website. It can be found here.

    Thanks Maryellen for raising this issue as we prepare for the Fall term.

  • Carolyn Vos Strache

    I enjoyed your example of learning to Kayak as I think we will help our learners more if we are learning something ourselves especially something we are not good at. In my recent learning of tennis, I had the following reactions:
    1. Fear I could never learn it;2; looked stupid in front of friends;3 embarrassed at how long it took me to learn something so simple that others got right away; 4 recognized I needed to practise simple stuff on my own and with a coach before going on to random practise;5) needed positive feedback or I wanted to quit.; 6 helpful to have coach let me tell him when I was ready to move on instead of him just moving on to next skill.

    Best teachers are always learning something new so we have better empathy with our learners. I will be aware of these things as I teach something new next time.

  • Kathleen Hagen

    I feel for your pain in trying to learn to kayak, Dr. Weimer. But I think that the strategies a person uses for learning information are not very different from learning physical tasks. It's just that you are so used to reading for information in a certain field that you (1) use good strategies automatically and (2) have a big reservoir of background knowledge in the field of education, which always makes learning related things easier. If you were to try to learn information in a totally unrelated field, you might experience some of the same feelings of intellectual clumsiness and slowness as you are experiencing with learning the physical task of learning to kayak.

  • Larry Spence

    Good opening to an important discussion. I would argue that we don’t remember how we learn because our memories don’t fit our models of learning. No matter what the subject or the skill you learn by screwing up and figuring out how to get out of the messes you make. But that process indicates that according to how we are supposed to learn – pay attention to the instruction, listen to the lecture, read the text and then proceed to practice – is not the way anyone learns. At best you can take in some information and with some work remember it, but you will never develop the knowledge you need to think and act. Our first impulse is do something. Our first experiences are mistakes. But in our normal model of learning that means we have failed. To think about ourselves as learners is then to confront ourselves as failures. If we could consider that the impulse to act, make mistakes, fail and use that experience (and even the emotions it evokes) to change our knowledge is the central process of learning we might open astonishing vistas of the potentials of teaching.

    • Robert A. Watts

      Great response … so true that we learn by flailing … the challenge is to be comfortable enough to stay with the learning process as we struggle. By the way, one complaint I have about the "outcomes" obsession out there is that few people identify confusion as part of the learning process. Some of the biggest leaps in my understanding and thinking in various areas occurred painfully, as old structures of understanding had to be torn down to make way for the new.

  • Rich

    I disagree, in part, that "The wave of neuroscience research is making it clear that learners are unique, that understanding and sense-making is very much an individual process." Or perhaps you meant "cognitive science" which more relevant to the experience of learning. Either way, humans have more in common with their cognitive machinery than differences. That is why being concerned about spacing, interleaving, activating prior knowledge, managing cognitive load and encouraging deep processing show appreciable benefits for the majority or learners whereas trying to match learning styles has not. There are differences in experience, motivation and background knowledge to consider but all within similar cognitive processes.

    When we ask ourselves how we learn, our answers are more of a reflection of our habits, motivations, and feelings of self-efficacy about achieving different goals. Once we become expert in a domain, how we learn will be vastly different than how a novice would effectively study. But sometimes we forget that novices can't learn like experts and that is the blind spot we need to be aware of.

    • Ruth

      You've stated what I was thinking so much more clearly than I would have, Rich. Thank you. The only thing I would add would be to point people to Roddy Roediger et al's book "Making it Stick", and Daniel Willingham's extensive research and writing on learning.

    • balesleftfoot

      I agree. One of the most meaningless statements in Education is the (oft repeated) one about all people "learning differently." What does that mean in practical terms? Neuroscience is teaching us far more about similarities than individual differences. And will the non-science of modality learning styles ever go away?

  • Joe

    After 35 years of teaching, I'm not sure of much but that there are similarities between how students think and how they learn. I have been using Burger and Starbird's "The 5 elements of effective thinking" in all my classes and it seems to have a positive impact on learning. We apply each of the 5 elements as often as possible to the material we cover in class and try to integrate into those thought processes material covered in outside assignments. I have found RELEVANCE to be the major difference in whether students learn or just memorize.

  • Gina

    We all learn differently, I am a visual learner. You can set me a book of instruction on how to kayak and I won't learn a thing, , but show me, demonstrate and give me some tips and I'm experimenting, exploring and maybe even innovating my own way through. Some people are visual learners some prefer text only. some a combination of both.

    • Millie

      I agree with you Gina. We all learn differently as some people are very visul inclined as compatred to others.
      It laso depends on the nature of the subject contents. Some subjects are very difficult to learn without any demonbstrations by the teacher. But for me the combination of both works quite well.

  • Jimdilly

    When I learned to whitewater kayak I first saw it being done and studied what kayakers did. Then I read about it—or rather the reasons why certain strokes were used at certain times and how water flowed around objects and eddied near the shore, etc.; basically learned about the theories behind these practices. Then I rented a kayak and tried it. It went very well. The only thing I needed specific, formalized training for was the kayak roll (sometimes called the "Eskimo roll"). I do believe that a person can thoroughly study something s/he has never done and do it with competency very quickly. I think the idea that we must always "learn by doing" is that we have been telling people that it is the best way to learn, when in fact we have been psychologically conditioning people for that dependency. "I can't teach myself from a book"—or worse—"I can't teach myself" are lamentable. The only thing difference between not knowing (or not knowing how) and knowing (or knowing how) is Will.

  • dave porter

    It's not so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble; it’s the things we know that just aren't so… (to paraphrase Mark Twain).

    For the past few decades it has been my pleasure to be both a cognitive psychologist and classroom teacher (I've been an administrator as well, but that was not as pleasant).

    I concur with Rich's comments and observations: we, as learners, have far more in common than we realize. Many of these cognitive processes (reliance on relevance and context, the important role of consolidation during sleep in memory, avoiding distractions, "desirable difficulties", and many others) are not only common among learners, they are things that we often fail to notice and report even with extensive reflection. The difficulty with reflection unfettered by science, its that we tend to confabulate – we make things up that either sound good or that we wish were true. The reason we need cognitive science, is that it helps get over our delusions about our own thinking and learning. We as humans are very good at fooling ourselves, and teachers are not exempt…

    Stephen Chew's excellent video series on student learning provides many examples of the implications of cognitive psychology on student learning.

  • Dave

    I had supposed that the myth of different learning styles had been sufficiently refuted by now. Daniel Willingham has, in particular, written substantively on this unfortunate bit of pseudoscience. Teachers who a) believe this "theory" or b) attempt to design instruction to match student learning styles, are doing their students a considerable disservice. Yes, all students are unique, in large part because of their own learning histories, and the skills they bring with them into any new learning domain. They are not unique, however, in the processes by which they acquire new skills, be they academic, work related, or recreational. Associative learning is believed to have evolved nearly 500 million years ago, and is likely responsible, in part, for the Cambrian explosion. In other words, learning is a very old and fundamental mode of ontogenetic adaptation, and it manifests itself in both formal learning environments, such as classrooms, and more natural environments in which learning and teaching are not explicitly programmed. Constructing effective instructional practices systematically based on what we know about basic learning principles is good practice, as is assessing individual student mastery in a domain before providing instruction. This is not the same, however, as assessing student learning styles. udenUsing

  • Mike Calendine

    Great article. We currently run a training for our faculty asking them to delve into these ideas such as the purpose of education, roles of students, roles of faculty, how learning occurs and is transferred, and other foundational beliefs. I always find it enlightening that many begin to see chinks in the armor. These areas where their actions and beliefs don't line up with their foundational core as an instructor. This is such a great way to get us back to our core of why we believe what we do and how we put it into action.

  • Marsha Orr

    I love your question Maryellen! I have thought about your question as I watch students in class or talk with them during appointments. I see them approach an assignment quite differently than I would. A prime example is taking notes–I don't see students doing that anymore but it is not only a primary processing act for me, but I find that I don't understand or retain information if I don't do it. A printed handout of slides is of no use to me unless I write notes, draw diagrams, or write conclusions. When I listen to video/audio instructions, I write down points that are emphasized or suggestions for approaching an assignment. I also find that I do better if I print out instructions/material that I can then mark up. I know that learning styles are lacking scientific evidence, but I seem to be using both text-based and visual styles, however, again, it is the act of writing that seems to help most. I often suggest in class videos that students have the material/rubric/assignment in front of them while watching the video and make some notes about tips for success that I provide. But, I sense that they seldom do that. I recently served on a jury and we were provided notebooks. I nearly filled mine and others wrote sparingly–then in deliberations, I was constantly referring to notes about statements that other could not recall. —-have others noticed this absence of note taking as well? Is it just a hangover from "back in the day" when we filled reams of notebooks??

  • Dr. Merritt

    I love reading your articles. I have been a college instructor for 15 year and currently am VP of Academic Affairs in a Catholic school that serves grade 6-12. We focus on building such meta-cognitive skills in our students prior to entering higher ed settings. I believe when students understand how they think and learn, they can advocate more readily to their instructors when they have difficulties. I have watched college professors struggle with the task of matching their learning styles to their students' learning styles. Many of us come from traditional college experiences where we attended lectures, took exams, wrote papers and moved to the next level. Our students have totally different learning experiences that include technology. How these tools will speak to learning styles will have a tremendous impact on how our students will learn in the future.
    Good luck in the fall!

  • Nadine

    Hi Maryellen
    I really enjoyed your article and I am wondering if you can suggest more reading material related to your topic, thank you.

  • Raghavendra Rao

    Dear Dr Maryellen,
    Thank you for the thought provoking article.
    The question of "whether my learning style affects my teaching style" seems to suggest a obvious answer – of course it does.
    Whatever I found difficult to understand during my learning, I expect my students to find difficult too. This, as you point out, may not be true.
    So, the real concern is " how do I identify and adapt my teaching style to my student's learning style".
    This demands that I know my learning style, my teaching style, and how it affects students who may have different learning styles.
    If I can answer these questions, I can try, gradually, to bring about changes in my teaching style to cover different student learning styles (more than my own).
    Over time, I would cover a large number of student learning styles and become more useful!
    Prof Walter Lewis (MIT) is probably a good example of explaining physics which appeals to many different learning styles.
    Raghavendra Rao Brig (Retd) Prof Mech Engg India

  • Steve Scaysbrook

    I read your article with great interest, I am a visiting lecturer and now Visiting Prog, in Architectural Technology, or how to build and present the design in CAD, I have spent almost all my career sorting out site problems designing and lecturing to internal people and often as not to clients. I and 62 so came to teaching late in life, thinking I have seen it all, all I had to do was use my big corporate experience and give the same lectures,,,,,, how wrong could I have been.

    I now understand the different between teaching and lecturing, we teach, or Lecture, there is a difference, I hope I do a little of both, some days there is so much to get through, it tends to be a lecture, but as often as I can, I teach, that is I interact with the students, both during the attendance time and after.

    I read as much as I can on lecturing techniques, class prep and getting current technology onto slides that mean something, I use google docs and make my slides electronically available, but reading lists and some of the better web sites to visit. Currently am reading Whats the use of Lectures, by Dona;d A Bligh, its a little heavy in places, but worth it so far.

    I care for the students, I want them to pass, but I expect some form of commitment, attendance at my lectures, come to the lectures prepared, and on time, that is having read my notes, and reading list, coming with sufficient paper pencil set, and detail paper, and a willingness to talk.,,,,, oh and not to sit at the back so they can log onto the wifi and watch facebook or videos.

    I have thought of giving a short lecture on how to learn, I wonder how many would turn up.

    But back to the subject in hand, how do students learn, so far all I have commented on is my way of teaching, it seems that I should, perhaps sit back and watch how they learn, in my early years teaching, all I had to go on was my first hand experience at college, some excellent lecturers and great practical advice and training , plus a few bosses who insisted I did it right, and a corporate world to go on.

    I would like to pass my 45 odd years experience on, but modern Universities seem not to have construction labs I used at college and later in life in the corporate world, lecture rooms or nothing. So perhaps friendly site visits are in order, at least there is a way to see a site working, but little chance to lay a brick or mix and test concrete.

    Video is also a way forward, its so easy to use with electronic whiteboards and in-class projectors, I can stop pause, explain, draw over the video, but it still lacks the feel you get from doing it.

    Some one once said to me teaching is easy,,,,,, how wrong they were, its not easy, knowing your subject is the easy part, getting it over so students learn is the hard bit, and once you loose them because your boring, thats it, finish, start again, change your ways, I can't admit to being perfect, some days I come out of lectures with a real buzz, it's worked, but others I feel just deflated.

    Some times it in the preparation, you think your slide set works, but after, or even during the lecture, you know its not working.

    Some lecturers its a class only thing, no out of class interaction, I can't do that, Architecture and construction is hard enough, dealing with CAD and getting the materials to lay correctly is completely another thing, so I tend to say, always available and will give as much time as my good lady will allow, or you will be home on time tonight dear !, so I tend to be in Uni early to try and get that "out of class" interaction.. I use Skype as best I can, I just love the way I can transfer files, swap screens and hear them at the same time, students know if I can I will answer, but there are limits.

    The ones who do interact like this, tend to be the ones who give more in the lecture, not afraid to question or ask me to stop and expand. is that the answer, shy, afraid of being wrong, being shown up in class,,,,,,,,,,,,

  • Shines

    I love your writing and agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on the importance of reflective practices. However, I do SO WISH you'd drop the references to "learning styles" as I fear it perpetuates the myths. These myths have been pretty well debunked by Willingham and others, and (as someone notes above) are well addressed in "Making It Stick." Can't you just modify your language to say "Learning PREFERENCES?" Pretty please? Students use "learning styles" as a horrible crutch/excuse.

  • Marcia Weinstein

    "Make it Stick" by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) is the best source of information on this topic that I've seen; I strongly recommend it for faculty. In fact, I'm including it as recommended reading for students, too, on a syllabus.

  • Mary Ervin

    Wouldn't this make a great ice breaking concept with our students at the beginning of the semester? Ask them to write anonymous responses to:
    What do you know about yourself as a learner? What was a strength that helped you succeed and what was a weaknesses that held you back?
    What is the difference between deep learning and surface learning? What is the difference between owning and internalizing knowledge and learning to the test?
    Do you see your college classes facets in a diamond or distinct separate units?
    What was one thing about a previous class that really helped your learn? What was one thing about a previous class that made it difficult for you to learn?

  • As you indirectly pointed out in the kayaking example, different outcomes need different approaches. Hence the typical use of "learning styles" is unwarranted. Catering to "learning styles" will only become a "possible" effective approach if we employ it in adaptive learning and if we do it in context of content as opposed to just on the individual learner.

    Your teacher showing that she can kayak so easily demonstrates that you would have been better off if she had broken the lesson into boot-camp pieces, and then progressed to synthesize the lessons. As an example, I was hardly a handy man in spite of being a mechanical engineer. However, when my friends or a YouTube video show me a step-by-step approach, I am able to break the complex tasks into small pieces. My technical know-how allows me to think why certain steps are complicated or hard to do without the right tools. With this combination, I have tackled assembling complex furniture, fix plumbing, repair dryers and washers, put on a fence, self-maintenance of A/C system, etc.

  • Annemarieke Hoekstra

    Dear Maryellen Weimer,
    Thank you for raising these important questions. I've spent the past 12 years studying how secondary school and (vocational) college teachers learn. In a 2009 publication in Teaching and Teacher Education I concluded that by employing a combination of two learning activities: 1) experimenting with new teaching strategies , and 2) meaning-oriented reflection, teachers were more likely to lastingly change their beliefs about student centered teaching. I was not able to establish a relationship between teachers' learning activities and lasting changes in their behaviour, probably because we only collected data over a 14 month period.
    More recently I've come to reflect on and study the relationship between college teachers' learning activities and what it is they are mastering. Following theories by Ellstrom and Eraut (2011, SAGE Handbook of workplace learning) I am starting to believe that coming to master different teaching tasks require different levels of cognitive engagement and take different processes to learn. In addition to reflective learning ( the kind of learning where you deeply reflect on what you're doing and question your own assumptions), Ellstrom describes a necessary process of adaptive learning. Such learning involves, for instance, the kind of activities a novice teacher needs to engage in to develop routine teaching behaviours and to develop a repertoire of tried and true teaching methods: This requires repetition, practice, seeking and using student feedback, and tweaking, and some reflection about what works and what doesn't. With all the focus of faculty developers on the importance of reflection, the practice part of reflective practice, sometimes get overlooked! Obviously, as a faculty developer we would do our best to ensure that the novice teacher develops the right kind of teaching repertoire: by modeling and teaching evidence-based practices, encouraging teachers to seek continuous student feedback, and by encouraging deeper levels of reflection. Just like you need practice (and immediate feedback) in steering your kayak, our students need to practice writing an argument, thinking critically, presenting with confidence, just by doing it over and over again. Teachers need to practice classroom management techniques, keeping time, providing students with instruction. Teachers don't usually articulate this kind of learning, because they are not necessarily aware of this learning process, and they also might not consider it a form of learning. One day, I'll present my research findings in a coherent argument in an article, until then, this brief ramble intends to raise the question: Might learning how to teach better require different types of learning activities for different purposes at different points in teachers' careers?
    And another question: Might you learn "about" teaching through reading and reflection? But might you learn "to" teach best by engaging in the act of teaching?

  • Julie

    I actually teach in a way that does not meet my preferred learning style. I love lectures but rarely give them; I prefer to work alone but have my students work in groups. I am not sure I would be comfortable as a learner in my own classroom. Although my learning style and teaching style are opposite, the common ground is my introversion. I'd rather learn alone and when I teach, I'd rather not be the center of attention. Not lecturing much and having my students work in groups gives me breathing room in the classroom. I see myself as someone who provides a good place for learning, but some days I wish to be the kind of professor I loved as a student–the amazing, fascinating lecturers I learned from in college.

  • Sean

    Thank you for a thought-provoking essay. "How we learn" is a fascinating topic, in addition to it being the title of a recent book by B. Carey. My reading of that book supports what Rich writes below. Is it helpful to distinguish between "learning styles" and "learning preferences"? I am under the impression that there is little scientific support for the idea of "individual learning styles." The distinction is important, or so it seems to me: if individuals are wired to learn differently, then teachers should attend carefully to the differences and design learning events accordingly. If, of the other hand, students have "learning preferences," — for example, a preference for not reading — such preferences may or may not be worth taking into account when designing learning events. Would it make sense in some cases to try to facilitate the evolutions of students' learning preferences? Thanks, again, to MW for the thoughtful essay!

  • Larry

    Thanks for a great article. I am starting my 37th year as a faculty member. I love to learn in my field by reading, but it often takes me quite a few passes to get the point. I know this by attempting to apply the knowledge or work a problem….and often find I am wrong, so I didn't learn correctly. Being stubborn and a tad obsessive-compulsive I will keep at it. I did have to teach myself along the way over the years not to give in to frustration. Students need help doing the same when stuff does not "click" on first pass.

    In the same way as you, I also force myself to learn new skills or ideas by doing stuff, especially involving manual skills like carpentry or sewing or stained glass making, etc. It is very humbling to see that I am not quick at everything, but I am very happy that I know how to do a lot of things modestly well enough, even if not expertly. All of those efforts have taught me to be more humble and considerate with my students. But the main thing is that I WANT to learn those new skills and ideas. I still can't fathom what to do with students who simply will not make any effort to engage themselves in the learning process.
    All my efforts to teach, help students learn, and motivate them can't make students have the will to engage in learning even when I can demonstrate how it relates to their stated objectives and goals in life. Those folks are tough nuts to crack! And they make me sad, but being stubborn, I won't quit trying…

  • GJC

    Maybe we are looking at it through the wrong lens? What if learning styles don’t matter at all? What if we think about the best way to teach different content instead? Have we been limiting ourselves by convincing ourselves we have a preference? — Great discussion, by the way!

  • Taylor Elidok

    Given the question on how do you learn. To me, I would be in the same boat with the working groups where I would be thinking, how did I learn back then? I think what you discussed here is true. We tend to feel comfortable teaching what we learn best and how we learn things. We applies and display the strategies on how we learn best in our classes thinking that it would work the same on our students.

  • Lini Kane

    Knowles' (1980) principles of Andragogy explain how adults learn. It is slightly different to pedagogies. The other resource can be the Australian Core Skills Framework to assess competencies in relation to learning strategies and Gardner's Multiple Intelligences may also be helpful.

  • Robert A. Watts

    Of course, one of the main ways I learn these days is by preparing to teach and by teaching.

    Creating assignments is a great learning experience. I'm not sure where this fits in with the brain research that folks have mentioned, but one thing that helps me learn and to sustain my motivation is to be able to see the big picture and the details at once. I have to keep a fairly simple big picture framework in mind as I dive deep into the details and technical information.

    I work hard to consistently share the big picture with students. I find that staying connected to the big framework helps me and seems to help tentative students stay motivated when we get into the details and more technical analysis. .When I'm really confident about my learning, I don't need the big picture as much.

    Sometimes touching on the big picture in class takes all of one minute of introduction. Sometimes it means making myself say what seems to be the obvious. But this is ironic because sometimes, in the rush to get into the details, I can lose sight of the obvious. There have been many times when a student has come to office hours or when I've had a conversation with friends–and these encounters, sometimes almost casual, have helped me sketch out the big picture, and I then realize that I have not presented that framework to students.

  • Betsy Bowers

    Thanks for the thoughtful and relevant post. I have recently read the work of Ellie Drago-Severson and found that she built on the work of others in a way that reframed my approach in helping staff and students grow.

  • Dan Pratt

    I liked this piece; but I love the question! You caused me to step back – more like stumble back – to try to answer it for myself. What a great question. I'm going to start my own reflective diary on that timely question, especially as I'm about to learn something entirely new – to play the piano (at 73). Thanks, Maryellen

  • kathryn

    Dear Mary-Ellen,
    I read your recent column on learning styles with great interest. I do recall previous mentions of this reticence that we seem to share as teachers. I do tell my students about different styles and that we adapt to these but should recognize them. I admit that I do not push certain things in class if I do not like them myself. I do, however, inform my students of my choice. For example, as a student, I do not like group work for long periods or I when marks are involved. As a result, I do not use this method or impose it. I do introduce groups when marks are not involved to break up a class. This makes for a more animated session which students later associate with my material, a dry theory course. Like salt, pair or group work is sprinkled. Also, I tell students that if they wish to work in pairs or groups that they may. In fact, I encourage them to do so. Some form groups based on previous courses, ethnic background, etc. However, I would not put them in groups or oblige them to do so.
    I have taken workshops which enabled me to evaluate my own learning style. It was a bit like a quiz which allowed one to think about approaches to issues and background. It is always a worthwhile exercise. It is also worthwhile pointing out to students that you realize how we learn differently and that you respect this fact. Most students are curious, interested or relieved to feel that they may not fit the mold but may succeed nonetheless.

    I tell students how I see my position and theirs in the course. They respond well to this. I do plan to follow up in the near future on the usefulness of my course to the students. I teach translation theory to future translators. Not an easy sell! If you have any suggestions about how to approach doing a reasonably unbiased follow-up, please let me know. There is no budget.

  • Howard Doughty

    Perhaps … no, hold that … of course I am a dinosaur.

    I have always been interested in learning and have never enjoyed all the puerile exercises in learning how to teach, as though students were akin to Skinnerian rats and needed "motivation" in order to press the appropriate (most often Bloomian) lever in order to release their academic food pellets – grades, of course.

    The infantilization of education, of course, not only involves the transformation of teaching into training or, much worse, making learning a "fun experience"; it also turns professors into hucksters, learning-camp counselors and classroom game-show hosts.

    Me? I was privileged to be the first kid in my working-class family to go to university (thanks mainly to the fact that Sputnik scared the daylights our of North Americans and encouraged vast expenditures in the transition from elite to mass education. I took education seriously and went on to collect not only my BA but three additional postgraduate degrees and then to a (so far) 47-year career as a classroom educator.

    Here's what I don't do!

    I don't trivialize my subject to make it easier for the students. I don't abandon the essay format to cater to the false positivism of multiple-choice questions. I don't blend, flip or otherwise corrupt my classroom. I don't set out specific learning objectives and demand that students display "mastery" of specific skills, competencies, literacies or whatever the most recent "new big thing" happens to be.

    I am also getting lonely … since my colleagues are retiring or dying and being replaced by nameless, faceless "adjuncts" who (poor sods) are hideously exploited and fooled into thinking that there's a "tenure-track" position somewhere at the end of their peculiar yellow-brick roads.

    Anyway, I will endure and feel good about the decreasing (but still evident) number of students and teachers who remain loyal to notions of intellectual integrity and who disdain the commodification of curriculum and the commercialization of research in the new K-Mart Kolleges wherein Associate Professors are systematically being turned into Walmart Associates and the ideals and aims of authentic education are being ruthlessly betrayed.

  • Raymond Truitt

    Agreed! How we learn can definitely impact the way we design and develop our courses and to some extent influence how we assign projects to students based on what we perceive their learning preferences to be. I am a reader, but in the classroom, I prefer to learn by doing. Trial and error are a real comfort zone for me, but sometimes and especially in a larger classroom setting, this learning preference can seem inefficient. What I've done to try to mitigate this dilemma to use design cooperative learning principles into my courses. Ultimately, if there is a performance objective to the learning, how students perform individually and collectively is of great interest to me and almost ensures that different learning preferences are in play; albeit often unknown to students while engaged in the learning process. I see debriefing content at critical junctures a vital element to help my students learn about learning while improving at the same time. I think it is also realistic to create learning experiences that help students build a repertoire of ways to approach learning, even if it means, getting them out of their "go to" postures.

  • Ken Mellendorf

    I learn through two models, knowledge and understanding. Both are based on two aspects, facts and connections between facts.
    The "wall of knowledge" is as a set of drawers by topic, filled with sets of cards. each is a fact or item, with corresponding cross-references. As new facts become available, new cards are developed. As understanding grows, a fact or item obtains more cross-references.
    The "ball of understanding" works in reverse. It is as a huge ball of connections, each joining two nodes. Each node can have many connections linked to many other nodes. New facts fit into the ball of understanding if at least one connection can form. This connection adds to the wall of knowledge. The cross-references in the wall of knowledge inspires new connections within the ball of understanding.
    Obtaining new information inspires the wall of knowledge to grow. Contemplation and searching for cross-references inspires the ball of understanding to grow. The wall of knowledge grew quickly in early years, but the ball of understanding remained small. As time passed and experience increased, he ball of understanding grew faster and faster. In contrast, growth of the wall of knowledge has slowed greatly.
    This is not exactly the process by which I learn, but it is the best physical model I know to describe something from an abstract world for which words do not exist.

  • Mobeen Iqbal

    Thanks for raising this. As a medical educator, we go thorugh this very often and infact most of the changes in Meded are borrowed from other disciplines but the gap between theory and practice is huge. Teachers despite all the fuss about learner-centerdness are unidirectional in their approach. It is wonderful to know your learner, their preferred ways of learning but how to transform our environment which is tightly bound by time, space and assessments. Learning is seriously hampered by traditional assessments, regulatory bodies, international trends (for developing countries like Pakistan)…and so forth. Context (regional/economical/prevalent) of learning is also important. I am not sure if there are studies which looked at context variation in terms of preferred methods of learning. I will love to hear and understand this more.

  • N. Nielsen

    How do I learn? Great narratives or stories trigger my imagination and consolidate content. Sharing stories between teachers and students is a very old and effective teaching and learning technique.

  • KIm Parker Nyman

    I suspect that we would be much better teachers if, every year, we made a commitment to try to learn something outside our comfort zone. We need to deeply and personally understand the anxiety, fear of failure, that feeling of "I'll never get this" in order to relate to our students. Kayaking would work for me on this level, although I think I'm going to start out with crocheting. I'm really bad at it, so I expect I'll learn a lot.

  • Dale Nelson

    I learned from capable lecturers, such as Douglas Legg on British history. It is painful when I hear smug and snide dismissals of "the sage on the stage." Now that I'm not a student, I learn from what I read, including the published lectures etc. of scholars who are not content to address only their fellow scholars. My debt to such authors, such as C. S. Lewis on Spenser, Ian Watt on the early English novel, Caroline Spurgeon on Shakespearean imagery, or S. L. Bethell on the Shakespearean stage, is enormous.

  • Walter Smith

    I think we have to look at learning from the perspective of brain cell dynamics. I am advocating this through my wiki….

  • Christine Chinchen

    Maryellen, this is my current Phd – what is learning? You touched on some of the aspects I am currently researching. It is not an easy concept to grasp as it can be viewed from so many aspects. Maybe that is why the people with whom you worked have not thought about it or did not talk about it. It is great to see this discussion going on as our thoughts on learning are surely the guiding light for our work in teaching. As Ramsden and Laurillard agree, the aim of teaching is to create learning.