07.11.17 / Learning how to learn effectively is really hard

Learning how to learn effectively is really hard

It turns out there is more information around than anything else in the universe, certainly more than money — James Gleick

I was never any good at learning much from lectures. I learn better by doing. Followed closely by reading. Least of all by listening to others try to explain things to me, no matter who it is, or how interesting they are.

What about you? What are the most effective learning styles for you?

What are the different learning styles, anyway?

The four most well-known styles seem to be spatial, auditory, linguistic, and kinaesthetic. There are a bunch of arguments for the existence of ‘learning styles’, and a bunch of arguments for the opposite. My discussion here assumes we can think about the existence of learning styles as an aid for conceptualising the processes we each go through to best learn how to improve our own practices, so we’ll stick with the learning-styles argument for the sake of clarity here.

I know (as best as I can tell) that I learn better from doing (kinaesthetic) and reading (linguistic) more so than the others. But, as is the case with most conceptions involving your brain and how it works, it’s not that simple. First problem: the linguistic learning style includes written and verbal. I pick up ideas relatively easily when I read them, but I cannot seem to recall or even understand information that I hear spoken by others. I was a tennis coach in a former life, and there is a big emphasis on learning by doing within this industry. Repetition is the key. There is a swath of research and empirical evidence which shows that just thinking about doing particular repetitive actions, like hitting a ball or playing a violin string, can improve your ability to perform those actions; provided you are thinking about executing them with the correct technique.

Now, that’s all well and good if yours is a one-on-one learning situation — like you might experience in a learning situation between a director and an intern — but when it comes to a learning situation in which a lecture theatre is filled with 200 students, then it’s not really an actionable option to cater to each student’s particular strengths. In this case, optimisation is the key. A ‘best fit’, if you will. (This opens up a whole other area of research on what that best fit is, how to define it, and how it varies between industries.)

I was told in my second year of industrial design (now product design) that if I was a capable three-dimensional thinker, I would find the course much easier than if I was not, as the course was heavy on the 3-D modelling and prototyping.

Some learners may understand quickly and effectively through viewing of images, others may prefer readings. Some may deal well with theories, others may learn through experiments and examples.

In 2009, Yale Grad School of Arts and Sciences displayed in their site advice for Yale lecturers that ‘college students enter our classrooms with a wide variety of learning styles.’ The site recommended instructors determine their own ‘modality of learning’ as well as assess their students’ learning styles and design their instruction accordingly.

However, there could be a downside to tailoring structured-learning to particular learning-style strengths: that is that the weaknesses could be ignored. A weakness in a particular learning style is an opportunity to improve your mental acuity, and if ignored, that is an opportunity lost.

Or, it could be that a particular method of learning makes you anxious — due to past failures or other negative experiences — and that anxiety may hinder your ability to learn. In this case, perhaps addressing the anxiety may improve the ability to learn in a particular way.

Because we’re all human, we don’t exactly fit any curve, and therefore our learning preferences will likely be a varied mix of all styles.

Each of us is different. The way we experience the world is different. This is a good thing. Embrace your differences and learn from them.

Reading list for those interested:

Carr (2010), The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Atlantic Books, London

Huong May Truong, “Integrating learning styles and adaptive e-learning system: Current developments, problems and opportunities”, Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 2016, pp. 1185-1193, Elsevier

Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork, “Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence”, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), December 2008, pp. 106-116, APS

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Heath Campbell

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