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How DO They Learn Best? Using Learning Preferences in the Classroom and Beyond


How do you prefer to learn?
When attending professional development, taking a class or gaining a new skill, do you prefer to read? Listen? Watch someone do it? Learn by doing?

Based on just our own personal experiences, we can pretty easily figure out that different people use different styles of learning (or learning modalities) for different purposes.  The concept of “learning styles” has gotten a lot of attention in the adult education community over the past few years, especially among teachers who are trying to meet the differing needs of individual students while providing instruction in a group setting. It various forms, is also a commonly addressed in workplace professional development.

How have others’ learning preferences’ affected you in the workplace? Have you participated in ‘learning styles’ type training activities as an employee?

Learning Style theories propose that different people learn in different ways and that it is good to know what your own preferred learning style is. Often we hear learning styles defined as “visual, auditory, and kinesthetic” –  referring to how we use the senses to learn or demonstrate knowledge. Another popular model was developed by  John Gardner in the 1980s –  Multiple Intelligences Theory. 1  While he didn’t provide any direct empirical support for his theory, Gardner presented evidence from many areas of study including biology, anthropology, and the creative arts. 2  In the early 90’s he looked at how his theory might apply to the learning that goes on among children in school.His basic points were these:

  1. Individuals should be encouraged to use their preferred intelligences in learning.
  2. Instructional activities should appeal to different forms of intelligence.
  3. Assessment of learning should measure multiple forms of intelligence.

While Gardner did not include adult learners in his research, teachers working with our highly diverse groups of adult learners have found success in using this approach, as well as other learning style theories.  These days it is possible to find numerous tests, inventories and checklists that can be used by adults to help them identify their own preferred intelligences, or learning styles.

Have you used any of these ‘learning style/intelligences’ inventories/tools to determine your own preferences? Do you feel they were accurate? Helpful?

As an Instructor, how have you used (or might you use) information on your students’ preferred learning modalities? Do you feel it was (or is likely to be) important to your instruction?

Below is a story about one teacher’s ‘ah ha’ moment with her students – does her story sound at all familiar to you? Have you tried anything similar to the strategies she mentions?

Elizabeth Gardner is a Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ. For thepast 2 years she has been using EFF’s Preparing for Work curriculum to help prepare groups of clients for workplace success. In the Orientation Module at the beginning of the curriculum, an activity called “How Do I Learn Best?” guides students through the process of reflecting on and learning about their own preferred learning styles and strategies (including the use of an inventory). Elizabeth has facilitated this activity with several different groups of students, but note that one time it seemed to “work” above and beyond her expectations.

In this group, like others, some of the students had never done a learning style inventory, and several who had done one before noted that their preferred learning style had changed since the last time they did it. Because of the interest and enthusiasm they showed for the topic, I decided to take the activity beyond individuals just looking at their own preferences, and see if I could move them towards concepts in the Cooperating With Others Standard.

I asked my students to describe what they had learned about themselves to the whole class, and then to talk about how the class could play to their learning styles. As a result, in addition to talking about their own learning styles, they listened to each other, and some students started spontaneously brainstorming ideas for each other. Without being asked, they started thinking about how each of their peers might learn best!  Then the class ended up talking not only about how knowing your own learning style(s) can be used in the workplace, but also about how identifying other people’s learning styles can allow you to help out coworkers, i.e: How might you show consideration for someone else’s learning style at work? This conversation seemed to have a longer-lasting impact than I expected. I observed learning from students based on that discussion weeks later – such as a student ‘recorder’ for one activity drawing a picture next to the text “for visual learners” or one student asking another what was said because “I know you’re a listener.”

I think my experience of this one activity really affected how I plan other learning activities. It really helped me to understand that each group I work with will be made up of individuals with various learning styles, so each group dynamic will be different. This will cause students to respond differently to activities in the curriculum I follow; something that doesn’t work with one group could be a favorite with the next group of students. One group, for instance, might enjoy and learn from a role-playing type activity, but are much less likely to respond or stay engaged in more static “think and talk” activities –  while the next class  might be just the opposite! I think it is really important to figure out up front how students learn best, and then choose or change learning activities [from ANY curriculum] to match up with the learning styles/preferences/goals of each group of students.

Please share with us your experiences in using information about students’ preferred learning styles in your instruction – how that information helps you meet your students’ needs, how you address the differences you find, any ‘ah-has’ you’ve had, etc.  Any of the questions posed in this post can help you get started.

We look forward to an exciting conversation!


Click to learn more about EFF Preparing for Work curriculum or contact us via eff@utk.edu.

For more information on Learning Styles, you can start by visiting this page.
Note that the links ‘For Further Study’ listed on the right hand side lead to some sample inventories.


Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy, Education and Employment
Duren Thompson, Program Coordinator and EFFTIPS Technical Editor, Center for Literacy, Education and Employment
Elizabeth Gardner, Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ

References:

1 Gardner, H. (1982). Art, Mind and Brain. New York : Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

3 Gardner, H. (1993a). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

To Role-Play or Not to Role-Play?


One of the broad goals of quality standards-based adult education instruction is to help students “build on their prior knowledge, deeply understand concepts, and master new skills well enough to be able to use their new learning in their real lives” – when we teachers are not around to help!  This of course begs the question:

How can we know for sure that our students are learning in this way, and what kind of teaching will make it more likely to happen?

Cognitive scientists – those experts who study the brain in order to understand how people learn and develop expertise – tell us that one way people are more likely to learn effectively is if they get immediate and multiple chances to use what they are learning for a purpose that is meaningful to them. This is one reason that the instructional strategy of Role-Playing has gotten a lot of attention recently.

Let us hear from you: Do you use role-playing regularly in your instruction?  For what purposes? With what results?

Role-playing gives students the opportunity to practice using a skill in real-life-like contexts, with other real people, to address specific situations. This contextual, “hands-on” approach is meant to deepen their learning. For the instructor, role-plays can be an excellent tool for assessing students’ grasp of concepts and ability to apply knowledge and skills. Other assessment strategies simply may not work as effectively for these same situations. Through role-plays, both students and teachers can actually see evidence of learning in action, and that makes it really hard to resist using them!

But wait,” you may say, are role-plays always an effective strategy to use in instruction?

Perhaps not. What if…

  • Your students seem to feel uncomfortable with or resistant to engaging in them?
  • Your class attendance is variable and you’re not sure enough students who are ready for them will actually be in class?
  • You need an opportunity to extensively assess each individual student’s progress in using a particular skill?

Here are some insights into when and how to use role play from Peggy McGuire, standards-based instruction expert:

The key for teachers in the process of planning a learning activity is to always start with asking ourselves, “What kind of learning do I want to see in this particular activity?”,  and then, “What can I ask students to do that will show me (and them!!) that learning?

For instance, if my goal is to see that students can “acquire through reading” the information they need to address particular situations, students do not have to demonstrate that skill by role-playing. Let’s take Elizabeth’s* small class of 5 students as an example. 

Elizabeth knew from previous experience that this class did not respond well to role plays. Her planned activity focused on ‘reading to find information’ to use in addressing a situation with a client or supervisor at work. The curriculum suggested having students role play these work situations for practice and as a check on reading skills. Instead, for each workplace scenario, Elizabeth called on students in turn, and one by one students individually demonstrated what they would say to their client or supervisor in that situation. This seemed the best way to make sure everyone had a chance to practice ‘using found information to address situations’ without the stress of a “formal” role play. It also gave Elizabeth a great alternative opportunity to assess the reading skills of each individual student.

On the other hand, role-playing can be especially effective in situations in which it is important for students to act out their learning in a specific context (for instance, in a mock job interview when students are currently seeking employment), or where interpersonal interaction is a critical component of the learning process (for instance, when instruction is focusing on skills like Cooperate with Others or Resolve Conflict and Negotiate). In cases like these it’s good to be quite explicit with students about “Why role-play in this particular activity” (instead of “Why role-playing in general”). This specificity about the “role of role-playing” might help to lower student resistance. It also might help them see that, like ALL useful strategies, role playing is one more strategy to have in their “toolbox” and to pull out when it is the BEST tool for the situation at hand.

Please share with us your thoughts about planning instructional activities that include role-playing – how you decide whether or not it is an important part of your lesson, how you help students prepare for it, how you assess what your students are learning through it.  Below are some questions that may help you stir up ideas or experiences to share:

1) How do you currently use role-playing as a part of your instruction? Are there situations in which you think role-playing is a particularly effective teaching/learning strategy? Are there situations in which you think it doesn’t work so well?

2) How do your students respond to role-playing in class? Like it? Resist it? Seem to learn something valuable from it?

3) What have you learned about your students by observing them in role-plays?

 We look forward to hearing from you in the comments!


Click to learn more about  a quality standards-based approach to teaching and learning or contact us via eff@utk.edu.


*Learn more about Elizabeth and her classes in the post:  Attendance Issues in Adult Education: How do You Adjust Instruction “On the Fly”?