Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Learning Styles

A month or so ago, Becky Hirta blogged that "Learning styles are the academic version of horoscopes." (When I shared that with some colleagues, one immediately planned to develop an "astrological inventory" to give his students to be sure their failure can't be blamed on a conflict between their respective astrological charts. I think he was joking.)

Anyway, with a hat tip to Sherman Dorn who linked to a blog from the Dallas Independent School District (back in August of 2008) that contained the video below, here is the confirmation for what many of us have always suspected:

This is from Professor Daniel Willingham, at the University of Virginia in the Dept of Psychology. His closing remark that "Good Teaching is Good Teaching" really does say it all. Well, not all ...

My example was a student last year who came up to me at the end of class (early in the semester) and said something like "I can't learn this the way you teach it, I'm a visual learner". (The topic was net force = mass * acceleration involving several forces acting on an object.) My response was quick and to the point. "That is why I draw free-body diagrams and motion diagrams on the board, and do demonstrations whenever possible." (Motion diagrams illustrate the sequence of events and/or positions as a function of time when doing kinematic problems.) He looked like he had been hit between the eyes with a 2x4. Stunned. Mouth agape. (I am not making that up. You should have seen his face. He must have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one in the past.) And it was true. Visualization is difficult. Turning words into equations requires some picture of what is going on, in your mind if not on paper, and engineering classes push this to the point of requiring the relevant free-body diagram in every problem whether they ask for it or not. You can't get the problem right if you don't have the right picture, and truly complicated problems (not the toy problems we deal with) make that step essential.

Interestingly, he was a good enough student to suddenly realize that the visual part was there - and that it alone will not supply all of the meaning needed to solve a physics problem. With that excuse gone, he buckled down and earned an excellent grade in that class. I haven't heard that complaint from him again, but I do notice that he is now careful to take notes that include the drawings I put on the board.

Reflecting on that story after watching that video was somewhat enlightening. We do all of those things (visual, kinesthetic, verbal) when we solve problems. You can't do it without putting every tool to work in some way. We read the problem. Analyze and pick out key words, translating them into our own vocabulary. (Critical reading.) Construct a picture of what is going on and make a highly stylized drawing, the free-body diagram, that relates what is going on to the algebraic variables and numerical values we were given in the problem. Then we do math. Some might use strengths in one area to help in another, but none can avoid any part of the process.

I think what makes me a good teacher is that I know several ways to bring out each of those steps, making each one of them visible to the students. At that point, the only remaining challenge is to convince them that they need to follow those steps. Somewhere in the past (I am guessing some experience with teachers who could not function without the "teachers manual") they got the idea that there is a magic formula for every problem, and experts know all of those formulas. My biggest job is to convince them that the principles are what matter, and the steps I listed above are the only "magic formula" they need.

Hmmm. I think that will be my theme for the week after Spring Break.

There was something else in that blog by Sherman Dorn, but that needs its own topic. I need to correct my first impression of a new math curriculum now that I see how it fits with what I just wrote up above. That won't get done until Wednesday.

PS -
You might also want to watch a related video from the same professor about "Brain-based Education". Very interesting. It is even more fun to test this by watching a (student produced?) video from a "learner support center" about learning styles ... with the AUDIO OFF! Does this reach non-auditory learners? How can I interact kinesthetically with this video? Why do I have to sit and watch it? One thing that really breaks me up is when the college brings in an outside speaker who gives a LECTURE about how we should not use lectures to convey new material. Right.


plam said...

Thanks for the post, Dr. Pion. It seems sensible to me. (Then again, I don't think I know a lot about teaching, and Prof. Willingham just confirms my biases, so of course I'm minded to agree with him.)

Doctor Pion said...

Do you mean to tell me that Learning Styles have not infested your university in Canada? I don't think a new prof can get hired at our place without saying the right things about it.

plam said...

While Canada is in some senses idyllic, I would not go so far to say that Canada is a land free of Learning Styles. I was doing mid-term course evaluations and got a comment about how copying down notes was consistent with someone's learning style. (I post my lecture notes on the web: http://patricklam.ca/stqam, and had said "Hey, you do realize that you don't need to copy down what I write, but it's OK if you do.")

Doctor Pion said...

I should also point you to a very different view, blogged by mareserinitatis, a sometimes commenter here.

Since I hijacked that discussion with comments that really belong here, I hope ze does the same on my blog.

I shall now try to remain quiet except to add something that came to me after writing that other comment: some of the people who push Learning Styles reject the idea that different people have different abilities. I wonder if they use "style" so they can avoid "ability"?