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Learning Styles and Lesson Prep

Remember that course in college when you said, “Wow! That was incredible. I can’t believe how much I learned.” Then there was that other class that left you feeling flat, bored, and not sure that you learned a thing. Or the time your spouse loved the well constructed, carefully outlined talk that was accompanied by succinct PowerPoint slides of the key points—but you yawned the whole time.

Why These Differences?

Maybe it’s clashing learning styles. Whether you were aware of it or not, differences in learning styles have probably caused some frustration or a lack of understanding in your small group. Of course, the personality, expertise, and enthusiasm of the group leader does make a difference. So does the nature of the content. But learning styles are a key factor that plays into these tensions, and their significance may not be intuitive for many of us.

So, What is a Learning Style?

A learning style is simply how one perceives and processes information. And we all do that differently. That’s the rub- and what makes an awareness of learning styles important for those involved with small groups. Let’s go back to the definition. To perceive information, refers to the way we take in data through our senses. One person may do it best visually, another through hearing, yet someone else may prefer to be actively involved.

Then there is the processing aspect. That’s what the brain does with the information after it has been perceived. Here again are significant differences. Information may be split into parts, organized, clumped together, analyzed, manipulated—any number of things. Most of us can do all these forms of perceiving and processing, but when it comes to learning, we tend to have preferences. The way we learn, especially in our early years, can influence our personality. How we learn matters.

Currently, there are many models of learning styles. Some have to do with the influence of environmental factors, such as lighting or type of seating; others relate to influences on body rhythms, like time of day or the season.

One that I find particularly helpful deals with the cognitive and affective aspects of learning—how I think and feel about my learning. David Kolb developed the model in the late 70’s, and shortly thereafter Bernice McCarthy contributed insights regarding the affective components of learning. The work of these two educators informs much of this article.

Kolb’s model can be represented by a grid with two axes: one horizontal, the other vertical. The vertical axis has feeling (concrete experience) at the top and thinking (abstract conceptualization) at the bottom; the horizontal axis has doing (active experimentation) on the left and watching (reflective observation) on the right. The two axes intersect, creating four quadrants.

The top right quadrant represents imaginative or innovative people who like to diverge in their thinking (type 1 learners); the bottom right is analytic, representing those who assimilate facts (type 2); the bottom left quadrant is common sense for those who converge their learning (type 3); the top left signifies dynamic people who experiment (type 4).