Understanding Learning Preferences
Identifying your preferred style of learning can make gaining new knowledge and skills easier.
Have you ever tried to learn something fairly simple, yet failed to grasp the key ideas? Or tried to teach people and found that some were overwhelmed or confused by something quite basic?
If so, you may have experienced a clash of learning styles: your learning preferences and those of your instructor or audience may not have been aligned. When this occurs, not only is it frustrating for everyone, the communication process breaks down and learning fails.
Once you know your own natural learning preference, you can work on expanding the way you learn, so that you can learn in other ways, not just in your preferred style.
And, by understanding learning styles, you can learn to create an environment in which everyone can learn from you, not just those who use your preferred style.
The Index of Learning Styles™
One of the most widely used models of learning styles is The Index of Learning Styles™ developed by Dr Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman in the late 1980s, and based on a learning styles model developed by Dr Felder and Linda Silverman.
According to this model (which Felder revised in 2002) there are four dimensions of learning styles. Think of these dimensions as a continuum with one learning preference on the far left and the other on the far right.
You can see these in figure 1, below.
Figure 1: Index of Learning Styles
From "The Index of Learning Styles," by Dr Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman. Reproduced with permission from Dr Richard Felder. Information about the origins of the ILS, studies demonstrating its reliability and validity, and arrangements to license it for commercial use, can be obtained at www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/ILS-faq.htm. To find out more about learning styles and the ILS, see www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/ILS-faq.htm
Once you know where your preferences lie on each of these dimensions, you can begin to stretch beyond those preferences and develop a more balanced approach to learning. Not only will you improve your learning effectiveness, you will open yourself up to many different ways of perceiving the world.
Balance is key. You don't want to get too far on any one side of the learning dimensions. When you do that you limit your ability to take in new information and make sense of it quickly, accurately, and effectively.
This article describes one useful approach to learning styles. Other practitioners have different approaches.
See our article on 4MAT to find out about other useful approaches: those of David Kolb, and of Peter Honey and Alan Mumford.
Using the Index of Learning Styles
You can use the index to develop your own learning skills and also to help you create a rounded learning experience for other people.
Developing Your Learning Skills
Identify your learning preferences for each learning dimension. Read through the explanations of each learning preference and choose the one that best reflects your style. Alternatively, use an Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire.
Analyze your results and identify those dimensions where you are "out of balance," meaning you have a very strong preference for one style and dislike the other.
For each out of balance area, use the information below to improve your skills in areas where you need development:
- Sensory Learners – if you rely too much on sensing, you can tend to prefer what is familiar, and concentrate on facts you know instead of being innovative and adapting to new situations. Seek out opportunities to learn theoretical information and then bring in facts to support or negate these theories.
- Intuitive Learners – if you rely too much on intuition you risk missing important details, which can lead to poor decision-making and problem solving. Force yourself to learn facts or memorize data that will help you defend or criticize a theory or procedure you are working with. You may need to slow down and look at detail you would otherwise typically skim.
- Visual Learners – if you concentrate more on pictorial or graphical information than on words, you put yourself at a distinct disadvantage because verbal and written information is still the main preferred choice for delivery of information. Practice your note taking and seek out opportunities to explain information to others using words.
- Verbal Learners – when information is presented in diagrams, sketches, flow charts, and so on, it is designed to be understood quickly. If you can develop your skills in this area you can significantly reduce time spent learning and absorbing information. Look for opportunities to learn through audio-visual presentations (such as CD-ROM and Webcasts.) When making notes, group information according to concepts and then create visual links with arrows going to and from them. Take every opportunity you can to create charts and tables and diagrams.
- Active Learners – if you act before you think you are apt to make hasty and potentially ill-informed judgments. You need to concentrate on summarizing situations, and taking time to sit by yourself to digest information you have been given before jumping in and discussing it with others.
- Reflective Learners – if you think too much you risk doing nothing. There comes a time when a decision has to be made or an action taken. Involve yourself in group decision-making whenever possible and try to apply the information you have in as practical a manner as possible.
- Sequential Learners – when you break things down into small components you are often able to dive right into problem solving. This seems to be advantageous but can often be unproductive. Force yourself to slow down and understand why you are doing something and how it is connected to the overall purpose or objective. Ask yourself how your actions are going to help you in the long run. If you can't think of a practical application for what you are doing then stop and do some more "big picture" thinking.
- Global Learners – if grasping the big picture is easy for you, then you can be at risk of wanting to run before you can walk. You see what is needed but may not take the time to learn how best to accomplish it. Take the time to ask for explanations, and force yourself to complete all problem-solving steps before coming to a conclusion or making a decision. If you can't explain what you have done and why, then you may have missed critical details.
Creating a Rounded Learning Experience for Others
Whenever you are training or communicating with others, you have information and ideas that you want them to understand and learn effectively and efficiently. Your audience is likely to demonstrate a wide range of learning preferences, and your challenge is to provide variety that helps them learn quickly and well.
Your preferred teaching and communication methods may in fact be influenced by your own learning preferences. For example, if you prefer visual rather than verbal learning, you may in turn tend to provide a visual learning experience for your audience.
Be aware of your preferences and the range of preference of your audiences. Provide a balanced learning experience by:
- Sensory-Intuitive: Provide both hard facts and general concepts.
- Visual-Verbal: Incorporate both visual and verbal cues.
- Active-Reflective: Allow both experiential learning and time for evaluation and analysis.
- Sequential-Global: Provide detail in a structured way, as well as the big picture.
Learning styles and preferences vary for each of us and in different situations.
By understanding this, and developing the skills that help you learn in a variety of ways, you make the most of your learning potential. And because you're better able to learn and gather information, you'll make better decisions and choose better courses of action.
And by understanding that other people can have quite different learning preferences, you can learn to communicate your message effectively in a way that many more people can understand. This is fundamentally important, particularly if you're a professional for whom communication is an important part of your job.
Take time to identify how you prefer to learn and then force yourself to break out of your comfort zone. Once you start learning in new ways you'll be amazed at how much more you catch and how much easier it is to assimilate information and make sense of what is going on.
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