October 8, 2008
The Processing Learning Styles Part I
A great deal has been written about the absorption learning styles: Visual, Verbal, Oral, Aural, Kinesthetic, Tactile. However, the discussions often overlook the processing styles: Global, Sequential, Intuitive, Sensing, Active, and Reflective. These styles are critical to how students process information, perform on exams, and work together in study groups.
Although much more could be written about these learning preferences, here are some highlights. I shall describe each type as to the "strongest scorers" because it is easier to understand the preferences in those who exhibit them at high levels.
Global learners prefer to have the "big picture" first so that they can know how to insert the parts within that overview. In a sense, the global learner is looking for the roadmap to the course and its various topics. If a professor previews the material in a topic, the global learner will gain from that "here is where we are going for the next two weeks" perspective. Global learners also benefit from looking at a table of contents to see how the topic relates to the whole course and how the sub-topics relate to the topic. Global learners can also benefit from a topic-subtopic syllabus from the professor.
Sequential learners prefer to look at each unit first and only seek the bigger picture after they are comfortable with the parts. For sequential learners, each case is a separate unit and each sub-topic and topic are separate units initially. Sequential learners only seek the bigger picture or overview after they are comfortable with the parts. Sequential learners must remind themselves to synthesize material. Thus, a professor who summarizes the material in a topic will help sequential learners by that "let's look at where we have been the last two weeks and pull it all together" perspective. Sequential learners are sometimes uncomfortable that a professor starts in the middle of the casebook instead of going in the sequence that the editor determined.
Intuitive learners prefer ideas, policies, theories, abstractions, and the inter-relationships among these concepts. In a sense, they love ideas no matter how useful the ideas are and become excited by innovations. They can quickly manipulate and retain concepts. Intuitives can sometimes understand the concept or provide the "answer" without knowing how they arrived at the insight. A policy-driven course is often a delight for the intuitive learner. The law school mantra of "it depends" is less burdensome to intuitive learners because they deal well with ambiguity.
Sensing learners, however, prefer facts, details, and practicalities. They will notice each fact in a long fact scenario. They will know far more details about the cases and the "black letter law" than their fellow students. They are not particularly interested in the theoretical and abstract aspects of the law unless they can see practical uses for those aspects. A policy-driven course is often drudgery for the sensing learner. Ambiguity is frustrating because these students often come from academic disciplines that required right answers.
If students are both global and intuitive, they are often termed "top-down" learners. They work from the overview with inter-relationships of concepts as their first step and then fit the pieces in place with some detail. Global-intuitve learners sometimes think they understand a course because they have the gist of the material, but actually lack a depth of knowledge for closer analysis. Class notes for these learners often comprise just the main points and have little detail. These learners tend to make shorter outlines because they readily condense material and discard details before they outline a section. They can get impatient with the details of an assignment. In an exam they may misread questions because they are not reading closely or may forget the details of what they read because they focus on the general idea. These learners may not read test instructions at all because they assume they know what the instructions will be.
Global-intuitive learners may remember that a rule has six elements but have trouble remembering a different element each time they recite the rule. Alternatively, they may paraphrase a rule too drastically. These learners tend to not connect the dots in exam analysis to receive the maximum number of points because they write to the professor (s/he knows that so I do not have to include it). They are less prone to organize an exam answer carefully before beginning to write. Consequently, they juggle material in their heads and forget to discuss some facts, mention cases that apply, or consider all the steps of analysis. In addition, they may think they wrote something in the answer when they did not or repeat part of an answer because they forget they already said it. On multiple-choice questions, they may pick by gut rather than carefully analyze each answer choice. They commonly finish exams earlier than other students: essay exams because there is nothing more to say although their answers were "conclusory"; multiple-choice exams because there is no inclination to review "gut" answers.
If students are both sequential and sensing, they are often termed "bottom-up" learners. They learn each case as a separate unit with an eye for details. They are loathe to finish reading a case until they understand every word and every detail. They tend to write very detailed briefs, sometimes with extensive quotes. Each sub-topic is a separate unit to be understood in detail. Sequential-sensing learners sometimes stay bogged down in the separate parts and details and forget to learn the overview and inter-relationships of concepts for a topic or the course as a whole. These learners tend to have "mega" outlines because they are reticent to condense material and leave any details out as they outline a section. They are methodical in their thought and tend to notice methodologies, steps of analysis, and bright line tests. They rarely misread anything. These students often teach their global-intutitive friends the law in depth. To their frustration, those global-intuitive friends often get higher grades because they have promptly discarded any details that seem unnecessary and find the big picture of the material.
Sequential-sensing learners tend to retain the organization of analysis whether it is the questions to ask whenever a topic comes up or the specific elements of rules. They tend to be organized in their exam writing and to outline an answer naturally before writing. Sometimes they see phantom issues because they know so much detail that they are sure the issue must be there somewhere in a question. They might write more on a correct issue than will actually receive points because they have included everything they know about the topic. They may second-guess themselves with constant "what if" and "how about" questions which are outside a multiple-choice question and fact pattern. As a result, they will change correct answer choices to wrong answer choices. These learners tend to have time management problems in exams because they spend too long on individual questions (whether essay or multiple-choice) and then rush through the final questions or never get a chance to answer some questions because time has been called.
"Middle-out" learners also exist which crossover the styles. These leaners would be Global-Sensing or Sequential-Intuitive. In a sense, the crossing over means that they process in both directions at once rather than in one direction. For these learners, the crossover tends to act as a balance between the two opposite dimensions. There appear to be fewer "middle-out" learners. "Middle-out" learners are often older students with work or educational experiences that have tended to support this bi-directional learning. For these learners, it is harder to generalize their characteristics. Instead one needs to read the type descriptions and discuss the types in light of that learner's specific scores on each dimension.
For all of these types, they can frustrate each other greatly if they do not understand the different processing types and the legitimacy of all learning styles. Opposite types sometimes "take it personally" when someone does not explain things the same way in a study group because they assume the other person is just being difficult or that they have the only "right" way to learn. Members become exasperated that the other person drones on about unimportant details or paraphrases rules or other transgressions. In addition, when professors teach to only their own learning styles, the students who are opposites struggle more to follow what is happening in class and to learn the material. Without an understanding of different styles, a professor may inadvertently misjudge a student's class performance merely because the student processes information in a very different way.
So how do these learners use their preferences to advantage and avoid the negative tendencies of their learning styles? My next column (Part II) will address strategies and solutions. Part III will talk about the active and reflective dichotomy among learners. (Amy Jarmon)
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