Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Processing Learning Styles Part III

In this final segment in the series, I want to describe the differences between active and reflective learners.  In addition, I shall give some practical ways in which these two types of learners can better use their particular styles in law school.  Again, I shall focus on "strong scorers" on these characteristics because it is easier to see the differences between them that way.

Active thinkers are people who say "let me do something with this concept to think about it."  The "doing" may be talking it through, asking lots of questions, working out a practice question, or some other active mode of dealing with the information.  Active thinkers may fearlessly start talking about something they know little about; by the end of the conversation, they will have a better understanding than at the start of the conversation.  They may ramble in that process or change their minds completely before they get to a final answer or statement.  Active thinkers tend to participate in discussions whether in meetings, study groups, or other settings.  They are happy to work through any topic without forewarning.  They tend to be excellent brainstormers.  They may write quickly during an exam without a great deal of planning to their answers. 

Reflective thinkers are people who say "let me think about this concept before I have to do anything with it."  These thinkers need time to reflect before they talk, write, or work on practice questions.  They will often sit quietly in meetings, study groups, or other settings and listen.  They tend to be adept at summarizing material.  They may not give all of the steps in their analysis when they speak because they have internally reflected on the material and consider the end result to be more important.  Very strong reflective thinkers may not like open-ended questions because they give too little structure for their reflection.  If asked a "yes" or "no" question, a reflective thinker may just state "yes" or "no" without any explanation.

Depending on their other processing styles (global-intuitive or sequential-sensing), the active and reflective learners may vary by type.  The active-global-intutive learner may discuss in more general and conceptual terms; the active-sequential-sensing learner may discuss with more steps and details.  The reflective-global-intuitive may internally process the overview and concepts, provide less of that process out loud, and focus more on the overview and concepts in the response.  The reflective-sequential-sensor may internally process in a more methodical way with more attention to detail, provide less of that process out loud, and focus more on steps and details in the response.

Active thinkers sometimes are also high scorers on oral learning and kinesthetic/tactile learning because these preferences focus on participation and application which are both very active modes of learning.  Reflective thinkers sometimes also score high on aural learning and verbal learning because these preferences provide greater opportunity to be a reflective observer.  However, both types of thinkers come in a vary of learning style combinations.

Active and reflective learners can sometimes irritate each other because their approaches are so very different.  Here are some of the conflicts that they relate about one another if they do not understand that both learning styles are legitimate:

  • Active learners are attention seekers because they always want to talk whether they know anything or not.  Reflective learners are not team players because they listen to everyone else's ideas rather than participate.
  • Active learners take forever to get to the answer and waste everyone's time with their rambling thinking.  Reflective learners never explain their analysis fully and only offer their conclusions.
  • Active learners have no structure to their study group sessions and want to talk about anything and everything in no particular order.  Reflective learners want everything in study group to be over-organized and are control freaks.
  • Active learners get bored in study groups that are just one member lecturing to the other members.  Reflective learners are willing to teach a topic in study group once they have had time to prepare.
  • Professors sometimes think active learners are disorganized or unprepared because they ramble to an answer.  Professors sometimes think reflective learners are unprepared and undisciplined in their thinking because they pause so long to answer and then do not give all of their thought process.

Here are some ways that the two types can be more productive but still reflect their differences:

  • Both types of learners should spend more time when reading cases to reflect on what the professor may ask in class for both the case-specific and synthesis aspects of what they have read.  Reflective learners will be more confident if called on in class, will not be as startled by the questions, and will be more likely to include their thought processes in their answers if they have reflected before class.  Active learners will be more prepared in class to give organized answers rather than rambling answers and can write down clearly the questions they need to ask in class rather than ask the professor partially formed questions.
  • Both types of learners should learn actively in class rather than be passive learners.  Reflective learners will be less likely to volunteer unless they are "comfortable."  However, they can self-monitor and engage in class by silently answering any question, comparing their answer to the answer of the reciting student, and listening to professor comments in reponse.  Active learners are typically more apt to volunteer in class and talk through the analysis with the professor to stay engaged.  However, they can also use the silent method to stay engaged if a professor only calls on students and does not take volunteers. 
  • Both types of learners should spend 1/3 of their time on an essay question thinking about the analysis and organizing the answer and 2/3 of their time writing the answer.  Their exam writing will improve with adequate analysis and organization.    Reflective thinkers will allow themselves the reflection time they need to notice all of the aspects to include in an answer and to organize their analysis completely.  Active thinkers will provide themselves with time to analyze so that they will not forget aspects that should be mentioned and will not meander in their written answers.
  • Both types should have input into the format of a study group.  Reflective thinkers truly need time to reflect on the material before the study group.  If the study group sets an agenda beforehand for the main topics to be discussed and which practice questions will be discussed, the reflective learner will be able to prepare and participate more effectively.  Active thinkers need some flexibility in the study group to discuss topics that were not on the pre-planned agenda.  If the study group allows for some time within the meeting for questions about any topic, the active learner can have time to ask what has suddenly popped into his head.
  • Both types of learners can benefit from practice questions.  When both types of learners share a study group, they may want to do practice questions separately as well as together to account for their learning differences.  Reflective learners may prefer to use practice questions only after they have thoroughly reviewed a topic so that they feel prepared to do something with the material.  After review and individual working of questions, they will be ready to discuss them in a study group session.  Active learners may prefer to use practice questions to help them think through a topic after some review while not having fully learned the material yet.  They then will want to add more questions after a thorough review of the material.  They may use the study group setting at either of these stages in review. 

Active and reflective thinkers need to consider their other absorption and processing styles to combine their multiple modes of learning.  As with other learning types, active and reflective learners are unique individuals within their general categories.  (Amy Jarmon)

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