Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, June 1, 2009

Distinguishing Learning Preferences, Cognitive Processing Styles, and Multiple Intelligences

My post will serve two purposes; first, hopefully I will clear up some confusion about the differences between these three concepts; second, I want to plug the LSAC conference next week, and mention that Amy (Jarmon) will be discussing learning preferences and cognitive processing styles during the session titled "ASP 202."

There is a flurry of talk about learning preferences, cognitive processing styles, and multiple intelligences. That is a great thing; as ASPer's, we are often the first to suggest ways to improve law school teaching, and knowing how people learn best is incredibly important when brainstorming ways to help students learn.  However, many people use these terms interchangeably, when they are very different concepts that have very different applicability in the law school setting. I am not an expert on the first two (learning preferences and cognitive processing styles)--Amy wears that crown, and I strongly suggest everyone go back to her columns on 10/8/2008, 10/9/2008, 10/13/2008, 3/17/2008, and 2/9/2007 as a refresher. I wrote (and defended) my master's thesis on Howard Gardner's work with Project Zero and multiple intelligences, so this is an area I feel very comfortable discussing with anyone who has questions.

Learning preferences (or learning styles)refer to someones preferred method of absorbing information; visual, auditory/aural, read/write, and kinesthetic/tactile.  Someone who is primarily a visual learner prefers to absorb information through charts, mind maps, and diagrams.  An auditory or aural learner prefers to learn information by listening to it. Aural learners like the Law School Legends Series of CD's, like to record classes, and should read their notes aloud as they transform them for outlines.  Read/write learners prefer to absorb information by reading and writing; law school is made for them.  Kinesthetic/tactile learners like to touch, feel, and move with the information. They learn best by doing; dividing their notes into columns by topic and flash cards work well for them. Few people fall into one category exclusively; most of us are multi-modal learners.  Our learning preferences can change over time. An excellent resource on learning preferences is at; check it out of you have not had a chance.

I will only go into cognitive processing styles briefly. Amy is the guru, and her posts on 10/8, 10/9, and 10/13/2008 do a far, far better job than I can explaining the different processing styles. I am using Amy's descriptions for this post. There are four processing styles; global, sequential, intuitive, and sensing. Global learners prefer to see the big picture, sequential learners prefer to look at each unit first and only seek the bigger picture after they are comfortable with the parts, intuitive learners prefer ideas, policies, theories, abstractions, and the inter-relationships among these concepts, and sensing learners prefer facts, details, and practicalities.  These processing styles work together. You will frequently encounter global-intuitive learners and sequential-sensing learners. These also work together with learning preferences; any type of cognitive processing style will have learning preferences as well. An example: a global learner, who prefers to process information "top-down" can also be a visual learner who likes to create flow charts that start with the big picture and later connect the smaller pieces.  Learning preferences and cognitive processing styles are not the same, but complimentary preferences. A learning preference is a preferred way of delivery of information, while processing style is the way the information is organized and understood by your mind AFTER delivery. 

Multiple intelligences refers to the limitations of measuring intelligence solely from the Stanford-Binet intelligence-quotient model.  Currently, there are eight intelligences, as defined by Howard Gardner, the "father" of the multiple intelligences movement; linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and (the newest) naturalistic.  Linguistic and logical-mathematical refer to the types of intelligences tested on the Stanford-Binet IQ test most people associate with "intelligence" in the western world. These are also the intelligences valued in law school.  Howard Gardner, an educator working with the Project Zero research project at Harvard, posited in 1983 that the traditional method of measuring intelligence left out large segments of the population, such as people with a gift for music, or people who are skilled at interacting with others or possess that undefinable "charisma" that draws people to them.  Interior designers must possess spatial intelligence to arrange furniture to highlight the benefits of a space. 

To excel in law school, law students must have highly developed linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities. However, as a lawyer, they must posses both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Law school is frequently criticized for valuing linguistic and logical mathematical intelligence while neglecting the interpersonal intelligence necessary to deal with clients and associates.  The high levels of depression and substance abuse plaguing the profession may be a symptom of the lack of intrapersonal intelligence among lawyers.

But here is one of the areas where ASPer's can get confused; bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is NOT the same as kinesthetic/tactile learning preferences, auditory/aural learning preferences are NOT the same as musical intelligence, and spacial intelligence is NOT the same as a visual learning preference.  A person will highly developed bodily-kinesthetic intelligence will be an excellent dancer, excel at sports, and greet people with hugs. They may, or may not, prefer to learn new information by touching or moving. Many dancers, as well as athletes, prefer visual representations to learn new moves or plays. Similarly, someone with highly developed musical intelligence is likely to prefer to learn things by hearing them, but many composers actually prefer visual methods of absorbing information.  Many people with highly developed spacial intelligence are multi-modal, and need to move (kinesthetic/tactile) pieces in order to visualize the end result; architects draw blueprints and create models.  In summary, no matter what your intelligence, you can have ANY learning preference or cognitive processing style. In law schools, multiple intelligences have limited applicability on a small-scale, one-on-one level, but have great applicability when designing new courses and curriculum that reflects changes in the profession.  Learning styles and multiple intelligences are not interchangable terms. They are very different concepts that address completely different things; learning is not an intelligence.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at the blog, or talk to us after "ASP 202" next Thursday in St. Louis! (RCF)

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