Thursday, March 18, 2010

Using color to learn

One dimension of visual learning that helps many of my law students is an awareness of how color can be connected to learning.  Some students can "see" material better when color is added: they organize the material more effectively, learn it more quickly, and retain it more easily. 

Here are some general observations about using color to support learning:

  • The amount of color may matter.  One student may be able to use the broad tip of a highlighter to highlight case material.  Another student may only be able to use a narrow underlining with a colored pen or pencil.  For the latter student, highlighting would be too much of a good thing.
  • The number of colors may matter.  One student may have a "rainbow" case book : facts in orange; issues in yellow; procedural history in pink; reasoning in blue; holding and judgment in purple; dicta in green.  Another student may only be able to use one or two colors; yellow for most items and orange if the professor stresses something in class.  
  • The consistency in color use may matter.  The student with a "rainbow" casebook usually needs to keep the color categories the same for every case.  Orange as facts consistently gives meaning to the color and allows the student to quickly find facts in the case.  (And in her brief if the heading "FACTS" is highlighted in orange as well.)  A student may always need to use red ink to indicate rules or blue ink to indicate policy while the remainder of class notes are in black ink (whether typing or handwriting).  However, another student might randomly change ink colors in her handwritten notes just to keep from getting bored so that consistency is unimportant.
  • The color chosen may naturally have meaning for a student.  When I talk with students who are color learners, they often seem surprised when I ask them why they chose a particular color.  They often respond that facts just are orange to them or rules just are red to them.  If they color code binders for different courses, they will respond that Civil Procedure just seems pink and Torts just seems orange to them.  Another color learner might use entirely different colors but will be equally sure that the specific color matches the concept or course.
  • Color may indicate hierarchy, categories, parts, or difficulty.  One student may tell me that green is for main topics, blue is for sub-topics, and yellow is for sub-sub-topics - color means hierarchy.  Another student may tell me that green is for one topic, blue is for another topic, and yellow is for a third topic - color means categories of material.  Yet another student will tell me that rules are green, policies are blue, and exceptions are yellow.  A fourth student may say that green indicates material they are having trouble remembering, blue indicates material they need to study more, and yellow indicates material they need to talk with the professor about.  Each student "sees" the use of color in a different way, though all of these ways are legitimate.  

Here are some practical ways in which color can be added to assist in learning:

  • Tabbing of a code/rule book or outline.   A whole world of possibilities opens up with multiple colors of tabs.  Tabs can indicate hierarchy (topics in red, sub-topics in blue, sub-sub-topics in yellow) or categories (pleadings and motions in red, depositions and discovery in blue, parties in yellow) or frequency of use (most often used in red, next most often used in blue, least often used in yellow), or difficulty to the student (known the best in red, known next best in blue, known the least in yellow).
  • Adding color to a graphic organizer.  By adding color to a black and white graphic organizer, many students can see the information more clearly and recall the organization better.  Multiple colors can be used to indicate hierarchy, categories, or other levels of understanding. 
  • Using color to organize course materials.  For example, a student might use orange binders, file folders, highlighters and index cards for Income Tax and everything in green for Wills & Trusts.  Finding one's materials for Income Tax means gathering together anything orange to get organized.  By thinking "orange" during an exam, some students would find that Income Tax information floated to the top of memory while other courses receded. 
  • Color coding items that one needs to draw attention to in studying.  Sequential-sensing learners sometimes have difficulty remembering and using policy.  By highlighting all policy in an outline in green, their attention is drawn to that area of difficulty for more drill.  Global-intuitive learners sometimes have difficulty remembering precise rule statements or definitions.  By highlighting all of these items in yellow in their outlines, they focus more on these specifics.
  • Color coding practice question answers to analyze difficulties.  An answer to a practice question should contain the law (rules, definitions of elements, etc.) as well as the facts as they apply to the law.  In addition, most professors want to see both plaintiff and defendant arguments.  And as appropriate, a student will need to refer to cases and policy.  Finally, a student may need to concentrate on paring down her language to be more concise and less flowery. 
    • A student could highlight the law and cases in yellow, the facts in orange, and policy in green to see if they are properly organized and balanced within an answer. 
    • Plaintiff arguments could be bracketed in pink and defendant arguments in purple to show that both sides are represented in the analysis. 
    • Flowery language could be circled in red to show where paring was needed.      

Color learners remark occasionally that they feel embarrassed because they should have outgrown coloring in grade school.  Sometimes they are teased by classmates.  They should ignore the jibes and continue to use color to advantage to improve their understanding, retention, and organization.  (Amy Jarmon)  

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