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Learning Styles and Differentiated Instruction

Learning is not a spectator sport. We seldom learn anything from passive absorption of information, but instead improve our knowledge and skills by a combination of reading, listening, watching, and practicing. Researchers on learning styles have investigated the relationship between personality, intelligence, and aptitude, and have found that there is no one "best," or one-size-fits-all, learning style. This creates an obvious challenge for the classroom instructor. With a variety of learning styles represented in our classrooms, how can we possible address each of them and maximize the learning opportunities for each individual student? The answer, of course, is that we can't. But, we can try to address many of them.

To begin understanding of the relationship between student learning styles and faculty involvement, you may wish to investigate the work of Howard Gardner, Malcolm Knowles, or David Kolb. These are just three of many researchers who have dedicated many years to understanding learning styles, and can provide a starting point for you. Even brief consideration of their ideas can help us rethink what we do on a day-to-day basis and make the learning process more beneficial for our students and more rewarding for us.

Consider for a moment the teacher's role in a classroom. Pedagogical tradition has taught us that teachers assume responsibility for course learning outcomes, delivery methods, and evaluation of student learning. In most cases, teachers direct the learning. In an andragogical model, the teachers still make most of the decisions and assume pedagogical responsibilities, but the student becomes the focus of activities. Andragogical theory includes consideration of self-directed learning, student responsibility and motivation, and the relationship of the topic to the learner's own experiences. This model requires the teacher to employ active learning or student centered techniques.

What is active learning? Active learning is the learning that occurs when students interact with the subject matter and generate knowledge rather than repeating knowledge. The phrase "guide on the side," rather than "sage on a stage," characterizes the instructor in an active learning classroom. Does this mean that you have to throw away everything you have been doing before? Absolutely not! There are a number of quick and easy ways to weave active learning techniques into your existing courses. After giving a few of these a try, you may want to investigate a more comprehensive restructuring of all or parts of the courses you teach.

  • Think-pair-share is a simple activity you can use in any classroom format. Give students time to think about a topic, turn to their neighbor for a short discussion, and then share the results with the rest of the class.
  • Minute Papers provide students with the opportunity to synthesize their knowledge and to ask unanswered questions. Give students a few minutes at the end of class to answer the following questions in writing: What was the most important thing you learned today? What important question remains unanswered? Variations of these questions, and the student questions and answers they generate, enhance your students' learning process and provide you with feedback on students' understanding of the subject material.
  • Writing activities of many kinds offer students the opportunity to think about and process information. For example, in addition to minute papers, you could pose a question and then give students time to freewrite their answers. You could also give students time to freewrite about topics.
  • Brainstorming is another simple technique that can involve the whole class in a discussion.Introduce a topic or problem and then ask for student input, which you record on the board.
  • Games related to the subject can easily be incorporated into the classroom to foster active learning and participation. Games can include matching, mysteries, group competitions, solving puzzles, pictionary, etc.
  • Debates staged in class can be effective tools for encouraging students to think about several sides of an issue.
  • Group work allows every participant the chance to speak, share personal views, and develop the skill of working with others. Cooperative group work requires all group members to work together to complete a given task. Break the class into groups of 2-5 students. Give each group articles to read, questions to answer and discuss, information to share, subjects to teach to other groups, etc.
  • Case studies use real-life stories that describe what happened to a community, family, school, or individual to prompt students to integrate their classroom knowledge with their knowledge of real-world situations, actions, and consequences.

For more information, the Center has workshops and seminars that may interest you. Please check out our schedule of activities.

The Internet sites listed below can help you get started if you want more ideas about using active learning techniques in your classroom.

Recommended Book from the Center:

McManus, D. A. (2005). Learning the Lectern: Cooperative Learning and the Critical First Days of Students Working in Groups. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company. McManus honestly reports his own frustrations with teaching, with the amount of information that students retain at the end of the semester, and his attempts to make the learning experience more meaningful to himself and his students. He provides both specific and general information that can be generalized to teachers in a variety of fields. He refers to his methods as a puzzle approach, others call his approach a form of active learning.

Quick Links to more infomation about these authors: