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4.1: Individual Styles of Learning and Thinking

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  • All of us, including our students, have preferred ways of learning. Teachers often refer to these differences as learning styles, though this term may imply that students are more consistent across situations than is really the case. One student may like to make diagrams to help remember a reading assignment, whereas another student may prefer to write a sketchy outline instead. Yet in many cases, the students could in principle reverse the strategies and still learn the material: if coaxed (or perhaps required), the diagram-maker could take notes for a change and the note-taker could draw diagrams. Both would still learn, though neither might feel as comfortable as when using the strategies that they prefer. This reality suggests that a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach may be a teacher's best response to students' learning styles. Or put another way, it is good to support students' preferred learning strategies where possible and appropriate, but neither necessary nor desirable to do so all of the time (Loo, 2004; Stahl, 2002). Most of all, it is neither necessary nor possible to classify or label students according to seemingly fixed learning styles and then allow them to learn only according to those styles. A student may prefer to hear new material rather than see it; he may prefer for you to explain something orally, for example, rather than to see it demonstrated in a video. But he may nonetheless tolerate or sometimes even prefer to see it demonstrated. In the long run, in fact, he may learn it best by encountering the material in both ways, regardless of his habitual preferences.

    That said, there is evidence that individuals, including students, do differ in how they habitually think. These differences are more specific than learning styles or preferences, and psychologists sometimes call them cognitive styles, meaning typical ways of perceiving and remembering information, and typical ways of solving problems and making decisions (Zhang & Sternberg, 2006). In a style of thinking called field dependence, for example, individuals perceive patterns as a whole rather than focus on the parts of the pattern separately. In a complementary tendency, called field independence, individuals are more inclined to analyze overall patterns into their parts. Cognitive research from the 1940s to the present has found field dependence/independence differences to be somewhat stable for any given person across situations, though not completely so (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977; Zhang & Sternberg, 2005). Someone who is field dependent (perceives globally or "wholistically") in one situation, tends to a modest extent to perceive things globally or wholistically in other situations. Field dependence and independence can be important in understanding students because the styles affect students' behaviors and preferences in school and classrooms. Field dependent persons tend to work better in groups, it seems, and to prefer "open-ended" fields of study like literature and history. Field independent persons, on the other hand, tend to work better alone and to prefer highly analytic studies like math and science. The differences are only a tendency, however, and there are a lot of students who contradict the trends. As with the broader notion of learning styles, the cognitive styles of field dependence and independence are useful for tailoring instruction to particular students, but their guidance is only approximate. They neither can nor should be used to "lock" students to particular modes of learning or to replace students' own expressed preferences and choices about curriculum.

    Another cognitive style is impulsivity as compared to reflectivity. As the names imply, an impulsive cognitive style is one in which a person reacts quickly, but as a result makes comparatively more errors. A reflective style is the opposite: the person reacts more slowly and therefore makes fewer errors. As you might expect, the reflective style would seem better suited to many academic demands of school. Research has found that this is indeed the case for academic skills that clearly benefit from reflection, such as mathematical problem solving or certain reading tasks (Evans, 2004). Some classroom or school-related skills, however, may actually develop better if a student is relatively impulsive. Being a good partner in a cooperative learning group, for example, may depend partly on responding spontaneously (i.e. just a bit "impulsively") to others' suggestions; and being an effective member of an athletic team may depend on nor taking time to reflect carefully on every move that you or your team mates make. There are two major ways to use knowledge of students' cognitive styles (Pritchard, 2005). The first and the more obvious is to build on students' existing style strengths and preferences. A student who is field independent and reflective, for example, can be encouraged to explore tasks and activities that are relatively analytic and that require relatively independent work. One who is field dependent and impulsive, on the other hand, can be encouraged and supported to try tasks and activities that are more social or spontaneous. But a second, less obvious way to use knowledge of cognitive styles is to encourage more balance in cognitive styles for students who need it. A student who lacks field independence, for example, may need explicit help in organizing and analyzing key academic tasks (like organizing a lab report in a science class). One who is already highly reflective may need encouragement to try ideas spontaneously, as in a creative writing lesson.