Home > education, learning, training > Learning styles – what works best for you?

Learning styles – what works best for you?

Learning style header image

What's your learning style?

I’ve noticed people coming to this blog through searches about learning styles, so I thought it would be worth writing specifically about them.

The comments below can be applied to situations as diverse as planning a new diet or slimming, learning rock climbing, starting a new job, studying for a degree or writing a novel.

How you learn best is influenced by different factors. Some are specific to the situation. If you want to learn rock climbing, the best way to do it is to climb a rockface, as part of a group, with an instructor – there isn’t really any other way. Some, however, are specific to you. These might include your personality, strengths, resources, prior skills and so on, but also your motivations and aspirations.

In addition, you’re likely to find that learning is a process and you learn different parts of a new skill, technique, job, etc. in different ways.

There are half a dozen ways to describe learning styles and I’ll mention two below. Don’t think of them as worlds apart, because they’re not. They’re just two out of several more or less similar ways to describe the same basic issues and processes. If you want to see a longer list, have a look at the Rapidbi website, or this article on Wikispaces. It’s important, though, to appreciate that what descriptions of learning styles generally do is identify two things at the same time:

  • the learning style you as a learner may be most comfortable with, and
  • the ‘learning cycle’ as a whole, which usually involves more than one style as the nature of learning changes from initial interest to figuring out specific problems and mastering different sets of skills as you work through a new topic.

Honey and Mumford

The best known description of learning styles is by Honey and Mumford. They point out that learning takes place in a cycle, but most people prefer one part of the cycle to others and work best when they’re at that point. The cycle looks like this:

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

No one learns exclusively in one style but depending on which part of the cycle you find easiest to handle, you may be:

  • Activist – oriented to immediate tasks, works flexibly but may not think about future consequences and may be self-centred. Probably learns best by practical experimentation and experience, e.g. as an assistant or apprentice.
  • Reflector – observes and collects information before acting, acts cautiously and keeps the ‘bigger picture’ in mind. Probably learns best through individual research.
  • Theorist – works logically, in an ordered sequence, builds information into a theoretical or rational structure. Works best on the basis of principles, models and systems. Probably learns best through structured interaction, e.g. a training course.
  • Pragmatist – deals with immediate issues, is ‘hands on’ and wants to experiment. Enjoys applying theory to practice. Probably learns best by doing the job, but with a mentor.

Although you may be able to identify your own ‘style’ from this list, Honey and Mumford have questionnaires you can complete that will tell you with more certainty which style (or sometimes styles, plural) you are most comfortable with.

Knowing your preferred learning style helps you because it gives you self-knowledge of the kinds of situations in which you learn best and most quickly, and you can use that knowledge to get the best out of yourself. For example if you’re not confident with individual research, find someone you can discuss it with; if you learn best with hands-on experience and are on a training course, explain this to the trainers and ask if there are any activities they can build into the course to help you.

While most people prefer one style, remember that your preference may change depending on what you’re learning. For example many people find that legal issues are best dealt with in a structured ‘theorist’ way, but computer work is better if learned in a hands-on ‘activist’ way.

The 4MAT model

Honey and Mumford are popular, but there are other descriptions as well. Bernice McCarthy (the 4MAT model) proposed four learning styles that are slightly different to the Honey/Mumford ones:

  • Type 1: Innovative Learners – need to have reasons for learning that connect with the individual’s motivations and how the learning will be useful. Good methods for learning with this type include workshops, co-operative exercises, brainstorming, and anything that enables the learner to understand how new information fits in with, and can be used in conjuction. with some practical tasks they undertake.
  • Type 2: Analytic Learners – interested in deeper understanding of concepts and processes. Many different learning strategies will work, but preferably a mix of different ones – lectures, independent study, data analysis, seminar type scenarios where they can see experts discuss relevant topics etc.
  • Type 3: Common Sense Learners – interested in how to use information in a practical way. Best approaches are hands-on, learning on the job and learning to resolve issues/problems as they crop up.
  • Type 4: Dynamic Learners – independent and self-directed learning, often based on their own curiosity and instincts. Almost by definition this type of learning is individual and independent, and again a mix of different types of input will be stimulating.

Again, while people have their preferred style, all four parts together form a learning cycle that moves through:

  • Meaning – ‘why’ questions. Understanding the significance of a topic.
  • Concepts – ‘what’ questions. Finding ways to gather and analyse information.
  • Skills – ‘how’ questions. Learning practical ways to work in a situation, influence outcomes etc.
  • Adaptations – ‘what if’ questions. Refining understanding and looking e.g. at how different decisions/factors/resources can impact on a situation.

McCarthy has a good video presentation of this cycle and what the different sections involve.

You’ll note that she orders the sequence a little differently to Honey and Mumford. I’ve never regarded the difference as important, though, because people will want to jump into studying a topic for a variety of reasons: curiosity or academic interest, ‘need to know’ because they’ve just started working in the area, reflecting on being in an area and wanting to develop knowledge of the bigger picture, etc. The reason will influence which part of the cycle you’re likely to start on. Where you start is less important than completing the different stages of the cycle.

As with Honey and Mumford, the 4MAT model implies that while you may have a preferred style, you need to recognise what part of the cycle you are in and find appropriate ways of addressing it. If you’re taking a training course, discussion with the trainer should be a good way to do this. If you’re in a job, you can talk to co-workers, find out what training is available, or start investigating issues independently (online, libraries, etc.). And if you’re just curious, you can get a long way through independent study but at some point will need to connect with others who are also studying it, teaching it or working in a relevant area.

Trainers, meanwhile, should recognise it is their responsibility to take account of students’ learning styles and the type of material they are trying to convey, and use appropriate methods at each stage of the cycle.

Next

The next blog will cover some related but rather cryptic topics – SQ3R and PQ4R.

Reference

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000). The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

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