What learning style do you prefer?

Dr. Gutow's classes incorporate many methods of material presentation in an effort to accommodate the variety of learning styles students have. This page has suggestions on ways to cope when the presentation doesn't match your favorite learning style.

A letter to students about learning styles

Courtesty of Dr. R. Feldner of North Carolina State University and Project Kaleidoscope

Dr. G's comments:
>The most successful students and practicing scientists use all of these learning styles, even those they do not prefer.
>The course incorporates many methods of material presentation in an effort to accommodate the variety of learning styles in the class.  If something is not presented in your favorite way, please be patient;  it is probably helping some of your classmates.
>Because of limited time not all the material will be presented in all the possible ways.  As suggested in this letter, there are things you can do and resources you can use to improve things when the presentation is not matched to your preferred learning style. 

Dear students:

As you may know, students have different learning styles (ways of perceiving and processing information), and sometimes run into trouble in courses in which the instructor’s teaching style doesn’t match their learning style. Read over the following descriptions and try to identify your learning style, and consider the suggestions of ways you can help yourself when mismatches occur, so that you can make the most of your educational experiences.

Active and Reflective Learners

  • Active learners tend to retain and understand information best by doing something active with it -- discussing or applying it or explaining it to others. Reflective learners prefer to think about it quietly first.
  • "Let's try it out and see how it works" is an active learner's phrase; "Let's think it through first" is the reflective learner's response.
  • Active learners tend to like group work more than reflective learners, who prefer working alone.
  • Sitting through lectures without getting to do anything physical but taking notes is hard for both learning types, but particularly hard for active learners.

Everybody is active sometimes and reflective sometimes. Your preference for one category of learners or the other may be strong, moderate, or mild. A balance of the two is desirable. If you always act before reflecting you can jump into things prematurely and get into trouble, while if you spend too much time reflecting you may never get anything done.

If you are an active learner in a class that allows little or no class time for discussion or problem-solving activities, consider studying in a group in which the members take turns explaining different topics to each other. Work with others to guess what you will be asked on the next test and figure out how you will answer. If you are a reflective learner in a class that allows little or no class time for thinking about new information, don’t simply read or memorize lecture material; stop periodically to review what you have read and to think of possible questions or applications. You might also find it helpful to write short summaries of readings or class notes in your own words.

Sensing and Intuitive Learners

  • Sensing learners tend to like learning facts; intuitive learners often prefer discovering possibilities and relationships.
  • Sensors like solving problems by well-established methods and dislike complications and surprises; intuitors like innovation and dislike repetition.
  • Sensors tend to be patient with details and good at memorizing facts and doing hands-on (laboratory) work; intuitors may be better at grasping new concepts and are often more comfortable than sensors with abstractions and mathematical formulations.
  • Sensors don't like courses that have no apparent connection to the real world; intuitors don't like "plug-and-chug" courses that involve a lot of memorization and routine calculations.

Everybody is sensing sometimes and intuitive sometimes. Your preference for one or the other may be strong, moderate, or mild. To be effective as a learner and problem solver, you need to be able to function both ways. If you overemphasize intuition, you may miss important details or make careless mistakes in calculations or hands-on work; if you overemphasize sensing, you may rely too much on memorization and familiar methods and not concentrate enough on understanding and innovative thinking.

If you are a sensing learner in a class where most of the material is abstract and theoretical, you might ask your instructor for specific examples of concepts and procedures and find out how the concepts apply in practice. If the teacher does not provide enough specifics, try to find some in the course text or in other references, or by brainstorming with friends or classmates. If you are an intuitor in a class that deals primarily with memorization and rote substitution in formulas, you might ask your instructor for interpretations or theories that link the facts, or try to find the connections yourself in texts or on the Web. You may also be prone to careless mistakes on test because you are impatient with details and don’t like repetition (as in checking your completed solutions). Take time to read the entire question before you start answering and be sure to check your results.

Visual and Verbal Learners

  • Visual learners remember best what they see-- pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations.
  • Verbal learners get more out of words-- written and spoken explanations.

Everyone learns more when information is presented both visually and verbally. In most college classes very little visual information is presented: students mainly listen to lectures and read material written on chalkboards and in textbooks and handouts. Good learners are capable of processing information presented either visually or verbally.

If you are a visual learner, try to find diagrams, sketches, schematics, photographs, flow charts, or any other visual representation of course material that is predominantly verbal. Ask your instructor, consult reference books, and see if any videotapes or CD-ROM displays of the course material are available. Prepare a concept map by listing key points, enclosing them in boxes or circles, and drawing lines with arrows between concepts to show connections. Color-code your notes with a highlighter so that everything relating to one topic is the same color. If you are a verbal learner, you should find it helpful to write summaries or outlines of course material in your own words. Working in groups can be particularly effective: you can gain understanding of material by hearing classmates’ explanations and you can learn even more when you do the explaining.

Sequential and Global Learners

  • Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in linear steps, with each step following logically from the previous one. Global learners tend to learn in large jumps, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then– suddenly– "getting it."
  • Sequential learners tend to follow logical stepwise paths in finding solutions; global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it.

Many people who read this description may conclude incorrectly that they are global, since everyone has experienced bewilderment followed by a sudden flash of understanding. What makes you global or not is what happens before the light bulb goes on. Sequential learners may not fully understand the material but they can nevertheless do something with it (like solve the homework problems or pass the test) since the pieces they have absorbed are logically connected. Strongly global learners who lack good sequential thinking abilities, on the other hand, may have serious difficulties until they have the big picture. Even after they have it, they may be fuzzy about the details of the subject, while sequential learners may know a lot about specific aspects of a subject but may have trouble relating them to different aspects of the same subject or to different subjects.

If you are a sequential learner and have an instructor who jumps around from topic to topic or skips steps, ask the instructor to fill in the skipped steps, or fill them in yourself by consulting references. When you are studying, take the time to outline the lecture material for yourself in logical order. You might also try to strengthen your global thinking skills by relating each new topic you study to things you already know. The more you can do so, the deeper your understanding of the topic is likely to be. If you are a global learner, before you begin to study the first section of a chapter in a text, skim through the entire chapter to get an overview. Try to relate the subject to things you already know, either by asking the instructor to help you see connections or by consulting references.

Although these suggestions may seem time consuming, if you know what kind of learner you are and use that knowledge when in class and when studying, your studying will be more efficient and your learning will be more productive and more fun. You’re also encouraged to visit your instructor during office hours to discuss any of the ideas in this letter.


Richard Feldner and Jonathan Gutow

Note: To find out more about learning styles check out Dr. Feldner's web site and to take an on-line test that determines your preferences at: Learning Styles Questionnaire.