Differences in Learning Styles — Modes of Inference

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Education, Philosophy, Science
Tags: , ,

See also Differences in Learning Styles — Symbols and Preferences.

Not only do many students have preferred sensory modes for acquiring information, they also have preferred well or poorly developed modes of making inferences, of thinking about new material.  We all build models in our brains as a way of constructing an understanding the external universe, but we don’t necessarily do it in the same manner.  Dr. Joseph Hill developed an area called The Educational Sciences a number of years ago, but before he could convey this knowledge to a broad audience, he passed away.

In a training that he conducted in the late 1960’s I learned and then applied concepts about several aspects of his learning model with great success.  I have outlined some of the basic concepts in three blogs dealing with Differences in Learning Styles,  Symbols, Preferences and this one Modes of Inference.

There are three predominant modes of assessing and acquiring new information.  Dr. Hill modeled these after the three primary ways that statisticians interact with statistical problems.  I will contrast the three modes  Magnitude, Difference, Relational.    I will explain why I tend to be an appraiser and what that means, but here I want to share my approach to teaching that was very successful although I did not understand why until I learned about The Educational Sciences.  It helps explain the various modes with a teaching example.  My general approach in the high school math classes I taught was as follows:

  1. Check the previous day’s assignment  answering students questions.
  2. Put today’s homework assignment on the board
  3. Describe the new content relevant to the homework assignment
  4. Describe how the new concept was different from previous work we had done
  5. Begin to actually work out the homework problems on the board
  6. Work with students individually that needed additional help or had additional

Now let me explain the modes of interference and then explain why this approach was successful for virtually all of my students.

Magnitude:  A person who predominantly utilizes the magnitude mode does this by organizing incoming information into a categorical structure.  When one is presented with new information, the tendency of a “magnitude preferential” learner is to build a new “pigeon hole” in which to put the information or to store the information within an existing categorical structure.  It is an emphasis on WHAT THE INFORMATION IS, how to classify it or do it.

Difference:  A person who predominantly utilizes the difference mode does this by building contrasts with what they already know.  They learn what something is by knowing WHAT A THING IS NOT.  To do this, they may have to build multiple contrasts until, having exhausted ways to see what something is not, they say, “Oh, now I understand” and if you ask they what they understand, they will tell you all the things it is not.

Relational: A person who predominantly utilizes the relational mode does this by building ASSOCIATIONS WITH LIKE THINGS.  They understand by building relationships between the new and the old.  (Contrast this with Difference where the relationship is with things that ARE NOT LIKE the current new information or thing.)

As it turns out, for reasons I don’t know enough about to describe, various people tend to have preference for one or more modes of inference, or decision making.  In the even a person normally applies all of these modes in learning every time, we can call that comprehensive mode the APPRAISER mode.  One characteristic of the appraiser mode is the built in delay in decision making or information acquisition.  In a situation in which rapid decision making is required, being an appraiser can be a handicap.  We probably prefer that our generals are magnitude thinkers, quick to determine what the new information means and able to make a decision rapidly.

I have noticed that the difference mode is characteristic and probably a necessary mode for a visual artist.  An artist has a way of seeing what is different from what other people see and being able to relate to that and express it.  I have noticed that strong magnitude students with weak relational modes can do well in Algebra that depends on a rule oriented structure, but poorly in geometry which is dependent heavily on seeing relationships, constructing proofs out of a long list of related theorems.  I have found it is frequently the case that strong magnitude thinkers equally preferred  algebra and English grammar and disliked literature while strong relational preference students preferred geometry and literature which was dependent on relationships, discovering the plot from disparate clues for example.

I noticed the students who expressed a mostly difference orientation because of the frequent question they had that had the form of “why is the way I worked the problem not correct?”   Once I noticed that was the operative mode, I would take their approach and work out how it led to contradictions and frequently got an “Ah Ha” response.  I noticed that these were frequently the same students who challenged rules and who in other classes were considered problem students.  They frustrated teachers, were frequently told “because I said so” type answers and frequently got in trouble — not because they were trouble makers, but because teachers were not tuned in to their preferred mode of understanding.  I also noticed these same students tending to wear contrasting colors.  They were budding artists, creative, wanting to learn as much as other students, just not well understood.

The magnitude mode students tended to take off on the assignment immediately after the assignment was listed or right after an explanation of the new method.  They seldom created problems, provided the homework assignment was long enough.  I gave long assignments, but I also gave a lot of class time to work on it.  The difference mode students hung in till their “how is this different” questions were answered.  And then, there were the students with strong preferences for relational learning.

For relational mode students, it did not help to repeat the “here is what is new” explanation.  It did not help either to repeat the “here is what is different” explanation.  What did help was working out homework assignment problems on the board.  And, that meant not trying to do too much explanation other than verbalizing what I was doing at each step.  If after one or two examples they still did not seem to understand, I would do another assignment problem which they would copy.  It was always amazing to watch these relational students one by one have their own “Ah Ha” experiences, not be cause I was explaining how or drawing contrasts, but by following example after example.  I admit this was the most mysterious case, but somehow, they seemed to understand by seeing lots of examples.  Of course, they had also seen the initial explanation and had heard the questions by the difference mode students, but still, it was only after a number of examples they had their epiphany.

I found some self disclosing questions I could ask people to suggest their style in test taking and shopping.  I asked “When you take a multiple choice test, which is your preferred method of selecting the correct answer:  read the question stem and then A.  read the choices until you find one that is correct, likely not reading the rest of the choices that followed your choice (magnitude)   B. Read choice 1 and 2 and eliminate the least likely, comparing and throwing out possibilities pairwise (difference)  C. Read all the choices, not making any decision until all were read, then picking the most likely answer (relational).  Or in the case of shopping, when you determine you need something do you   A. Research or know before you go exactly what you want and as soon as you find it buy it (magnitude)   B. Have not necessarily determined before you go what you want, but as you find items, compare them, one against the other, eliminating ones that you do not want. (difference)  or  C.  Have a general idea of what you want, but keep an open mind until you have found several items that are possible and then select one (relational) or D. End up doing all three and taking forever to make a decision (appraiser).  Although not perfect, these two questions have tended to help identify a person’s modes.

Of course, some people are just naturals, being able to use all three methods selectively as the situation dictates but not feeling compelled to use any particular method.  They are considered adaptable, competent, and talented people on the whole more so than the rest of us.

CONCLUSION:  Teaching is complicated.  If a teacher is focused on methods of presentation as though a particular method is evaluated on its merits without reference to the preferences of the learner, they won’t be effective teachers.  In contrast, if they are focused on the learner and the various styles and preferences they have for acquiring information, they will need a highly adaptable approach themselves and are best served by having abilities in all three modes of acquiring information so as to be able to relate to what ever mode the learner needs.  I for one wish more teachers were trained to recognize differences that mattered in learning and less attentive to differences of race, economic status, or advantages in life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s