Posts Tagged ‘Learning Styles’


See also Differences in Learning Styles — Symbols and Modes of Thinking.

I was consulting with a college teacher in a beginning psychology class.  She was troubled by a particular student who was engaged, participated in class with enthusiasm but was failing all the tests.  After deconstructing how the class was taught, I had a theory about what was wrong.  The instructor’s tests formed the greater part of the grade.  The tests were taken almost exclusively from the textbook while the lectures and discussions were considered as supplementary enrichment. I suggested that the student, who was successful in other college classes might highly prefer to acquire auditory information  like in lectures and discussions as opposed to visual input like reading.  An interview confirmed that in classes where tests were dependent on lecture material, the student did well.  When tests were primarily taken from reading material, the student had more difficulty.  The student did know how to read.  I suggested the student get a tape recorder and as he read the textbook, he record it aloud and then replay it and listen to it.  He tried this.  It worked.  He raised his overall grade from failing to a B.

I had a similar experience with a High School student.  The student came to me from another school with an incomplete in algebra.  The former teacher reported the student had no self discipline, no motivation.  That seemed to contradict their participation in sports and cheer leading.  In a discussion, the student offered to come in every day during their free period to clear up this incomplete.  I asked how the incomplete class was taught.  She reported that the teacher was doing individualized teaching.  He gave the students the assignment, the students were to read the math text book description and then work the assigned exercises.  She constantly needed the teacher to explain the lesson, one on one but there were too many students so that she did not get enough time with the teacher.  Again, I theorized this was a strong preference for auditory learning, that she had difficulty with written instructions.  I found a set of lessons on tape she could use.  She came in every day during her free period, listened to the tapes and then worked the exercises successfully.  It was not a lack of motivation or self discipline.  It was a poorly constructed individualized program that was dependent on students being able to acquire their math through visual (reading) means.  Since she could not get enough time feeding her strong preference for auditory learning, she could not succeed.

If you have read my series on Brain Efficiency you understand my view on how our brains are model builders.   That process develops from birth as the newborn’s brain attempts to make sense out of the world into which it was born.  I don’t know whether the differences in physical wiring in the brain or environmental influences are responsible, but we all develop certain preferences for acquiring information.  For some, it is visual stimulation that is preferred.  For others, it is auditory stimulation that is preferred.  For a lucky few, there is balance so that either or both are preferred depending on the situation or information.  What is your preference?  Would you rather go to a lecture or read the text of the lecture?  If you would prefer to hear the lecture and would never be interested in reading the text of it, you probably prefer auditory over visual input.  In contrast, if you would just as soon read the text as hear the lecture, you may have a preference for visual stimuli.

For some people, strong kinesthetic learning is powerful in learning.  Before a child learns the formal rules of mathematics, it is helpful for many to have kenesthetic experiences first, so there are manipulatives that allow learners to carry out physical activities, work with counting items and arrays of unit cubes, etc.  Notice that children frequently learn counting using their fingers.

The point seems to be that a teacher who is focused on learning pays attention to preferences, notes who has what kinds of preferences for acquiring information and helps them learn.  In addition, at an early age, where there is a strong negative preference for visual or auditory learning, attempts to help develop the missing skill.  A good teacher realizes that in a class, there are likely some students that are effectively blind and some effectively deaf and that has to be taken in consideration in planning and preparing learning experiences.


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.


While I was a teacher, I had the opportunity to learn about “The Educational Sciences” as formulated by Joesph Hill in Bloomfield Michigan. (long time ago.)  It changed the way I thought.  Instead of thinking more about teaching, I began to think how students learned and how that should determine how I helped them learn. Simple you say, but I dare say, it is a lot more complex once you think about learning instead of teaching.  In this essay I want to discuss one aspect; the nature of SYMBOLS and how they impact learning.

How do our minds PREFER to acquire information.  In any interaction with an external world, our brains have to interpret stimuli coming in from our senses.  But there are two quite distinct types of stimuli. Lets first consider visual stimuli.  For example, when we visit places like Yellowstone, the views we see represent a qualitative symbol.  By “qualitative symbol” I mean that the visual stimuli presents to our brain the very thing which it is. We might call it an image or a view of nature.   It is still unique to you and to me; we still have different experiences even though we see the same thing because, after all, when the sensory stimulus gets to our brain, it is only a symbolic representation, a set of neural firings and our brains interpret the visual stimuli as a set of neural patterns or symbols in its own unique way.  We see the same visual view, but experience unique neural symbols,  we interpret the view, experience the view differently based on our own unique history.  We call it qualitative because we can not extract it from our brains in such a way that another person can share the experience.  They have to be there, to see it for themselves and even then, their experience will be shared, but different.

In a similar way, viewing a photograph is a qualitative experience.  The pictures in National Geographic present qualitative symbols.  They are symbols in the sense that they are a collection of ink patterns, not the actual view.  They are a visual symbol of the view captured on a camera.  Contrast this with the narrative of the story or picture headings.  While every person, literate or illiterate can “experience” the photographs, only those able to read can “experience” the narrative by visually looking at the words. That is because the words are “Theoretical Symbols.”  The words appear as images on the retina, but they are not the view, just symbols that have to be translated by our brains to some visual or other qualitative experience to which we can relate.  The words represent to our brains something other than what they themselves are.  Seeing a tree and reading the word “tree” are distinct, the first being qualitative and the second being theoretical.  The symbols that make up the word “tree” has to be decoded, translated.  The decoding process calls upon our memory of prior experiences with qualitative symbols to give them meaning.  In National Geographic, this decoding is supplemented by great graphics.  But not all experiences with theoretical symbols are supplemented with good qualitative help. For example a novel with no pictures is just a set of theoretical symbols for which we must supply a mental image.  Our imaginations must provide the “pictures” based on prior experience.

Allow me to offer an example.  What if you see the word “boat?”  Stop a moment and bring up a mental image from all the qualitative experiences you have had of that word, actual boats and pictures of boats you have seen or even drawn.  What I was thinking of was a particular 25 foot sail boat that I used to ride on moonlit nights in Biscayne Bay in Miami.  Unless you have shared that experience, I can almost guarantee that was not your mental image.  So the theoretical symbols that made up the word “boat” evoked different qualitative experiences in each of us.  This should help make the distinction between qualitative and theoretical symbols.

As learners, we show preferences in how we acquire new information.  Think about how you use a visually rich magazine like National Geographic.  Do you prefer the pictures?  Do you tend to look first at the pictures to select what interests you (qualitative symbols)?  Or do you begin with the table of contents(theoretical symbols)?  What about students in a classroom?  Would one approach tend to “speak” equally to all students?  Would it be prudent to think about this distinction when planning a learning exercise?  If you were preparing instructional materials for students that included both styles, they would need to be rich in both types of symbols but not dependent on either one.

This also applies to the brain’s auditory channels.  Hearing the rush of a fast stream is quite different than reading a description of it.  And, unless you had some prior experience with flowing water, you would be hard pressed to conjure up a meaningful interpretation from a description.  This makes the transformation of information most complex.  A lot gets lost in translation.  If you think you are teaching something, you better be aware that the learner’s experiences play a large part in understanding the lesson.

So, how have I done?  Have I accomplished my purpose to get you thinking about the difference between teaching and learning because of the difference between therotical and symbolic symbols. Next blog on this subject I will discuss working with a group of students at one time when some that can see but can’t hear and some that can hear but can’t see. That is what a teacher is faced with each day.