Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Learning Preferences are different than Learning Styles. The "styles" aspect is rooted in the work of Howard Gardner and his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Due to such widespread misuse of his theory, Gardner himself had to come out and clarify the nuance of his work, separating it from the simplicity of 'learning styles' while maintaining other psychology concepts important for teaching and learning. That a student has one "style" of learning is not at all the point of Gardner's work and is even further from the idea of Learning Preferences.
Learning preferences refer to how much a learner prefers various means of receiving new information as well as expressing interest and understanding in that new learning through various modes. For some students on some topics this may mean receiving explicit direct instruction while other topics are received through videos online. At the same time, students might prefer orally presenting some kinds of skills and concepts while written presentation of other skills and concepts may simply be the only relevant form. The focus here is on developing a student's capacity to recognize preferences and learn to intentionally use these preferences to learn and improve on other skills and concepts. Teachers, equally, who are able to identify their own preferences may see a tendency for certain instruction and assessment practices which can either support or hinder individual student learning.
In classrooms with a one-size-fits-all approach to all new learning for dozens of students at a time, addressing individual learning preferences can seem impossible. Yet, with the pandemic causing many schools to allow smaller class sizes to be combined with partial distance learning schedules, an opportunity for addressing individual learning preferences has never been closer to becoming a reality for so many students and teachers at one time.
The question I am asking in this post is whether students not only have preferences but whether they can be objectively measured in ways that parents and teachers can intentionally shape instructional approaches and focus them to develop student academic and non-academic skills and concepts.
To address this question, I considered the work of Anton Tolman at Utah Valley University. A survey he designed asked professors in higher education to self-assess the frequency of various evidence-based teaching strategies - these strategies are focused on developing student-led learning environments with an emphasis on metacognition. I adapted that survey for use in a K-12 school setting. Yet, I realized it wasn't enough to only address the strategies implemented by teachers if the intended goal of those strategies were not impacting how students were approaching learning. So I adapted the K-12 version of that survey to focus on student attitudes and beliefs toward learning.
If we know how a student feels about learning with specific evidence-based teaching practices (identifying student learning preferences), we can more accurately measure the effectiveness of specific teaching practices in context of the particular students being instructed by a classroom teacher. The survey described below is a first step in this process of identifying student learning preferences as they related to specific teaching practices. I am excited about the impact such a tool can have on the change in student learning expectations we are now seeing in schools and homes during this pandemic.
Surveying Learning Preferences
This survey includes fifteen statements to which students may respond either 'Yes' or 'No' with an 'Other' option allowing students to clarify a response as needed. Each statement begins with "I like..." which gives students a chance to agree or disagree with a particular preference. This helps give insight into how effective a related teaching strategy might be for that student.
I asked a few parent-friends of mine to test this survey online with their children. The image below shows six results from that survey. One result is an adult teacher who I purposefully asked to take this survey with the mindset of how they prefer to learn as a student. The other five results are of various grade levels, from 2nd to 7th grade - all results are labeled in the image.
From this high-level overview of so few results, there are only so many takeaways to be considered valuable. The first takeaway is that no two results are the same - every student had some distinct difference in their learning preference. The second takeaway is related, and far more important, in that three of the statements received a 'Yes' response from all six students.
The first all-'Yes' statement had to do with whether a student liked figuring out how a previously learned skill connects to a new more challenging skill. This statement was meant to address a standards-based approach in support of learning skills and concepts as part of a progression rather than completing stand-alone tasks out of context.
The second all-'Yes' statement involved liking when parents and teachers encourage students to track their own learning, giving multiple chances to learn a new skill or explain a new idea. This statement targeted teaching practices related to student re-assessment and qualitative feedback.
The third all-'Yes' statement highlighted how these students like when they are encouraged to explore new ideas, new materials, ask questions and share ideas, and celebrate new skills and ideas which they discover as they explore.
Connecting Learning Preferences to Teaching Strategies
The challenge now is more than extending this kind of survey to larger sample sizes for more extensive analysis and discussion but asking how such data can help teachers identify which learning strategies match with each learning preference. This is where teachers need to consider their own preferences for which teaching strategies work for them and considering what it might take to adapt them to meet the learning preferences of their students. This may sound daunting at first, but consider the alternative of forcing teaching practices on students who are dutifully rejecting those efforts, occasionally mis-diagnosing as oppositional defiance disorder, or simply brushing it off as teenage angst or laziness.
This challenge lies not only in helping students become more aware of (and developing) their own learning preferences, but in helping teachers recognize how their own learning preferences connect to their preferred teaching practices, and open up the conversation to include what learning is and how we as individuals can support one another in learning what will strengthen our conceptual understanding of what makes us who we are - our interests, our passions, our desire to like and be liked in return. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we can help each other develop beyond the current demand for basic memorization of predetermined processes.
That is my goal this year - to help teachers help both themselves and their students to see how their strengths can support others' desire to learn and develop; and in doing so, shape the environment in which learning how to learn for the benefit of a learning community replaces the traditional focus of learning what to learn for the benefit of one's own success. The current pandemic has placed distance and remote learning at the forefront, shifting the ownership of learning more toward the students - something which is making most students and teacher quite uncomfortable (as change tends to do for people). Yet, as new teaching strategies translate or adapt to this new environment, we find ourselves with an opportunity to reflect on how our students learn - and how we teach. Identify what students need, how they learn, and we can focus our efforts on intentionally adapting practices to meet those needs.