Struggling in a Certain Class? Here's How Understanding Your Learning Style Can Help
Have you ever struggled in class when the subject matter was a breeze for your friends and fellow classmates?
In those situations, it can be easy to feel dumb, or like you'll just never get it, when in reality, that class might just not be taught in a manner that accommodates your unique learning style. With some small adjustments, you may find that it suddenly clicks and makes all the sense in the world.
But what exactly are learning styles, and how can we make the most of them? We chatted with Jeanine O'Neill-Blackwell, president and CEO of 4MAT 4Business, to find out about these different approaches and how understanding your learning style can change your life.
Sweety High: What are learning styles, and why is understanding them so beneficial?
Jeanine O'Neill-Blackwell: Learning styles are how we like to take in information and make sense of it. Based on that definition, we're learning all day. It's what you pay attention to, and how you make meaning of everything coming at you.
As students, there are probably subjects we enjoy more than others, and teaching styles we enjoy over others. When we understand that, we can learn how we prefer to have information packaged to us. We can develop strategies and take charge of our own learning and performance. That's critical because we've all been in class and found a subject really difficult, but it wasn't actually the subject matter—it was the way in which that information was being delivered.
In her first year of high school, my youngest daughter really struggled with algebra. She thought she was just bad at it. But when we looked at it together, it was clear there was just a mismatch with the way she learns and the way the teacher teachers. That can make it difficult to master a subject, and easy to think you're just not cut out for it.
We had a meeting with the teacher, and I explained she's a very hands-on person. She needs to be shown a thing, then given a problem of her own to solve, and in that process, she finds out what parts she understands, and what parts she doesn't, so she can ask questions and clarify. The teacher just showed everything on the board, and when students went home to do the homework, they didn't have that resource available to them. She became clear on what she needs, and now she's doing great at algebra.
SH: How many learning styles are there?
JOB: Dr. Bernice McCarthy, who created the 4MAT model, defines four primary learning styles based on two things that happen when we learn: We take in information, and we make sense of it. We all have a preference for how we do those two things.
Do you like to have your own experience around information, or do you prefer to take it in by thinking about it? One person might reflect on their past experiences and the stories of others, while another will want to Google it, read the instruction manual and tap into the information that already exists. Then, once you take in that information, how do you figure it out and act upon it? Some of us like to see it demonstrated first and have time to think it through, while others want to jump right in and solve the problem.
From those, you end up with four combinations. The feeler and watcher is a Type 1 Learner. They rely heavily on the question of "Why?" Why is this important, meaningful, or significant to me, and why do I need to learn it? A Type 2 Learner will watch and think about it. Their favorite question when learning is "What?" What data and knowledge are known about this, and what does Google have to say? The third type is somebody who's a doer and a thinker. Their favorite question is "How?" How does this work, and how can I do it? They jump in to figure it out, and use resources when they run into a problem. The fourth type of learner is somebody who feels and does. Their question is "If…?" They have experienced, and then they experiment, and then adjust based on their results.
These questions speak to where you spend the most time learning. Technically, we all do all four of these things. When you're learning to ride a bike, you move through these questions. Why do I want to learn to ride a bike, what do I need to know about it, how do I ride, and what happens if I start experimenting?
SH: Can you give examples of how to work within these learning styles?
JOB: If I'm a "Why" person struggling with algebra, I need to know why I'm doing algebra. What will you ever do with this difficult equation? Knowing can make it click into place.
"How" people sometimes struggle if they're asked to do something without good examples. You might want to ask ahead of time, "What does 'done' look like?"Examples of what a great project looks like can push you in the right direction. Ask if the teacher can demonstrate a problem on the board in class, so you can get questions answered if you have them.
And remember you can't always change what a teacher does, but knowing your learning style can help you communicate with yourself and understand your difficulties, and allow you to stretch. That's the other thing about learning styles—they're just our preference. We all have the ability to stretch in any direction we need to go. It just takes a little more energy to work beyond our usual areas. Some of us aren't great with structure, so when an essay has to be this font, with this spacing and these margins, it can be challenging if we're not detail-oriented. That doesn't mean we can't do it. We just have to spend more mental energy to pay attention to nail it.
SH: How can learning styles help us outside the classroom?
JOB: When you understand what you enjoy, compared to what requires more mental energy, you can learn a lot about what you need to succeed, and how to teach yourself when there are gaps. Look at the subjects you enjoy most, and what they have in common. That can help you think about what you want to do all day when you grow up. If you dislike structure and love freedom and creativity, accounting is probably not going to be the right path. It's formulaic and black and white, requiring a certain type of structured thinking all day long.
Rather than focusing entirely on good grades, find out where you feel in flow—where things come easily, and you enjoy what you're doing. Those are clues toward the path you should take. That connection isn't always made in school.
When a class was challenging my daughter, I'd always ask if it's something she thinks she'll be doing for the rest of her life. Maybe you dislike algebra, but are you planning on being a NASA scientist? The truth is that most of us can notice what we enjoy and don't and make choices in our careers to spend most of our time doing things that come naturally to us.
SH: Is it possible to teach in a way that works with every learning style?
JOB: When you're trying to communicate something and want to make sure everyone is on the same page, answer the four questions. Why is this information important to the audience and why should they know it? What are the key points they need to know? How will they implement this in their life? And if they're going to make this their own, what are some things that they're going to be able to adapt around it?
Those four questions give you a great framework for sharing information with anybody. If you want to make a case to your parents about something that you want to do, say here's why I wanna go, what we're going to be doing, how we're going to do it, and if you want to connect with me, here's how you can reach me. It's also a great way to persuade and share information where you need to get buy-in from somebody.
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