by Doris Carey, Teaching Faculty Member, Faculty of Academic and Career Preparation

classroom teacherMuch of the literature on teaching and learning styles came from pop culture magazine surveys that concluded that you had a visual style of you liked to look at pictures, an auditory learning style if you liked to chat on the phone, and a kinesthetic learning style if you like to toss a football around. While some common sense conclusions appropriately guided our thinking about the diversity of preferences that students and teachers have with regard to learning and teaching, many conclusions about style compatibilities lacked any research base to support them.

These days, when students make firm assertions about how they learn best, I respond very cautiously. It’s not that I’m unwilling to accommodate their needs, but that I’m all too aware that a student’s chosen modality isn’t necessarily the best way to maximize the effectiveness of that student’s learning.

For example, I’ve recently had to convince a group of students that memorizing an algorithm isn’t the only way—nor, indeed, is it the best way—to learn math.

They insisted that I should give them an example that exactly matched the problem they were working on so that they could imitate the steps and arrive at the correct answer. Of course, I argued that there was more to solving a problem than imitating the steps from a matching example, but several of them insisted, “That’s how I learn best. It’s how I’ve always done well in math.”

I could easily lay blame at the foot of their previous math teachers for allowing them to think that they could memorize examples and survive by imitating the steps. I’m tempted to embark on a rant about memorizing as the only strategy for dealing with problem solving in math. But changing students’ learning behaviours from imitation to analysis and memorizing to thinking through a problem requires building a lot of trust as I reshape their thinking. I won’t build trust if I leave them feeling that they’ve been wrong about their approach.

My favourtie teaching strategies have always been those that involved inductive methods for building knowledge from data. Learning concepts from exemplars and generalizing from patterns are two ways that students learn about the correspondence between equations and their graphs, for example. But if students are used to direct instruction that feeds them formulas and recipes to memorize, they will resist the well-meant attempts to have them construct knowledge and force your teaching style into a hybrid that incorporates what’s safe for them and what makes sense to you.

In spite of our pop culture notions about learning modalities, preferences and accommodations, it’s clear to me that the issues aren’t that simple and that the synergy between learner and teacher is only one of the factors that come into play. I’ve come to believe that simply accommodating students’ preferences can lead to disaster.