It’s Not You – It’s Your Learning Style

I was thinking today about Learning Styles. I just took a class on storytelling but I’m struggling with applying it. The class was very well done – the presenter was a great speaker, his content was solid, and I agreed with his structure and conclusions. He provided a list of stories you should have ready to share and a template for putting them together. I was excited and started working. And I – experienced writer and raconteur that I am – was struggling to finish even one. If this had been a real class, where the facilitator would have asked us to stand up, to move around, I would have found it easier.

The first semester that I was in graduate school, one of the professors administered a Learning Styles Inventory (if you haven’t done this, you can do it here). Then he posted a flipchart on the wall and plotted each student’s style on the map, based on the strength of their score. My score was so high that I was almost off the edge of the flipchart – in the Physical quadrant. Physical? Me? I am all brain: I read, write, talk, observe, listen, think. I bounce ideas off other people, reflect in solitude. And I scored off the chart in physical?

At first, I was sure there was something wrong with the test. As I reflected further – and I confess, complained to friends – I came to realize that it was right. I read a lot of business books, but the content only stayed with me once I tried applying it. When I learned new skills in a class, I immediately had to take them back to work and try to apply them, or I wouldn’t feel like I had learned anything.

My husband has a verbal learning style and has to read to process new information. A couple of years ago, he took a windsurfing lesson. When he came home, I asked how it had gone and he replied that he never wanted to windsurf again. I asked him to tell me about the lesson and the instructor had just thrown him up on the board and demonstrated what to do. That would have worked for me, but not for him. After a few minutes of complaining, he disappeared into his computer for a while, then picked up the kitchen broom. Holding it like a windsurfing sail’s boom, he checked his form against the pictures on the web, read an instruction, shifted around, nodded to himself, tried a few other poses, shifted his weight around, then declared that he’d be willing to try it again the next day. He needed that verbal support to process the information. (I could also never get him to try Myst or Riven – remember those old games! – because there were no instructions. You had to play the game to figure out what you were supposed to do and how you progressed through the story.)

If you find yourself struggling to learn something, start by assuming that it’s not you, it’s the way it’s being taught. Some instructional designers or professors work on structuring coursework to include each of the learning styles. Others are unaware or have forgotten to include them. So, if you’re like me, you need to find a way to compensate for classes that lean too much on a different style and leave you out.

Your turn to share – what’s your learning style? How does it affect your ability to pick up new skills?

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