Learning with Style

by Diane D'Angelo, Suffolk University Law Library

Filippa Anzalone (Associate Dean of Library and Computing Services and Professor of Law, Boston College Law Library) and Donna Qualters, Ph.D. (Director, Center for Effective University Teaching) Northeastern University kicked off the day with an interactive learning session that kept everyone on their toes. With Donna's education expertise and Filippa's legal know-how, their tag-team approach worked wonderfully. Donna explained that she became an expert on teaching because it was hard for her to learn when she was young. Her statement touched on a theme that echoed throughout the presentation: effective teaching happens when instructors learn to empathize with students and appreciate unique needs and learning styles.

The session centered on a quiz that everyone was asked to complete entitled, "Discovering My Own Learning Style Preference." One question asked quiz takers: if you heard about an exciting new bibliographic instruction teaching method would you: read an article assessing the method; talk with a colleague who has tried it, or attend a lecture on the topic? A group show of hands and volunteered elaborated answers indicated that learning styles varied greatly among the participants, just as they do in real-life teaching situations.

Filippa and Donna stressed that learning styles may vary from situation to situation. For example, someone who jumps into a task headfirst, doing his or her own thing in one situation, might want to work closely with an expert in another, like learning how to sail a boat. The pointed questions Filippa and Donna asked helped elicit discussion and got everyone thinking about the importance of being empathetic, flexible and mindful of various learning styles. Taking the quiz helped us to see first hand that people learn differently, in different situations, for different reasons.

After the quiz, we were asked to break down into pairs and define the term "learning style." Numerous definitions were shared. Some talked about specifics like active and passive learning, while others talked more broadly about individual theories and experiences. This exercise hammered home two main points: learning styles are unique and varied; and people with different ideas and learning styles can come together, fuse their opinions and create a learning style or approach that meets everyone's needs.

After giving the audience a chance to explore and share their own ideas of "learning style," Filippa and Donna shared a more textbook definition. According to the presenters, learning style is "a person's preferred method of receiving, processing, storing and expressing information." Learning styles also include preferences for rate of learning, social conditions and incentives.

Filippa and Donna shared interesting tidbits regarding growing trends in learning styles. They noted that as college campuses fill with students who grew up on MTV and computers, education experts are finding that most students like to receive information visually and kinesthetically. Donna explained that about 80% of what students learn is only stored or retained short-term, largely as a result of cramming. Filippa explained that a recent study showed that 15% of MIT students were flunking physics. When professors put aside their own traditional teaching styles, recognized student preferences for visual learning and communicated information via visual aids and web-based resources, students improved tenfold.

Throughout the presentation, we were reminded that the key to effective teaching is empathizing with students and understanding their background, experience level and learning styles. Some librarians might raise an eyebrow and wonder how they can possibly ascertain learning styles during quick reference interactions, bibliographic instructions or infrequent database training sessions. Donna and Filippa shared great tips: ask questions to get a quick sense of experience levels, read facial expressions -- is a patron yawning, rolling their eyes, sending a ten page email while they should be learning how to do terms and connector searching on Westlaw or Lexis? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the material you are teaching might be too advanced, not challenging enough or maybe they are turned off by your teaching style.

Donna and Filippa shared great insights. Perhaps most valuable, they taught us how to identify learning styles and adapt our own teaching styles to become better instructors.

Next: Librarians as Trainers

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