Mississippi Teacher Corps

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Required blog: learning styles

I gave a learning styles inventory to all of my classes within the first few days of school, partly because I needed something for them to do after they finished the diagnostic test I gave them and partly because my mentor teacher was giving the inventory to her classes, and it seemed mildly interesting. At any rate, I let the questionnaires sit and collect dust until this week, when I realized that I needed to look at them for my blog. It was just one of those things that went on the backburner because it wasn't pressing, but I do wish that I'd thought about the questionnaires earlier in the year.
The overwhelming majority of my students are visual learners, a trend that is consistent across all of my classes. At the beginning of the year, I was doing very little teaching that involved visual learning and relied primarily on auditory devices (i.e. lecture and note-taking). In retrospect, I did this because my first two attempts at using visual devices to learn (having students draw lab safety posters and having students diagram a plant cell) failed miserably. The problem was not with the visual nature itself (which I had implicitly assumed), but with the fact that my students need VERY clear guidelines for any independent practice that they do, or else will sit and stare at their paper for the rest of the period. I've just recently started to have students represent information that I've already taught using visual devices, and I'm very happy with the results. I came up with some ideas after my school district pulled me out of school for a day to send me to a "Thinking Maps" workshop. I remember making lots of cynical comments to myself during the workshop about the fact that we were taking 7 hours to learn that stuff, and that the district thought it was worth all of my students missing a day of teaching, but when all is said and done, it gave me some useful ideas. I had students use a "double bubble" map (sort of a modern Venn diagram) to compare and contrast plant/animal cells, and a multiflow map to see the reactants and products in photosynthesis and cell respiration. This worked very well; I saw some students who never seemed to focus much during class become really engaged for the first time, and the visual aids seemed to really help students process what I'd been lecturing about every day. This was also the first time I'd been able to use student-centered classroom activities in a way that really seemed to work. Seeing the results of my learning styles inventory reaffirmed how important it will be for me to continue to use these visual devices in teaching.
Very few of my students were kinesthetic or auditory learners. I've been using auditory devices heavily, probably too heavily, but have used very few kinesthetic methods. On a side note, I found that fact ironic, given that when I took the learning styles inventory, I found out that I myself am a kinesthetic learner. I'll be doing a pretty sweet predator/prey activity next week that involves lots of kinesthetics, and as I figure out how to integrate lab-esque activities into my lessons (which hasn't happened very well so far for a combination of reasons: lack of classroom space, difficulty of obtaining supplies at short notice, and concerns about classroom management), I hope that I can use kinesthetic methods more frequently just to mix it up a little more.
As a final point, I'd like to comment on the biggest lesson I learned from giving the surveys, which had nothing to do with learning styles at all. As I mentioned, this was one of the first assignments I gave my students, and it made me realize just how hard it is for a middle school student to follow a complicated set of directions. Some students were confused about how to even fill out the questionnaire, and virtually everyone asked me questions about how to do the scoring at the end. This was an accurate preview of how much difficulty my students have following directions that are obvious to me. I've become increasingly more careful about making directions explicit, clear, and simply worded. I still end up explaining written directions to individual students more often than I should (a perfect example was the Sudoku bonus puzzle I gave to students who finished my nine weeks exam early... wow, I got tired of explaining that one after the hundredth time!), but I'm learning.
Now playing: The Eagles- Take it Easy


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