When I was 8 years old my parents took me to a large medical facility where I spent two days undergoing testing for a learning disability. I don’t specifically remember being told I was or how far behind grade level I had fallen. But I do remember being told I had very good auditory recall. My parents stressed that I was not less intelligent than my peers, I just learned differently. I was an “auditory learner.”
Luckily for me, the teachers and tutors I worked with over the following six years as I caught up to grade level did not confine me to strategies tailored specifically for auditory learners. As I struggled to learn to read, my teachers used songs, pictures, colors, manipulatives, and everything in between. According to research, we might have individual learning preferences, but we all benefit from being introduced to content in a variety of ways.
Expanding on the earlier work of Walter Burke Barbe (McGuire), Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills in the 1990s described the “learning styles” you might be familiar with – visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. These styles represent most of our individual strengths or preferences.
Some people, for example, remember details of an image better than they remember tones within a sound. Individual preferences are important because they often provide an entry point in which people can engage new material in a familiar way. However, these preferences are not fixed. They do not represent the only way a person can learn, and they may not even represent how a person always learns best. Instead, a variety of factors impact how someone will learn most effectively.
Learning Affected by Motivation, Personality, and Content
Three key factors that affect the way we learn are motivation, personality, and content. Motivation is an important element of our learning because it influences our behavior. When we are motivated, we behave in ways that positively affect our learning, like working harder.
Personality affects our learning because it determines how we process new information and setting. Extroverts are external processors. They need to work out concepts externally, usually around other people, to create meaning. Alternatively, introverts are internal processors. They need time and space to mentally process new content in order to create meaning.
Content structures our learning because we learn different forms of new information in different ways. While someone might have an auditory learning preference, they are unlikely to learn the features of a particular map without seeing it. (Learning Styles)
Recently when I was introduced to learning research at the beginning of graduate school, I was surprised to realize that I use study strategies from each learning preference category on a regular basis. Although I had continued to call myself an “auditory learner,” in practice I employed a wide range of strategies to compensate for my learning difference. I almost always employ an auditory strategy by having my computer read my textbook aloud. At the same time, I retain much more content if I combine this with a secondary strategy, such as highlighting a physical copy of the textbook as I listen.
Trusting Our Instincts
What does this mean for Sunday School teachers and others who teach in the Church? This research actually makes life easier for Christian formation leaders who may not have formal teacher training. Effective learning by different participants is based on a variety of factors, so teachers do not need to tailor class sessions to fit individual learning styles for those who show up.
Instead, they can teach from the heart in a way that feels authentic and comfortable without worrying about different learning preferences of students. By using a variety of methods to explore each topic, they will probably touch on preferences while strengthening new learning mechanisms.
What seems logical to the teacher is a good place to start. In exploring the creation story with middle school students, for example, a teacher might start by reading the story aloud with the group and then move to other ways for students to engage with the content. Students could break into groups and make collages or paint a mural that included the different days of creation.
In teaching the creation story to adults, we often get so enmeshed in the theology of the story that we forget about the awe and wonder that made the story come alive when we were children. A leader might introduce a session with a brief YouTube clip, such as God’s Creation according to Genesis. Lecture and discussion might follow, leavened with time for silence and meditation. Tapping into adults’ creativity might deepen and enrich the session for everyone, even those who learn in very different ways.
Allowing students to engage content in a variety of ways creates a space that allows students to both explore material through a learning style of their preference while experimenting with less familiar styles. Using different learning preferences will keep students and learners of all ages engaged.
This article first appeared Episcopal Teacher:
Fall 2017, Vol. 29, No. 4, page 6-7