Friday, April 1, 2016
Identifying the Research Problem
What a Problem Isn’t
Showing Your Understanding
The Literature Review
And Then There’s APA
Monday, March 28, 2016
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Understanding learning styles
How individual humans learn is a meaty subject, and if the research of heavyweights Howard Gardner (2009) and David Kolb (2011) is any indication, it gets meatier the longer you think about it. Over the years, both have expanded the number of learning styles identified in their work, producing increasingly complicated – and presumably accurate – views of how people prefer to learn. But for our purposes, we can take a simpler view.
VAK – or Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic – is a learning styles model with intuitive appeal and a history going back nearly a century. Seeing and reading comprise the visual learning style, listening and speaking comprise the auditory learning style, and touching and doing comprise the kinesthetic learning style. “According to the VAK model, most people possess a dominant or preferred learning style. However, some people have a mixed and evenly balanced blend of the three styles” (Chislett and Chapman, 2005, para. 9).
Reflecting on my preferred learning style
My first pass at the VAK self-test confirmed what I had discovered before: I’m predominantly a visual learner. I prefer text sources in my schoolwork, maps for getting around, and recipes for cooking. I read instructions when I get a new piece of electronic equipment, and use email most of the time to communicate with the world. In these situations at least, I seem to trust words on a page more than anything else. After reflecting a bit on this, I decided to revisit the self-test with some different scenarios in mind. The results surprised me. I found that I was sometimes an auditory learner and sometimes a kinesthetic learner, as well.
For example, I was recently in a music store in Iceland and saw instruments I’d never seen before. I immediately wanted to pick them up and experiment with them. It never crossed my mind to read a manual. Then I considered how I exercise. I watch myself in a mirror and note how the correct form feels. In both cases, I’m using a kinesthetic learning style. As for the auditory component, I learn a tremendous amount from listening to old-timers talk about their experiences with horses, just as I learn a lot when I share my own experiences with my students. I also listen to talk radio daily while exercising or doing outside chores. These are certainly examples of an auditory learning style. So what does all this mean? Could it be that preferred learning styles vary not only from one person to the next but also from one context to the next?
Learning theories and learning styles
Learning styles are part of the larger subject of learning theory. Learning theories abound – fifty of them are nicely summarized in the Theory into Practice Database (Kearsley, 2011) – but those that have been most influential in American education during the past century are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. In very simple terms, behaviorism is concerned with manipulating stimuli to produce correct responses in the student. Cognitivism focuses on the mental processes and structures used in learning. And constructivism sees learning as creating personal meaning through authentic, problem-oriented experiences.
Which of these learning theories supports my preferred learning style? The answer, of course, is that all of them do. When I learn a new musical instrument I do it by immersing myself in the sort of authentic, hands-on scenario that constructivists endorse. When I reconcile what I’ve learned from an old-timer with my previous schema about horses, I’m using the mental processes of most interest to cognitivists. And when I consult a manual to learn how to find
unused frequencies for a wireless microphone, I’m firmly in the world of behaviorism.
Like many of my classmates and instructors, I claim no allegiance to one learning theory over another. In fact, I think it is foolish and unnecessary to become an “ist.” Each theory is a window giving me a different view on the complex phenomenon of learning, and there are contexts where each will shine, where each will be the most appropriate underpinning for an instructional strategy. The worst thing a learner, teacher, or instructional designer can do is become so loyal to a particular learning theory as to miss seeing when it’s not the best choice. Indeed, choosing the best approach for the context – a sort of cherry picking G.E. Snelbecker dubbed systematic eclecticism (as cited in Ertmer & Newby, 1993) – has genuine appeal to those of us who like a little common sense with our learning theory.
Should learning be easy?
But there is another issue wrapped up in the notion of preferred learning styles. Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar” (ThinkExist.com, 2010). Learning is, by its very nature, a growth experience. It requires stretching, getting out of one’s comfort zone. It can be unsettling and difficult, which is precisely why there is such satisfaction awaiting the diligent student. Yet aligning learning theories and instructional strategies with a student’s preferred learning style is intended to make learning easier. Ignoring for a moment the impossibility of catering to every student’s preferred learning style in every course, is this really the right thing to do? Is this the right way to encourage scholarship and the will to be a self-directed lifelong learner?
On this subject, I need to make a distinction between my views as a student and asfa teacher. My return to college was after a 36-year absence. It seemed like everything had changed. I had my doubts about the instructional strategies used in the program. I wasn’t always sure what to do. Some of the reading assignments were long and difficult. I was older and philosophically out-of-sync with some teachers, and most of my classmates. Certainly I wasn’tin my comfort zone, nor was I using my preferred learning styles. So, I did what I had to do. I adapted, I stretched, I grew, and now I am succeeding. The feeling of accomplishment is indescribable. I am better for having worked outside my comfort zone.
When I’m really honest with myself, I don’t care much about whether instructional strategies align with my preferred learning styles. I know that I’ll adapt and learn, regardless. I also know that I tend to learn differently depending on the context and that I can learn as much – or even more – when there is poor alignment between the instructional strategy and my instinctive approach to that learning task.
As an educator, I can’t afford to take this attitude. I need to serve students with all levels of motivation, experience, and ability. Understanding how they prefer to learn is good information to have, especially if I want to challenge them now and then to try something different.
Chislett, V. & Chapman, A. (2005). VAK learning styles self-test. Retrieved from
Ertmer, P. & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4),50-72.
Gardner, H. (2009). Multiple intelligences. Retrieved from http://www.howardgardner.com/MI/mi.html
Kearsley, G. (2011). Explorations in learning & instruction: The theories into practice database. Retrieved from http://tip.psychology.org/
Kolb, D. (2011). Kolb learning style inventory (LSI) version 4. Retrieved from
ThinkExist.com. (2010). Retrieved from http://thinkexist.com/quotation/a_scholar_who_cherishes_the_love_of_comfort_I
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Reliability of a source is a difficult concept for me to grasp. By whose standards? A panel of academics? What about all of the experience and insight out in the real world? Do we just ignore it? In my world, veterinarians, attorneys, and a handful of nutritionists are the only ones with terminal degrees, and many of them are students of horsemen who barely finished high school. Knowledge is everywhere. This is part of the concept of connectivism.
As for Wikipedia, it is subject to market forces. If it does not present reliable information, it dies. For me, this actually gives it more credibility than something written by an academic who is protected by tenure. And what about all the lip service given to the notion of collaborative learning? Wikipedia offers the best of what collaboration has to offer with enough oversight to be sure that bad information doesn't get passed on. Yes, anyone can post anything on Wikipedia, but as I pointed out earlier, it will be quickly removed if it doesn't meet guidelines. Personally I've never found anything incorrect, misleading, or biased on Wikipedia. So what's the beef? Yes, it's a new model, but shouldn't we be open to new ideas?
Finally, I think accessibility of information is also important. On our last assignment, I wanted to add something about survey response bias to my paper. Within ten seconds, I found a comprehensive and very well written article on Wikipedia. I also found some great material on blogs and web sites. So I quickly connected to what I needed to know but I still had to find an "acceptable" source to use in the paper. I spent another half hour trying to find something useful in our academic data bases. I am pretty handy with search engines and it was still extremely frustrating. I finally found one source I could use.
As a teacher, I want to excite students about knowledge and how to access it, not frustrate them. We are in changing times. Maybe we need to rethink what constitutes acceptable sources.
Friday, March 25, 2011
What is the purpose of education?
The American thinker and social commentator, Eric Hoffer, put it very well: "The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together" (Yero, 2001, para. 7). Thus, education should create lifelong learners who not only have the ability but also the desire to learn throughout life. The benefits trickle up from the individual to the family to the society at large.
Novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, focused on another important purpose of education: “… to teach a student how to live his life – by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality” (Yero, 2001, para. 9). Education should have relevance and usefulness in everyday life.
Finally, Chinese Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, observed: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” (AllGreatQuotes.com, 2010). We can take the proverb a bit farther: Teach the man critical thinking and problem solving and you not only feed him, but clothe him, house him, and stimulate him for a lifetime. The only thing you can’t give him is the commitment to make the most of those opportunities. That must come from inside.
The purpose of education is thus to create lifelong learners who have the mix of understanding and practical skills needed to be productive and contributing members of their societies.
How do people learn?
Lifelong learning is not so rare, really. Healthy humans learn by directly assimilating information from sources they find credible: Parents, peers, religious or governmental leaders, newscasters and commentators, even popular icons such as actors, musicians, and sports stars
They also learn as they experience life. Their senses receive information about what is going on around them; their brains process the information, construct meaning from it, and store the results in their memories.
Both of these informal or natural ways of learning are efficient and effortless for the learner. The challenge faced by the educator is to find ways to harness and give direction to a propensity for learning that humans already have. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, metaphorically speaking. Instead, the task of the educator is to get a perfectly usable wheel rolling toward a specific destination.
Traditional direct instruction (e.g. the lecture) seeks to trigger assimilation. It is relatively easy to design and deliver, and may actually be preferred by seasoned learners such as graduate students and researchers because of its explicitness. There is no wallowing about, trying to create personal meaning. The facts are presented; the student absorbs them, and then moves on to the next task. However, this is not an efficient approach for all students and all subjects.
Fortunately, direct instruction can be effectively coupled with the other flavor of natural learning, where meaning is constructed from experience.
The constructivist approach
“In the constructivist approach, students construct personal understanding and knowledge of the world by experiencing things and reflecting on their experiences” (Lang & Evans, 2006, p. 220). Constructivist approaches take the learner through stages of discovery, reflection, sharing, and evaluation. Strategies include
1. Learning by doing (experiential);
2. Learning by working with others (collaborative/cooperative learning), and
3. Learning by working through challenges (problem-based learning).
In direct instruction, the student is asked to accept. In a constructivist activity, the student is asked to discover. This changes the teacher’s job from being a dispenser of knowledge in the former case to an advisor and cheerleader in the latter. “The role of the teacher, in the constructivist approach, is to pose questions and guide students to assist them in finding their own answers” (p. 221). The teacher presents problems, establishes boundaries, provides support and creates an atmosphere of safety. The teacher incorporates both explicitness and vagueness to keep learners moving forward on the learning journey.
Learning styles and comfort zones
Students have preferred learning styles, modes of learning in which they feel most comfortable. But what is the role of comfort in learning? Again, Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu offered an important insight: “A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar” (ThinkExist.com, 2010). Deliberate formal learning – even when the best constructivist approaches are used, even when there is good alignment with a student’s preferred learning style, even with all of that in place - requires effort. It is a transformative process. It is by its very nature unsettling. The good news is that venturing out of one’s comfort zone and doing something substantive while out there, has the curious effect of expanding that comfort zone. The challenge of the instructional designer is to use a variety of learning activities such that each student is likely to find some comforting and some challenging.
Instructional delivery models
For this writer, balance is key in how instruction is designed and delivered. Just as natural learning features both assimilated meaning and constructed meaning, deliberate facilitation of learning through instruction is at its best when it does the same. In education, there is a time and place for explicitness and a time and place for ambiguity. Both can be part of a comprehensive instructional delivery model. For example, direct instruction is highly desirable for conveying instructions about an assignment, expectations for performance, assessment of outcomes, and even the baseline knowledge needed to begin an experiential project. In this context students need explicitness. This creates the boundaries and framework in which they can work through an experiential exercise, in which they can construct their own knowledge. It assures that they are headed in the right general direction without giving them a precise road map for getting there. Then the experiential journey – the experiencing, the reflecting, the sharing, and the evaluating – can begin.
An important mandate for education in the modern age is to make it suitable for online delivery. The Internet has been a game-changer. So profound is its importance to learning that the following can easily be imagined:
1. The history of learning will one day be divided into pre and post-Internet
2. “Online education” will eventually become a redundant term. Instruction – even the face-to-face variety – will be assumed to have an online dimension somewhere in its development, delivery, execution, or evaluation.
Connection is the service that the Internet provides, and this is both in the literal sense of providing linkage between computers and in the larger sense of creating channels of access between the people and resources that make up the educational experience.
Distance learning and socialization
If there is one persistent criticism of learning from a distance using online education, it is that it downplays the social component of traditional classrooms. But that could be precisely where its value lies! Decoupling social growth and academic growth allows each to proceed at the rate best for the individual student.
In his country hit, “Online,” singer/songwriter, Brad Paisley confesses, “I’m so much cooler online” (AZLyrics.com, 2010). In a traditional classroom, the shy and unsure student often slouches in the back of the classroom, intimidated by quicker-thinking, confident achievers who dominate a discussion. But in an online discussion board, that shy student can take all the time he or she needs to compose a thoughtful post and be certain it will be read. The student is not only cooler online, but smarter as well, spending more time on task and growing into the student he or she wants to be, less inhibited by social pressures. And what exactly is lost in the process? Nothing! Interaction with others is still present but doesn’t wield the power to compromise academic learning.
Taking it to the corral
Online education isn’t only for discourse-based subjects such as philosophy and sociology. Nearly any subject that can be taught has some component that could be taught online. A good example is the writer’s work as an educator in the horse industry.
The curriculum is horsemanship. One could easily presume that this is all about developing facility and technique in handling horses, and that it would not be suitable for online instruction. While physical interaction with a horse is certainly part of the journey, there is also a strong cognitive component, and it is this component that is best suited for development with distance education. Students are well served by studying the evolutionary history of equus caballus (modern horse), the resulting behavior complex, veterinary science, horsekeeping/husbandry, the history of horsemanship (including modern horsemen), and general principles of behavior modification as well as those that have been proven particularly effective with horses.
Target students are predominantly middle-aged women, college educated and computer literate, who are interested in increasing the enjoyment they get from their horses. They are accustomed to learning through technology. Indeed, many are already accessing the writer’s television and radio programs, and writings online.
Just how well can the natural learning phenomenon be harnessed to reach these students online? Direct assimilation of knowledge through readings, lectures, video, and audio has already proven viable in the handful of horse-oriented distance education offerings available today. The greatest room for growth, however, is in incorporating constructivist methods, and it is here where there is the greatest opportunity to have a positive impact. Discussion boards where learners can share experiences and learn collaboratively would be an easy first step.
What’s more, it is conceivable that one day, motion-controlled gaming technology (e.g. Nintendo's Wii™) could simulate a hands-on horse experience to safely teach newbies basic horse-handling skills remotely, similar to the way driving students use simulators or families play sports from their living rooms. This would undoubtedly improve the learner’s confidence and competence, enhancing the quality of the experience when human and horse meet.
A final thought
This writer’s focus is clearly on the individual, believing that individual freedom, excellence, and virtue are the proper starting points for achieving those characteristics in a society. A natural corollary to that belief is that the most formidable barriers to lifelong learning are not imposed from without but found within, the foremost such barrier being the learner’s own attitude. In a recent radio interview, a young Canadian horseman, Jonathan Field, shared an observation made by one of his mentors. There are three words that every learner should avoid uttering, for they all but assure that the learning has stopped: “I know that.”
AllGreatQuotes.com. (2010). Retrieved from
AZLyrics.com. (2010). Retrieved from
Lang, H.R., & Evans, D.N. (2006). Models, strategies, and methods for effective
teaching. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
ThinkExist.com. (2010). Retrieved from
Yero, J.L. (2001). The meaning of education. Teacher’s mind resources. Retrieved from
Thursday, March 17, 2011
For one thing, I believe in the value of the traditional test, a relic from the reign of behaviorism, as well as reflective writing, the primary tool of modern constructivists. I feel no compulsion to pledge allegiance to one theory of learning over another. And why should I? I have found valuable insights in behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism. Metaphorically, I think of each theory as a door offering a different view onto the complex phenomenon of learning. Teachers in the trenches seldom commit to a particular ism, either, preferring instead to cherry pick the best ideas they can find to help their students, leaving behind what doesn’t work.
What works and doesn’t work in assessment
The view of assessment offered by constructivists Palloff & Pratt (2006) is perfect for cherry picking. They put forth a number of practical and common sense prescriptions for assessment in online courses, such as:
1. Use assessment techniques that fit the context and align with the learning objectives (p. 1); and
2. Design assessments that are clear, easy to understand and that are likely to work in the online environment (p. 1).
Yet some of their other prescriptions seem to intensify negative social influences on learning and abdicate assessment responsibility. These are best left behind:
1. Include collaborative assessments through public posting of papers along with comments from student to student (p. 1); and
2. Ask for and incorporate student input into how assessment should be conducted (p. 1).
In my opinion, students of all ages need strong guidance from their teachers in both the learning and assessment phases if they are to achieve individual excellence. But constructivism pushes the guide off to the side, recasts him or her as a learning peer, and promotes the group to the role of primary facilitator of learning, changing the goal of individual excellence to the goal of being a good team player.
instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. Retrieved from http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf
online. 22nd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://csuglobal.blackboard.com/bbcswebdav/library/Article%20Reserve/ OTL541/How%20do%20we%20know%20they%20know.pdf