When I am teaching, either in an advising appointment or in a classroom, I understand that different students may have different learning preferences. This concept of learning preferences emerged out of AHE 552, Student Development Theory II, where we examined the work of Kolb (1984) and his theory of experiential learning. Kolb (1984) developed a model that illustrated the different ways in which people learn: concrete experience and abstract conceptualization, ways of taking in information, and active experimentation and reflective observation, ways of processing information. Kolb (1984) theorized that some individuals might prefer to learn through various combinations and titled these four types of people accommodators, divergers, assimilators, and covergers. Accommodators prefer to gather information through concrete experience, or feeling, and then process that information through active experimentation, or doing. Divergers also prefer to take in information and learning by feeling it through concrete experience but process that knowledge through reflective observation, or watching. Assimilators prefer to learn through abstract conceptualization, or thinking, and process by watching through reflective observation. Finally, convergers take in information through abstract conceptualization, thinking, but process through active experimentation, doing. The theory that people learn differently makes sense, but other research has shown that teaching in targeted ways to specific individuals does not necessarily achieve greater learning. So, I look at Kolb’s (1984) idea of learning styles as preferences in individual students. Teaching to different students requires that I consider all the preferences possible for an individual student or a classroom of students by incorporating different learning strategies into my activities and my assignments.
This process was illustrated in WS 535, Feminist Teaching and Learning. Using an adaptation of Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle, Dr. Shaw suggested that we work through five different stages in teaching experientially. We began by experiencing some activity in a concrete way that might stir emotions. We moved on to publishing what happened in the activity, sharing our initial reactions and observations with the group. The third step was to process the activity by focusing on patterns and dynamics that emerged during the activity. We then generalized about the principles involved in the activity to the wider world; this step could be called theorizing. Finally, we applied what we experienced in the activity to action that we could take outside of the classroom. This cycle from Feminist Teaching and Learning allowed the instructor to touch all the preferences that an individual student may have. The cycle also stretched students in ways that might make them uncomfortable or might not be as effective a learning strategy for them yet could engage a different process and increase their capacity.
In the Career Decision Making recitation I teach, we do various activities each week that employ different learning styles. For instance, one successful activity involves asking students to draw what their lives look like in 10 years. Another activity that many students find useful was a software program that asks students to take a very short self-assessment and provides a manageable list of careers that might interest them with links to extensive research about each. A third successful assignment involves students taking the Strong Interest Inventory and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, thinking about those results, and writing a reflective text about them. Each of these activities engages with a different learning style, using tactile visual aids or technology or self-reflection. Using all the various learning styles in a course ensures that most students will be impacted by at least one activity.
Technology on its own provides multiple ways to reach individual students, especially the so-called “digital natives” of the millennial generation. In advising appointments, in Career Services and in academic advising throughout campus, I show students how to use the online resources available to them, including campus websites and other information sources I know might help them. It is important that the advising session is always a learning process and not just a way of providing information. Of course, providing information is one aspect of advising, but teaching students how to find the information on their own is also important, as well as contextualizing the information with the student and creating a supportive, trusting, and encouraging relationship.
Technology can also help us teach students who are not in the office with us. During the first year of my program, I produced a bi-monthly blog, called Career Changer, that detailed my career journey since graduating with my undergraduate degree. Students followed along with my story, learning about the many paths I’ve taken throughout my life, which I related to Krumboltz’s (2009) concept of planned happenstance, encouraging them to take risks and follow an unconventional path if they wished. This blog was quite successful and received several comments from readers around the world about the ways they learned through reading it online. In addition, the Career Trail program we are currently developing in Career Services leads students through all-online resources, on our own webpage, on YouTube, and in the wider internet universe.
Each student with whom I work comes to me with a distinct set of learning preferences, intersecting identities, levels of cognitive and psychosocial development, challenges, skills, interests, aspirations, and goals. All of these affect our interactions, whether those be in the classroom, in the advising appointment, in the office, or online. I continue to turn back to my counseling micro-skills of active listening and reflecting feeling and meaning in order to understand, and really hear, the particular needs of each individual.