Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to challenge your teaching and reach a wider audience

It’s not possible to please all students with your classes. Some like theory and how you deduce concepts, but most of them don’t. Some like when you perform experiments in class, a few don’t. I asked myself, is there something I can do to reach the largest audience possible?

When I wanted to understand what can I do to reach a wider student audience, I found that learning styles are, actually, a research topic. And while reading this research I realized something important: to reach a wider audience you should understand them better. It’s more about them, than about you.

But first things first. Learning styles are a neuromyth. Several university professors have signed a Letter sent to The Gaurdian backing that idea. They wrote,

“Generally known as “learning styles”, it is the belief that individuals can benefit from receiving information in their preferred format, based on a self-report questionnaire. This belief has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences. Learning styles promises to optimise education by tailoring materials to match the individual’s preferred mode of sensory information processing. (…) Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.”
Source: Letter to The Guardian

In fact, if every student had his own learning style and I wanted to match my teaching to reach each of them, I need little to know it’s an impossible task. However, while I search for more information, I ran into an approach I found useful. I’m referring to David Kolb’s Experiential Learning.

In his book, David states

“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”.

Therefore, the way we learn has a lot (or everything) to do with the way we experience what we learn and are transformed by that enriching experience. However, he distinguishes 4 kinds of learning styles which helps understand the possible ways a student’s audience might receive our message.

Diverging

This has nothing to do with the film but rather referring to people who are emotional and observing. Divergents excel at brainstorming and generating ideas. They are constantly using their imagination to solve problems. They watch, gather information and imagine possible outcomes. The cultural interests are broad. They prefer to work in groups, listen with an open mind a receive feedback.

Assimilating

People in this learning style watch and think. They are concise and cherish logic. For then a good explanation is better than practical stuff. They love deductions because they’re attracted to sound theories and pay little attention to their practical value. In learning situations they prefer readings, lecturing, explore analytical models and think about things. Assimilators are likely to pursue careers in science.

Converging

Contrary to divergents, people inclined to this learning style like to think and act. For them, learning concepts is useful if you put them into practice. They’re attracted to technical tasks and love to find a practical use for an idea or concept. We could say they are people with an engineering thinking and incline toward being experimentalists.

Accommodating

People who like “hands-on” tasks and rely more on intuition than logic are accommodators. They prefer to use other people’s analysis and take a more experiential approach, like trial-and-error. They follow they “gut” instead of pursuing a logical analysis and act on instinct.

Reaching a wider audience

In front of a 100 students class or more, how can you know the audience in front of you? I think the best option is to make a simple poll using tools like Socrative which are free. And a possible question can be How do you like to learn? Based on Kolb’s typology I would suggest the following options

  1. Observing and imagining
  2. Through concepts
  3. Through experiments
  4. Experimenting myself

And the idea is not to catalogue learning styles but understand the audience in front of you. All students should develop all learning styles. That’s what makes them complete as students and future professionals. The challenge for those who teach is helping them understand the value of being complete students. This implies developing your teaching for your audience and not accommodating the audience to your teaching. It demands a change in mindset.

QUESTION: What changing your teaching means to you?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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