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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Learning Style = Presentation Style?

By Janine Castro, PhD

Several years ago, one of my colleagues recommended that my prospective field course students take the Index of Learning Styles (ILS) Questionnaire.  Her contention was (and still is) that instructors must expand both their learning materials and delivery style to address the needs of all students … hence, the need to know my students preferred learning styles. The ILS was developed by Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman of North Carolina State University.  In a nutshell, learning preferences are evaluated on four dimensions -- active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global. 
After taking the test myself and reviewing the website materials, I took my colleague’s advice and requested that students complete the survey. On the first day of class, I plotted the student learning styles on a chart, which not only helped the students become more self-aware, but also created empathy for the other learning styles. For instance, a student who was a “hands-off” reflective learner tended to be more patient and understanding during a “hands-on” active exercise.

A year later, when I was convening a group of instructors who all teach in a river restoration program, it struck me that I should have not only the students take the questionnaire, but the instructors as well. Based on my own results, I discovered that I have rather extreme learning styles. Did this mean that I was leaving a portion of the students behind as I was preferentially teaching to my own learning style? Absolutely. And I am probably more guilty than other instructors of this offense because I am so “unbalanced”.

Why does understanding your own learning style help when constructing a presentation or lecture?  Because it is almost a certainty that you teach primarily, and perhaps solely, in the same way that you learn. There is no reason that you would do otherwise, unless you realized that there are other types of learners out there! The more extreme your learning preference, the more of your audience that you potentially abandon. 

Take the test and then consciously add any missing components to your talk.  If you are a visual learner, consider providing written material to the audience for the verbalists. If you are a global learner, then you may need to describe a process step-by-step for the sequential learners.

Presenting to a diverse group of learning styles is not necessarily more difficult, but it certainly is more interesting. Presenting is about communicating to EVERYONE in your audience – not just people who learn like you!

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