Learning Styles for Non-Traditional Students

Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that by reflecting on our own experiences we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. It is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and/or past knowledge. I believe this learning theory is critical to adult learners, as they have generated knowledge from prior experience. Learning is contextual and knowledge is necessary in order to learn.

According to Funderstanding Learning Styles (2008), there are several guiding principles of constructivism which are listed below:

(1) Readiness: instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn.

(2) Spiral organization: instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student.

(3) Going beyond the information given: instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and/or fill in the gaps.

(4) Learning involves language and the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level, researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level, there is a collection of arguments that language and learning are hopelessly intertwined.

(5) The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental. Physical actions and hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, but it is not sufficient. We need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands. (Dewey called this reflective activity.)

(6) Learning is a social activity. Our learning is intimately associated with our connection with others.

(7) It takes time to learn. Learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them, try them out, play with them, and use them.

Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum; it promotes using curricula customized to the students’ prior knowledge and emphasizes hands-on problem solving. Under this theory, educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to think critically, and rely heavily upon open-ended questions which promote extensive dialogue among students (Hein, 1991). I believe this learning theory is best fitted for teaching non-traditional students, as they bring to the classroom a vast array of experiences and knowledge. They have real-world experiences from which everyone can learn.

Brain-based Learning Theory is based on the structure and function of the brain, and I believe is another well-suited theory for adult learners. The reality is that everyone learns; however, traditional schooling often inhibits learning by discouraging, ignoring, or punishing the brain’s natural learning process. The core principles of brain-based learning state:

(1) The brain can perform several activities at once;

(2) Learning engages the whole physiology;

(3) Emotions are critical to patterning;

(4) The brain processes wholes and parts simultaneously;

(5) Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception, and both conscious and unconscious processes;

(6) We understand best when facts are embedded in natural, spatial memory; and,

(7) Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

Gagne (1985) states that the three instructional techniques associated with brain-based learning are:
(1) Orchestrated immersion – creating learning environments that fully immerse students in an educational experience;
(2) Relaxed alertness – trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly challenging environment; and
(3) Active processing – allowing the learner to consolidate and internalize information by actively processing it.

With these three techniques in mind, instructors must design learning around student interests and make learning contextual. Students need to learn in teams and use peripheral learning, and teachers must structure learning around real problems that encourage students to also learn in settings outside the classroom. It makes sense that adult students, especially non-traditional students, would learn best by using this theory. While teaching management classes a few years ago, I used this method without even realizing it. My students were all non-traditional students, most of them working a full-time job and taking night classes, while a few of them were single parents in addition to working full-time jobs. During each class period, we would talk about real-life problems and situations encountered in the job realm, and the students would be placed in groups to evaluate, brainstorm, and come up with solutions. The experiences and knowledge these students would come back with were incredible. They learned best when solving realistic problems and the feedback was amazing, all because it came from reality and not from an authority figure.

Right Brain vs. Left Brain As a left-handed person, I have sometimes been at a disadvantage in the “right-handed world” and have had to make a concentrated effort to conform in some instances. The theory of “right brain vs. left brain” has always intrigued me and I have come to realize that it is not only true for hand dominance, but also true for different modes of thinking. The differences between left-brain and right-brain thinking are:

Left Brain: Logical; Sequential; Rational; Analytical; Objective; Looks at parts

Right Brain: Random; Intuitive; Holistic; Synthesizing/ Subjective: Looks at wholes

Most individuals have a definite preference for one of these styles of thinking. In general, schools tend to favor left-brain modes of thinking (right-handed people) while downplaying the right-brain students (left-handed people). Left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy, while right-brained subjects focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. As a left-handed person, I can wholly vouch for the fact that I am right-brained!

In order to be more “whole-brained” (i.e. equally adept at both modes), schools need to give equal weight to the arts and the skills of imagination and synthesis. Instructors should use techniques that connect with both sides of the brain – for non-traditional students, this is especially important as they have a more holistic view of the world and tend to look more at wholes while being logical and analytical at the same time.

Robert Gagne’s Conditions of Learning Theory. Gagne distinguishes between two types of conditions, internal and external. The internal conditions include attention, motivation, and recall; the external conditions include factors surrounding one’s behavior such as the arrangement and timing of stimulus events. He created a nine-step process labeled “the events of instruction” to address the conditions of learning. They include:
(1) Gain attention;
(2) Inform learners of objectives;
(3) Stimulate recall of prior learning;
(4) Present the content;
(5) Provide learning guidance;
(6) Elicit performance (practice);
(7) Provide feedback;
(8) Assess performance; and
(9) Enhance retention and transfer to the job (Funderstanding Learning Styles).

This theory is the single best way to ensure an effective learning program. Programs with “glitz and glitter” may seem great, but they do not always maximize the effectiveness of processing information. If processing does not occur, learning does not occur, either. This is especially good for instructional technology where skills are critical. When using this method of instruction, skills should be independently learned and should be built on previously acquired skills. The analysis phase must identify and describe the prerequisite lower level skills and knowledge required for an individual instructional objective. Only when lower level objectives have been mastered can the next level be taught. Positive reinforcement should be used in a repetitive manner at all times.

This is the best theory to use when teaching classes involving motor skills. The design of instruction should involve analyzing requirements, selecting the media to be used, and designing the instructional events. The instructor should be heedful of the learning concepts when developing methods of instruction using this theory and motivate the learners along the way.

The above theories are the ones I believe to be best suited for non-traditional students. In today’s age of instant information, why are we still educating our students as if preparing them for a lifetime of assembly line work? The Industrial Revolution is in the past and a distant memory. Today’s students need to learn the skills that will help them in today’s job market and today’s society. They need to learn to make wise decisions, work well with others, and sift through vast amounts of information.

As management expert Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” Theories can tell us not only what should be done, but also what can be done and the process by which it can be achieved. There are many theories available and it is up to us, as educators, to pick the right one that will fit our students best.

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