Know your Learning Style


In the post Efficient and Accelerated Learning, I emphasized the importance of motivation and focus to be able to reduce your learning curve. Finding motivation and leverage may make it a lot easier for you to use any learning materials. It still takes a significant effort to find motivation, and even more effort is needed to keep it. This is because we all process information in our own way. You can do miracles with the right tools, while the worst tools will lead to frustration and lack of motivation. Therefore, leveraging motivation is not enough: it should also be accompanied by a learning plan suiting your learning style.

The Carrot and the Stick

Most of us realize that we continuously challenge ourselves to learn new ideas, methods for the purpose of making our lives and the lives of other people better. Some of these learning experiences fall into the “very hard” or even impossible categories. Under the right conditions however, even these hard topics can be mastered.

For instance, I like creating new things a lot. If you bundle the joy of creation with curiosity, most programming languages are a piece of cake. Once I faced huge trouble with J2EE using IBM WebSphere. Back in the days, it required a power plant to execute the integrated development environment. This power plant was not available to me. I already knew a thousand better ways to create software more efficiently. Dealing with an environment that blocked me in the creation process was painful. Right after completing everything I had to, I abandoned the technology for years. I learned J2EE properly afterwards with the right tools allowing me to craft software more efficiently.

I can also recall how I learned German and how I failed to learn Japanese. When I was 5, cartoons in my country were really bad. As I had access to German TV channels, I grew up watching a lot of cartoons, movies and quiz shows in German. Never underestimate the learning capacity of a young child. Back then, I gained German knowledge between basic and intermediate level. During my high school years, my friends gave me a lot of cartoons in Japanese. I thought if it worked once with German, why wouldn’t it work again with Japanese? The only problem was that I developed a conscious mind telling me that in Europe, Japanese is not the most useful language to master. In addition, the pain of learning the language was not offset by hardly any pleasure as the English subtitles already let me understand everything. As soon as I found other sources of entertainment, I stopped learning the language and I can only recall a couple of basic words and phrases from the whole experience.

As you can see, conditions often determine the result. Our main motivators are pain and pleasure. Pain often turns out to be a stronger motivator. Just think of a problem you keep on trying to solve, but you never get there: isn’t the experience similar to physical pain?

The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you. (Anthony Robbins)

The good news is that most conditions and circumstances can be changed very easily. For instance, in Efficient and Accelerated Learning, I showed you how I turned my learning experience around when there was absolutely no hope for most people.

Following Tutorials VS Creating Something New

Controlling pain and pleasure is often not enough. Let me give you an example from Javascript.

I was following a Backbone+Marionette course online. The instructor used such a distractive environment that after a while it became a huge burden for me to locate the resources I needed. The file structure was a mess. The single responsibility principle was violated multiple times in the most unorthodox way possible. While most people place too many responsibilities in one class, this tutorial forced me to create two classes cooperating in solving one single responsibility in a way that I had no chance in understanding the logic behind the separation. Half way through the material, I had enough. I created a new problem for myself, and then started writing code according to my liking. After completing the course I was satisfied even though my code was completely different than the one presented in the course.

Was the course useful? On one hand yes: all the theory was packed inside it. On the other hand, implementing the presented example was a huge time waster for me. The pain of dealing with a structure that did not make sense to me destroyed the whole experience until the point of giving up. While many people would have followed the tutorial, I learned a lot more by creating something new.

Learning by Talking or Talking about what We Learned

Have you ever wondered why some people interrupt you while talking? Throughout my life, I have asked many of these people and I figured out that the number one reason is the following: they think they have something important to say and forgetting this idea causes them more pain than the pain of disrespecting you.

During a conversation, you do exactly one of two things:

  • you teach others by talking
  • you learn by listening

This is the main reason why learning during a conversation is very hard for many people. If you have trouble listening to others with an open mind, I highly recommend reading the story Emptying your Cup. The only way for an individual to learn is by listening. The only way for a group to learn is if people in the group listen to the person talking instead of processing other thoughts.

Some groups think and solve problems in a smooth and efficient way. These groups learn faster together than individually.

Other groups have members that compete for the opportunity of teaching each other. The overhead of noise and competing egos makes the group activity less efficient than researching the topic individually and presenting the results in a controlled way.

Learning Styles

Different models have emerged focusing on different circumstances under which people learn. One of the most well-known models is Experimental Learning by David Kolb.

Disclaimer: Before proceeding, I would like to clarify that most of the learning style models are not based on exact science, and they mostly lack enough empirical evidence. For this reason, learning style modelling has been heavily criticised. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence by Pashler et al. gives you a good summary on the critics. You do not have to fall into a category described by this section, see the next section for more details. As a former university student, one on one tutor, instructor, pair programming peer and team mentor, I could personally relate to this model as it highlights reasons why some people in my surroundings, including myself, have had inferior learning experiences in the past. As a former researcher, I do prefer accuracy to negligence and fallacies, that’s why I decided on including this lengthy disclaimer. This section may give you ideas on what to look for in improving your learning experience. If you are satisfied with your current approach, categorizing yourself won’t help you much.

Kolb’s model introduces the loop of Experiencing, Reflecting, Generalising, Applying and places them on two axes: the dimensions of perception and processing.

Learning Styles

Learning Styles

The perception dimension symbolizes a continuum between learning via experiencing and abstract conceptualization (generalising). Learning by example and experimentation forces learners to accept things as they are. The other end of the spectrum is abstract conceptualization, where a mental model is created based on concepts and ideas. The mental model may be simplified or may even differ from reality. For instance, in order to apply electricity by switching on the lights, we don’t have to understand how electricity works. In order to design an electric circuit, we don’t have to understand what’s going on in atomic level.

The dimension of processing differentiates between active experimentation (applying) and reflective observation (reflecting). Recall my example about the BackboneJs tutorial. Following a tutorial word by word is a reconstruction of the thought process of the authors. It forces you to think along with the creator of the tutorial and gives you limited freedom in choosing your path. Active experimentation is the exact opposite: in the example, I extracted the essence of what the author concluded and started proving that it works for me in the context provided by me.

People have their own preferences on perception level and on processing level, resulting in four types of learners:

  • Divergers prefer concrete experience, and they are reflective observers. Divergers like practice-oriented tutorials and conversations with people able to provide them with real life experience. Divergers tend to observe problems from multiple points of view. For this reason, they tend to be great contributors in brainstorming sessions. Their ideal learning environment is a practice-oriented lecture, a lab session or a workshop.
  • Accomodators rely on concrete experience and active experimentation. Accomodators have an affinity to learn on their own and they figure things out by themselves. A true accomodator often has a hard time sitting in a pair programming session following someone else’s lead, and also has a hard time following a tutorial. Accomodators do interact with other people in order to build on top of their experience and mistakes.Accomodators tend to become distracted in a lecture, especially if they are not involved. Instead of following the detailed thought process of other people, they find something interesting to experiment with.
  • Assimilators: abstract conceptualization meets reflective observation. Assimilators act like a sponge, trying to gather as much knowledge as possible. They listen to a lecture from start to finish, trying to understand every little detail. Tutorials, books also work perfectly for them. It is absolutely fine for an assimilator to completely separate theory and practice, they can learn high level concepts for hours, and then they start solving problems with guidance, following the thought process of the instructor. An assimilator gets confused when the knowledge required for solving a problem is not available.
  • Convergers are abstract conceptualizers that also prefer experimentation right away. They have to see how their models can be used in practice. When an example in a teaching material is flawed, they are the first to correct it. A converger has the power of understanding high level concepts, and putting the acquired knowledge into practice. A converger may have a hard time following the pace of a lecture or a discussion: the lecture sometimes contains too few examples, other times the examples do not reflect the experiments he would have preferred making instead.

Can I have a completely different style?

Absolutely. A simple Google Scholar search reveals that Kolb’s model has its flaws. In fact, no learning style model can be perfect, and a model backed by credible scientific evidence is yet to emerge. The main practical use of these models is that you will be able to ask yourself the right questions to get to know your own learning style a bit better. If you are planning to create learning materials, it is even more important for you to know that there are other people in the world who may learn in a completely different way than you do.

I am thrilled to hear what kind of learning styles suit you, especially when it comes to topics related to software development. Leave a message at the bottom of the post.

What other models exist?

Different models emphasize different areas of the learning process. For instance, based on the primary sense you use, you can be a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. Based on the order in which you process information, you can be a sequential or a random order learner.

Improvements via Feedback

If you would like to get better at learning, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. Gather your thoughts for a moment. These questions will help you:

  • What kind of tools helped you in the past to become competent in a field?
  • Do you need an abstract model to understand things or you learn by doing?
  • Do you tend to follow the steps of a tutorial and the thought process of other people, or do you prefer making your own path?
  • Did you learn alone or in a group?
  • Have you ever purchased learning resources you never used?
  • Have you ever purchased learning resources you started, but never finished?

If you argue that the last two questions may be because of lack of motivation, you are right. However, motivation can be lost if you study in a way that does not suit your learning style. If a learning material suits your learning style, you also stay motivated throughout the learning experience. Motivation and learning according to your style go hand in hand. If you ever get bored or confused while trying to learn something, change your approach. When it comes to the number of available resources, the sky is the limit: you can experiment on your own, choose a book, course, interactive course, lecture, lab session, conference presentation or one on one coaching session. You can even create a course for yourself and for others.

How would you describe the best learning experience you have ever had? What kind of learner are you?

  • Lazlo July

    Great article – I am now following this blog!
    I love learning in groups and coding in pairs. I do not rest until I understand the peer’s line of thought.