What is the most effective way to get information into our heads? Like most things, I imagine this varies from person to person. I used to say that I was a “visual learner,” but I don’t think that completely captures what works best for me. Today, I think of myself as an intuitive person. Being intuitive doesn’t mean that I wear long robes and traverse the spirit realm with a magical pocket dragon named Regex, but it does mean that I’m more comfortable recognizing patterns in information and relationships among ideas.
I have a hard time accepting something concrete unless I can understand its relationship to other ideas and what it represents in the abstract. The downside to this is that it’s tempting to prematurely apply a mental model and gloss over its inconsistencies with the data. I have to make sure I check and test my assumptions and inferences.
I came across “Learning Styles and Strategies” by Richard M. Felder and Barbara A. Soloman and a lot of it clicked with me. They describe eight learning styles, examined in pairs:
The authors note, in a couple places, that learners are not exclusively bound to one style or another. I like to think of these as learning modes because modes can change as circumstances require, but styles are relatively inflexible.
I want to talk about my experience with these learning modes so that readers can think about how they might apply to them. You’ll want to read “Learning Styles and Strategies” so that you have the necessary context. It’s a quick read.
I definitely use both of these modes. I prefer to reflect, first, before I try to make use of new information. This gives me time to absorb the information and make sense of it before I have to demonstrate what I’ve learned or apply it. Ultimately, it’s best for me to take time to both absorb the information and then do some practical exercises.
When I’m learning on my own, I can jump around in the material and develop a sense for the bigger picture. Once I have a framework in my mind, I can drill down into the details and I’ll be able to link them to more fundamental ideas. When I’m in a classroom, or learning through a course online, I just have to take notes furiously and trust that things will click later.
Felder and Soloman say that all learners benefit from having a variety of learning materials. My experience agrees with this. If the course materials don’t provide visualizations, I’ll create my own and them check them against the textual information. This method helps me internalize course information and establish relationships among ideas. That said, visuals are of limited value without well-organized text.
I’m definitely a sequential learner. I learn best when ideas are progressively layered so that each new idea provides a foundation for the next one. That said, I want to first understand the breadth of the material and, at a high level, the kinds of applications it has. Basically, I want to know why I should care.
Reasoning by Analogy
For most of the people I work with, software is difficult to relate to. (It’s getting to be difficult for actual developers!) I use a lot of analogies when explaining the methods, capabilities, and limitations of a given product or service. I, too, benefit from analogies when I’m trying to understand something new. One of my favorite analogies is the hot dog stand. It’s a fun context for exploring relatively abstract ideas. As the business scales up, more business concepts become applicable, and the rationale for each one is evident.