How Your Personal Learning Style Enhanced Your Learning

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When my University degree course began in September I had very few of the skills necessary to complete it successfully. In the November of that year an initial assignment was completed which outlined the strengths and weaknesses present at the time, and suggested a plan for developing those which were lacking. It is now March and the end of the first year is fast approaching. So looking back, how have I improved? Have I managed to gain any new skills, or refine my older skills? This assignment focuses on those questions.

However, it must be pointed out that in order to answer these questions fundamental changes to my understanding of the concept of study skills had to change. As a result, further development to my thinking styles, learning environment, ability to debate and concise time management also occurred. Using these newly refined skills I will go back and analyse my first year at university and ascertain whether or not the plan I created to enhance my learning was effective.

As is widely reputed "all skills improve through practice, feedback and monitoring" (Cottrell, 1999:30). I hope to show how I have capitalised on this concept, highlighting how this year has made me more aware of my preferred learning style and what I need to do to improve further still. Becoming a more effective learner is not something I was able to sit down and learn by reading a book on study skills, I had to learn to read my work objectively and be able to criticise constructively. I will also explain later on in this assignment why describing a personal learning style using only those models currently available is not always beneficial to a learner. That instead, knowledge should be used to create a personalised and adaptive framework which you are in control of; enabling you to "…learn about yourself and how you perform to your potential under any circumstances…" (Cottrell, 1999:44).

By writing this assignment chronologically I hope to show that development has both taken place since September, and is still taking place now. This assignment will begin with a brief review of the study skills already present at the start of the course, upon which an initial assignment was completed. The work of Stella Cottrell proved to be an invaluable asset while researching for that assignment. Relying primarily upon her Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis to help with the identification of my study skills, it has since become apparent that this showed a lack of ability to be able to objectively analyse myself. The personal strengths her analysis brought to light included setting mini-goals, thinking logically, debating with a friend, and organising a physical workspace. Since then, however, it has become clear that these were not skills in themselves, but rather subskills. These are all attributes that a person learns to develop in order to enhance a main study skill; such as assignment writing, or general understanding of a topic. I shall return to analyse these findings, and the importance they played in my future development later on in this assignment.

Having reviewed the skills present at the start of the course, this section of the assignment will focus on those which have been developed since. Using the plans I created to accompany the initial assignment three key study skills have now been enhanced. These include reading ability, organisation and the ability to debate. As mentioned earlier, skills are made up of subskills, and it is the subskills which are developed to enhance the study skill.

Reading ability and thinking styles are often found hand in hand as a combined study skill. Last semester I lacked the ability to efficiently pick out the salient points in a text, due in part to my inflexibility when reading. The plan designed to maintain fluidity and flexibility when researching and reading helped enhance this skill (Appendix One). In turn, this helped to develop the adjacent subskills of concentration, its durability and attention; as well as memory capacity.

However, the ability to debate a topic with a broader circle of people was not enhanced directly by using either of the plans proposed last semester. Instead, this skill came as an indirect result of an improved concentration, and wider reading and thinking abilities. Attending regular classes and seminars, as well as participating in group work, has seen the circle of people with whom I am able to debate course content increase. In turn, however, enhancing the skill of debating has encouraged further development in all the study skills previously mentioned; there are now additional reasons to read widely and understand what I am learning.

Finally, when enhancing the study skill of organisation, constant assessment of how my time could be best spent was needed, proving Cottrell's diagrammatic representation of a day, divided by activity, to be crucial (Appendix Two). Every time I referred back to it I reminded myself of just how much time I could potentially waste, and how much time I could free up if I just re-prioritised my daily tasks. By default this helped to develop the subskills of keeping an organised physical workspace; constantly setting attainable mini-goals; and, when combined with the plan to maintain fluidity, my concentration.

The importance of these study skills, as well as an explanation of how they have led me to look at other more advanced skills, will be discussed in more detail in a later section of this assignment.

Having identified the skills with which I began this course and contrasted them against those skills which I have since learned, it is logical to address next the controversial subject of learning styles. For the purpose of this assignment, I narrowed the available learning typologies down to the three most popular among teachers and students: the Gregorc Style Delineator (GSD); the Dunn's Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic model (VAK); and the Honey and Mumford Scale.

Upon completing the GSD, of the four categories available, I placed myself most strongly into the 'Abstract Sequential' group. The given criteria for this group is the understanding that such a learner is at their optimum if they can "analyse a situation before making a decision", but that they would find it difficult to follow "specific rules and regulations" and to be "sentimental" in thought. It is evident from such rigid categorisation that this particular learning model acts against developing skills and more in favour of identifying skills. Considering each strength and weakness in turn, it became clear that I actually span all four of Gregorc's categories. A classification which he suggests is not healthy for a learner to have; this assertion directly opposes the ideology of the Honey and Mumford Scale.

When considering the VAK model it transpired that I am not a strong learner in any one category; being equally able to learn in all fields they propose. Again, they would suggest that a learner in such a position would suffer difficulties as it is not favourable to span multiple categories. While this agrees with the GSD in its ideology, it has a much heavier focus on practical learning. Learning can take place outside of the context of a book or other similarly formatted text, information learned through play or music, for example, is also valid.

Finally, of the three models evaluated, it was the Honey and Mumford Scale that was most liberal in its approach and actively encouraged a spanning of categories. Although this is the most time consuming model to complete, it is more thorough for being so. I pulled ahead strongly in two of the four categories, with a third not far behind. Their advice upon such a classification is to work to improve the categories which score most poorly. This last typology, as I have stated, seems the most useful to any learner in discovering weaknesses and strengths in learning and aiming to develop those weaknesses. The theories underlying the ideology of the Honey and Mumford model will be explained in more detail within a further section of this assignment, alongside which will be my own thoughts on how the learning typologies currently available can be combined to create a more personal learning style.

To examine in more detail the first section of this assignment, in which the skills present at the time of writing the initial assignment are reviewed, the concept of self-analysis will be further discussed. Although it can be said now that the reliance upon Cottrell's SWOT analysis showed an inability to objectively analyse myself, it must also be pointed out that my understanding of what a study skill is has also changed. In the initial assignment such strengths as 'setting mini-goals' were identified without linking them to the overall skills they helped to enhance. Following this example, the subskill of setting mini-goals improves organisation, as does having a designated physical workspace. Given that the initial assignment focused heavily on all the subskills linked to organisation I will try and broaden the focus with this assignment. While it is true to say that my organisation has improved over the last year, it is no longer a topic that requires such an extensive analysis. Herne, Jessel and Griffiths (2000) explain that assuming active control of learning ensures that mental structures will develop to aid understanding. Over the duration of the last two semesters I have managed to develop one of their suggested generative study strategies based on making connections: the concept map, or mind map. This has proved to be useful in organising not only my thoughts, but also my essays and case studies. Gaining a better standard of organisation has helped me see that there were other areas of my personality that needed to improve in order to benefit more successfully from a university course.

Once the meaning of 'study skills' had been adjusted and applied objectively, I was able to efficiently use the plans developed with the initial assignment to develop those skills which were lacking. An inability to be flexible when reading - to just pick out the salient points - was identified as a weakness. In attempting to enhance this skill the plan to maintain fluidity and flexibility was the more effective of the two plans created. As Dominic Wyse (2006), among others, has said "The single most important thing you can do to improve the chances of success on your course is to read widely". This knowledge made it even more crucial to be able to use any time spent reading more effectively. I followed the practical advice written by Herne, Jessel and Griffiths (2000) to enable me to read with purpose. They advise that text should be scanned first, paying particular attention to any headings as well as looking for familiar concepts. This plays on the theory that "understanding can be helped if relevant structures are 'activated' by prior knowledge" (Herne, Jessel, Griffiths, 2000:4). I have also increased the amount of water I drink during a day as Cottrell (1990) suggested that this may help my body relax; when relaxed I will have better reading comprehension.

Reading widely is also a subskill that helps to enhance other study skills, such as the ability to participate in debate; a skill I said was of most importance to me to be able to master in the initial assignment. When reading both widely and regularly a larger vocabulary is established, as written text uses a different form of the language to spoken text. To be able to efficiently use a profoundly larger knowledge base when joining in discussions also requires the ability to adopt different values and identities (cf. Baynham and Maybin, 1996). As is a common feature when working cooperatively, the sharing of such values and knowledge is increased as each person contributes a unique perspective to a discussion (after Cottrell, 1999). In turn, this development enhances the study skill of critical thinking, something Edward Glaser defined as "…a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends" (Cottrell, 1999:221).

Whilst it has already explained why this assignment will not focus intently on the study skill of organisation, it is necessary to explain whether the plan created last semester to help prioritise how I spend my time was of any use. Rather than follow the representation of my most efficient day (Appendix Two) as if it were a rule, I was able to understand the ideology behind it. This meant I constantly assessed my day and the tasks I had to complete to see if I could make better use of the time available. It is as a result of these assessments that I now feel confident to not have to pay too much attention to how I spend my time.

Linking all these subskills and newly enhanced study skills together is the metacognitive approach of constant self-reflection and evaluation, for which "…you need some understanding of the processes of study" (Northedge, 1990:17). This is an approach which I have taken mainly from this module, therefore a natural progression from self-evaluation and reflection would be to consider the 'habitual'. Can I get to the stage, where at the end of my second year, I do not have to assess myself so consciously, but rather that it becomes a habit?

To be able to develop any study skill to the level of 'habit' will require a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication, it will also demand a natural boundary; my personal learning style. Once I have an idea about how I learn, and in what conditions I learn best I will have, in effect, produced a framework in which to focus the further development of my study skills.

Since the invention of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine in the 1980s the fields of neuroscience and psychology have increasingly overlapped. In the last twenty years many scientists and psychologists have combined the results of MRI scans with psychological development theories to produce learning styles. In one report over 71 such typologies were identified (Revell, 2005). However controversial the outward appearance of a learning style may be, there seems to be a common consensus that a person develops best when their learning is structured and routine. The disagreements begin over just what the best routine is, and how to teach within its framework.

Earlier in this assignment three typologies were focused on; the Gregorc Style Delineator (GSD); the Dunn's Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic model (VAK); and the Honey and Mumford Scale. Each of these models returned quite different results about my personal learning strengths and weaknesses. Upon reading numerous independent reports on these learning typologies it has been highlighted that they still require a massive amount of independent evaluation, and that without more conclusive evidence, they should not be wholly embraced and utilised. In one such report, my own thoughts about the GSD model were supported by statements like: "…the GSD is flawed in its construction… [and] does not have adequate psychometric properties for use in individual assessment…" or in reference to the VAK model an even more damning statement: "…this instrument is a psychometric disaster…" (Learning Skills and Development Agency, 2004).

However, despite the discouraging reports on both of these models, the Honey and Mumford Scale seems to comply with traditionally accepted and trusted educational pedagogies. The theory of constructivist learning developed from cognition theory, and it describes learning as a concept which can be continuously built upon and developed (Herne, Jessel and Griffiths, 2000). There also seems to be a close link between learning in this way and using both left and right hemispheres of the brain, the logical and Gestalt aspects (cf. Cottrell, 2000), in unison to provide the learner with the best chance at their subject. It has been suggested that if prior knowledge of a subject exists, then the learner will do better in understanding it. Likewise, the more proficient the leaner at using both sides of the brain, the more memory pathways they have available to them when accessing a topic (after Herne, Jessel and Griffiths, 2000). Therefore, a much more effective use of the current learning typologies would be to use their ideology as a guide, to discover which skills and subskills I can develop and enhance to help me become capable of both broad and balanced learning. This is something I will aim to have achieved by the end of my degree.

To conclude then, this assignment has shown the progression I have made throughout the first academic year. It opened with an analysis of the skills present at the start of the course discussing how, six months later on, they had helped to develop more advanced study skills. This assignment then offered a brief explanation of how learning typologies can affect the development of study skills; they define how a person understands a topic and also define the view the learner has of himself, a view which is not always beneficial when attempting to improve study skills. By amalgamating the findings of all the typologies available I have been able to pinpoint further weaknesses that can be worked on throughout my future years at University.

I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to return to reflect on my personal learning style within the parameter of a marked module. It has become clear to me, through the reading I have undertaken as part of this course and the criticism I have had returned through this module, that I have now become more aware of myself and how I express what I have learned to others. It has also given me the chance to reflect upon a learning and development strategy which was imposed rather hastily in the first few months of a course; when I was still relatively unsure as to what was expected of me.

Mike Metcalfe (2006) summarises this whole process neatly when he explains how:

Philosophers, researchers and experienced management theorists seem to have noticed that humans, when faced with a problem, jump to a tentative solution and then choose to act to rationalise that conjecture using more critical thinking such as observation, reasoning and experimentation. (Pg123)

If this concept is applied to the approach I used to address this module it would explain how the initial plan proposed in November was adopted over the two semesters. The initial assignment was designed to enable me to develop and enhance weaknesses in study skills. However, without giving much thought to my actual understanding of how such weaknesses related to my learning, it has not been until this reflection, some six months later, that I have been able to fully understand the importance of how I learn and integrate a stronger core of advantageous study skills. I am now confident that any future development of study skills will form a permanent foundation for learning.

Appendix One

Appendix Two