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Understanding your learning style smooths the road to success

By Amy Nielsen

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Temple Grandin speak this past week at a very small theater in our rural community. Hearing her speak has been on my bucket list since I first read one of her books in the mid-nineties in college. Reading her words was the first time I understood that people are allowed to think differently. I grew up thinking differently.

As a young girl I knew I couldn’t read the way other people did. I was an avid reader, but I rarely remembered the plot of the story. I could, however, tell you everything in the book after I reread the first paragraph. I am terrible at computational math – I still cannot add a simple string of numbers, but I adore doing conceptual math – geometric proofs and calculus functions were my favorites. Every bubble test I took, I scored off the charts in reading comprehension but well below average on math and spelling.

In college I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. In subsequent years I have come to learn that I am not only dyslexic, but also dysgraphic and have trouble with dyscalculia. My high school math teacher regularly threw me out of class for arguing with him about a particular problem, once famously for asking why roots and squares were the same. It mattered to me. I needed to understand the theoretical principles, he needed me to get the answer four.

Once I learned that I was dyslexic, a whole lot of things suddenly made sense. Some things made perfect sense. Well, of course I can’t spell, sometimes it’s so bad even the great Google can’t figure it out. I trip up autocorrect pretty much every day with interesting consequences. Some were a bit more subtle, math is really hard when the numbers keep switching places.

Then there were those that made no sense to anyone but those who work with folks with different minds, like I can take a two dimensional line drawing, pick it up in my head and rotate it three hundred and sixty degrees and know how it all goes together. I can’t, however, answer an incorrect question on a written test correctly the second time without changing how I input the information. My brain will always choose the answer I have already selected once.

What on Earth does this have to do with either higher education or career? I would argue absolutely everything. If you are aware of how you best receive information, it make it much easier to set yourself up for successfully completing tasks.

Ask a visual/pictorial learner to read a book on a subject and they will remember some of it. Ask that same person to watch a movie about it and they will remember much more of it. If you don’t understand something the first time, it might be that you need it in a different format. Easy to fix once you know which one suits you best.

Personally, as I am in school again after some decades away, I am learning much about how I learn and how best I provide information. I have two classes this term that couldn’t be a better example of how one fits my learning style and one absolutely does not.

My physiology class is a learning challenged student’s dream. My professor provides clear, concise well filmed video lectures. Those lectures incorporate a well laid out power point slide show. The web based resources are of various styles and placed in appropriate chapters within our module based system. The text book reading is more in depth but not so over my head that I get lost without extra explanation. The professor uses the - tell ‘em, show ‘em, make ‘em do it, test ‘em on it - strategy of teaching. He makes sure everything is covered in each of the three principle learning styles, reading, visual/pictorial, and auditory/heard.

My chemistry class is nothing more than molecules by firing squad. This professor prefers to have each piece of information hidden deep within three different locations, book, video, lecture – all the while regaling us with fantastical tidbits we will ostensibly need in later courses, but will not be used farther in this course, nor will they be on any quiz. Of course he tells us this after spending thirty minutes on a tangent that I have been furiously scribbling to comprehend. His most charming habit is to call a process by three different names in the materials then use a forth on the test.

Because I know how I learn best now, I know that I can spend less time in physiology as I know that the same information will be well covered in my preferred learning style. I can be less panicked that I will miss a crucial detail in those formats that I have a harder time with. Chemistry is another ball of wax all together and I find myself spending at minimum twice as long to make sure I have all of the steps in each process understood.

I wish it were routine for adults to have state of the art learning disability testing at least once in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. Heck, I think it should be part of school testing at least once in the elementary grades and once in high school to determine ones basic learning style and if there are any glaring difficulties. Most people if they are ever tested are only ever tested in childhood. With the advances in understanding in how people learn over the decades, it makes sense to get retested again in later years as your career is jumping off to make sure you have every tool in your box for the ultra-competitive job market. Take the time to learn how you learn. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses can only help you be more successful.

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