Seven Principles, part seven: Respecting Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

This week’s post marks the conclusion of our tour through Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, where we land on the seventh principle: good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

But what does that mean in practice? We know, for example, that the idea that there are discrete “learning styles” into which students can be categorized is no more than a “neuromyth.” But one doesn’t have to believe there is a clear taxonomy of the ways in which students learn in order to understand two key facts in our classrooms: that there are areas in which students feel more comfortable learning, and that these areas vary widely across the collection of students in our classroom.  “Learning styles” may not be a thing, but we can recognize that learning preferences certainly exist. We can then discern ways to both intersect with those preferences to build student confidence, and then use that foundation to push students beyond and outside those preferences.

Our students bring a variety of educational experiences into our classrooms. Some of them have a wealth of hands-on experience and may thus struggle initially when it comes to more abstract or theoretical work. Others may shine in a seminar setting but struggle in a studio environment. We can try to discern where are students are in terms of background knowledge and range of experiences by using such techniques as beginning-of-class surveys or individual and/or group conferences. If necessary, we can identify additional resources or activities to help students bring less background knowledge and preparation to the course. The key is to find ways for students to show their strengths, in order that we can them push them to learn in ways that don’t initially come easy to them. With that type of learning comes real academic growth and a higher probability of student success.

In order to do this, we should pay attention to the various activities and assessments we build into our courses. Are we differentiating the assignments we use, as well as our classroom strategies? A blend of teaching styles and a heathy mix of assessment types can both go a long way to ensuring we are meeting a many of our students’ strengths, as well as challenging as many others to develop, as possible. Rather than having a class session dominated by one particular teaching style, consider a mix of such activities as discussion, paired group work, lecture, in-class writing, or peer instruction. In assignments, think about the ways in which students might be offered a set of choices for completing a particular task: can they accomplish the necessary outcomes via a paper or an oral presentation? If so, consider offering each as option for completing that particular assignment. If there are recurring assessments of this type, an additional wrinkle in this strategy can be allowing students to choose a paper or oral presentation option, but then requiring them to select the other option for the second assignment.

An excellent strategy to help us design courses and other learning experiences that respect diverse ways of learning is to adopt the principles of Universal Design for Learning, or UDL for short. UDL embraces not just accessibility concerns (in working with students with documented disabilities, for example) but uses the idea of access to ask how teaching and learning can be improved for all of our students. If we are teaching a course that uses online or other digital tools, for example, good design and accessibility will be necessary for some students, but beneficial to all.

There are a number of ways to respect diverse talents and different ways of learning, but that complexity shouldn’t deter us from discerning which of them works best for our classes, our disciplines, and our students. In doing so, you might find these resources helpful:

RMIT University (Australia), Guiding Principles for respecting diverse talents has a number of specific strategies and techniques that could apply across a range of courses.

This set of “best practices” resources from Kennesaw State University has some good suggestions on how to use technological tools (like an LMS [Blackboard]) to diversify our instructional methods.

Finally, here’s a faculty inventory from Calvin College that can provide some interesting material for self-reflection when it comes to how we engage diverse ways of learning in our own practice.

As always, if you’d like to talk about any of this material further, have any questions, or if you’d like CETL to help connect you with resources for further exploration of this, or any of Chickering and Gamson’s principles, please don’t hesitate to ask. You can call Kevin Gannon at 263-6102, or use the Contact Us feature of this site to schedule a consultation in CETL. LEt us know how we can help!

March 23 was National Puppy Day, and we certainly don’t think that we should let that high holy day go unacknowledged on this blog. So enjoy a menagerie of puppies to help you find your zen for the week.



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