One Classroom, Many Learning Styles: Strategies for Teachers
If you are a teacher, you know that no two students are the same and that every person has a different learning style. A teacher’s instruction style, therefore, can greatly impact a student’s ability to learn and comprehend.
That’s why it is so important for teachers to assess the makeup of their class each year and utilize a variety of teaching methods to ensure that every student is afforded the same opportunity to learn and engage.
How does an educator go about taking on the monumental task of teaching to each individual student in the classroom, taking into account each ones learning style, challenges and needs? Start by:
- Getting to know your students — Find out what their interests and concerns are. Learn about who you’re working with by doing activities that are interactive. You will learn more about your students and discover what they are comfortable with.
- Creating a safe atmosphere for learning — It is important for teachers to create a nurturing and inclusive learning environment for students so that they understand everybody is there to learn — and most importantly, that it is not a competition. A lot of teachers today are using problem-based learning strategies that bring groups of students together to work as a team on projects. This approach allows students to try out different roles and build on their strengths.
- Being flexible and offering choice — Build on what you know about your students and their specific needs by tailoring your lesson plans appropriately. Build in choice to your teachings and how you require tasks to be accomplished. And provide multiple means of learning (lectures combined with videos or discussion, for example)
Teacher Centered vs. Student Centered Instruction
There are two main buckets that most teaching styles fall into: teacher centered or student centered.
Teacher Centered Approach
The teacher centered approach positions the teacher as the expert who is in charge of imparting knowledge to his or her students via lectures or direct instruction. In this approach, students are passive actors or “empty vessels”, listening and absorbing information.
This teacher centered style is the traditional approach to teaching, but it’s not necessarily the best. And as educators learn more about effective ways to engage learners of every style, the teacher centered approach is becoming more and more a thing of the past.
Student Centered Approach
The student centered approach creates more equanimity between the teacher and student, with each playing a role in the learning process. While the teacher still holds authority, he or she acts more as a facilitator, coaching students and assisting them in their learning. This approach champions student choice and facilitates connections among students. A couple styles of the student centered approach are:
Inquiry Based Style
This student centered learning style encourages independence, autonomy, and hands on learning with students leading the way and receiving guidance from their teachers.
Cooperative learning is another student centered approach that focuses on group work and social growth. Much like the inquiry based style, the cooperative style encourages independence and hands on learning but puts special importance on peer to peer work and community.
Student Learning Styles
So what are the different learning styles? According to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, there are “distinct intelligences” or ways students learn. While it was developed over three decades ago, in 1983, Gardener’s theory still holds true today and can be applied to many modern teaching strategies such as universal design for learning (discussed below).
The seven intelligences according to Gardner are:
- Logical – Mathematical
The idea behind the multiple intelligence theory is not that people learn in only one way, but that people are stronger in different areas and can demonstrate their knowledge and abilities in different ways. A good teacher is able to take this knowledge and apply it to his or her teaching strategy.
One of the most popular teaching methods that incorporate both student centered learning and the multiple intelligences is the Universal Design for Learning (UDL). A UDL approach presents material in multiple formats in order to engage every student, including those with special needs. For example, some students may be engaged by working on a writing project where others would be more engaged if they created a play or a movie. UDL uses the basic concepts of the multiple intelligences, ensuring that every student is learning in the way that best suits their personality and style.
Furthermore, UDL emphasizes inclusivity and creating a culture of acceptance in the classroom, where every student, no matter what limitations or challenges they may face, learns that they are a respected member of the community with strengths and gifts all of their own. UDL is about teaching to every student, special needs students included, in the general education classroom, creating community and building knowledge through multiple means.
Blended learning is another strategy for teachers looking to introduce flexibility into their curriculum. Blended learning relies heavily on technology, with part of the instruction taking place online and part of the instruction taking place in the classroom via a more traditional approach.
There are a variety of methods you can use to implement a blended learning approach that works best for your classroom. For example, traditionally teachers present information to students in the classroom and then students go home and do their homework. The blended learning “flipped classroom” approach, does the opposite, letting students watch a video or read a chapter as an introduction to a concept, on their own, as homework. Class time is then used as their problem-solving time, when they have support in working through the concept or can have class discussions about what they learned or read.
What it boils down to is getting to know your students from the start and building flexibility and choice into your curriculum. Getting to know every student well enough to effectively teach to them is especially challenging for high school and middle school teachers who have different students every hour. Despite the challenge, it is vital to take the time to understand each student’s learning style and develop strategies to teach to every learner. What works with one group of students might not work with the next, which is why it is important for you as an educator to have an arsenal of strategies at the ready. You need to be flexible and learn to adjust as you go.
At the University of San Diego, we offer a 100% online Master of Education with four specializations to choose from: Inclusive Learning, Literacy & Digital Learning, STEAM, and Curriculum & Instruction. To learn more about our nationally accredited program visit our program page.