Learning styles and science labs

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Sandra Porter

Science labs are not for all people.

I've always enjoyed teaching lab courses, so some of you might find it strange that I agree with some of the comments from Steve Gimbel and fellow Sb'ers on the questionable benefits of laboratory courses in introductory physics. But you see, I wasn't very impressed with the undergraduate physics labs that I took either. And with a little reminiscing, it's pretty easy to pick out example labs where the kindest description is "time-waster."

This wasn't true of all my lab courses. My biochemistry and microbiology lab courses were phenomenal, and, it's almost embarrassing, but to this day, I open my toothpaste the way I learned in micro lab. Yep. I open my toothpaste like I'm preparing to inoculate a culture.

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Good or bad, this discussion that everyone has been having about the value of labs, seems to be walking right by some very basic reasons for why we have lab courses in the first place and why lab courses don't always accomplish the goals that instructors (and students) have in mind.

Why use lab courses at all?
I can easily list of many of the benefits that can be obtained from science labs, but today, I'm going to concentrate on one, lab courses improve learning by reaching students with different learning styles.

Lab courses and learning styles
When you're a student, and you're thinking about yourself, it's easy to think that if a lab course didn't do it for you, that they (the labs) are a waste of time. You may even apply the same kind of reasoning in other areas of life, and think that clothing stores needn't bother with other sizes, nor bookstores sell genres that you don't read.

Once you make the transition from the desk to the podium, however, you begin to appreciate that students are individuals and different students learn in different ways. These ways are described as "learning styles." The names of the learning styles seem vary a bit depending on the people who are writing about them, but there are some common features. Each student has a preference for one type or another. This preference can be stronger or weaker. If student has a very strong preference for one method, they become quite uncomfortable when an instructor uses another method for conveying information.

Auditory, kinesthetic, and visual
When I first encountered learning styles in a course on teaching, I was told there were three main types. Kinesthetic learners acquire information best through hands-on activities and "doing things." Visual learners do best when they can see diagrams or pictures. Auditory learners do well with lecture classes but have a harder time when confronted with diagrams or flow charts.

Although, my students generally aren't aware that they have preferences, it became clear, when I was teaching, that I could probably tell, by knowing a student, which style they preferred. Students themselves usually aren't aware that there are different learning styles but when you're an instructor, you see it in action and even start to recognize it in yourself. I know that I'm very dependent on visual information. If I'm supposed to do something, I can't be content with verbal instructions, I'm just not happy until the instructions are in writing and I can carry them around on a piece of paper.

Richard Felder and Linda Silverman expand these and additional styles at their NCSU web site. They discuss preferences for active (kinesthetic) vs. reflective learning, sensing vs. intuitive learning, visual vs. verbal (auditory), and sequential vs. global. They even have a test that you can take to find out which style you prefer. My results are below:

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You can even take the test yourself and find out your preferred style.

Why should you care about learning styles?

Richard Felder and Linda Silverman describe what can happen. Here's how the students react when there's a mismatch between the style of instruction and their preferred learning style:

...the students may become bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the courses, the curriculum, and themselves, and in some cases change to other curricula or drop out of school.

Here's how the instructors react:

Professors, confronted by low test grades, unresponsive or hostile classes, poor attendance and dropouts, know something is not working. They may become overly critical of their students (making things even worse) or begin to wonder if they are in the right profession.

and here's the consequence:

Most seriously, society loses potentially excellent professionals.

This is not to say that you can't learn to use multiple learning methods, or that students don't already balance multiple methods. I think that using a particular learning style is like being right-handed. You do it without thinking. But if you're right-handed and you break your arm, you're like a person in a class that's mismatched with your learning style. You have a harder time adapting to working with your left-hand, but you can do it. Adapting to use a different learning style is the same kind of thing.

If you're a student, it's good to know this kind of information because there are strategies you can use to strengthen your other learning styles or to adapt what you're learning to fit the style you prefer. If you're a teacher, you should know how to teach so that you reach people with all three of the major styles of learning (visual, auditory, kinesthetic).

And now, at last, here's the tie-in to lab courses. Lecture courses favor students with strong verbal and auditory learning skills. Where lecture courses strongly favor auditory (verbal) learners, lab courses are the best learning avenues for kinesthetic and visual learners.

Most of the posts that I've read on this subject, of whether lab courses are valuable or not, seem to come from the standpoint of "what did the course do for me." Most of the writers (with some exceptions), seem oblivious to the notion that the education system tries to serve multiple students. While a "one-size-fits-all" academic system works for some students, it weeds out many others.

Would it really make sense to cut lab courses, and limit academic success to the group of people who've mastered a certain learning style?