Writing to remember, accepting learning styles


Do your learners mark up your books? Mine do.

Please don't mark in the books, I say. No problem, they say. And then, later, they say, I'm just marking lightly, with a pencil that I can erase later. And then, later still, they say, someone marked the answers in this book - I hate that. Please don't mark in the books, I'll say. No, they'll say, somebody else did - I'm saying somebody else did - somebody already marked in it - with a pen. (And then there will be the long look which can only signify their readiness for me to violate the laws of physics and return the book to its previous state.)

I confess to sometimes becoming quite short about this.

But on better days - when I'm eating right, getting enough sleep, spending time with people who love me - I understand what is happening.

Some learners are like me. We need to make learning visual. We need to draw arrows and figures and employ colours. We need to write out our comments and present our insights graphically and, sometimes, strike out the irrelevant or incorrect. My personal books are full of marginalia. I don't own a single book on astrophysics that doesn't contain at least a half dozen hand-drawn solar systems. My book about Facebook is scattered with code snippets and half-planned webpage diagrams. I have a book on Europe in the 1800's whose bottom margin contains a running commentary on what was happening in eastern North America at the time, and a book about WW1 which, lacking sufficient maps, forced me to draw tiny Europes in the upper, outside corners.

In class, when people ask me what a word means, spelling out r-e-n-n-e-t or whatever, I have to grab a bit of paper to write it down. I have to look at it to know they're talking about something used in cheese making. If they ask me a social studies question, I immediately, unthinkingly, move to the white board. However could I explain trade tariffs without drawing little ships approaching a Canadian port?

Other learners are like my friend. She and they need to make learning tactile (or kinesthetic - not being one of these odd folk, I'm blind to the distinction). For them, learning is movement. The dip of Hudson's Bay on the map, or of the 'u' in "honour", is remembered in the muscles. Reading, as much as writing, seems to involve fine motor coordination. Talking (and hand-waving) improves thinking. When a big thought strikes, they're likely to sit up straight; maybe even stand. My friend seems helpless to remember a number she hasn't written down. But then, having written it, she gaily leaves the writing behind with the nonsensical (to me) claim that, having written it, she's bound to remember. And so she is, though I can't see how.

Between us, my friend and I represent a good many people who do badly in a lecture setting where writing and doodling are inconvenient or forbidden. We're apt to make poor use of those reference books we are not allowed to mark up. A power-point presentation is likely pass us by completely. Yes, we may enjoy it, much as we would a good film. But we won't appropriate it. Accommodation and assimilation, those twin pillars of learning, require us to, well, mark it down - even if only lightly - with a pencil - that we can erase later.

If I could, I'd supply each learner with their own books to mark in and mark up. It would be expensive - and vexing in the case of those learners who would start but not finish multiple books - but not crazy expensive. If larger books were divided up into booklets, the cost might not be much more than the cost of a daily newspaper.

But, I can't.

The happy news is that my books are falling apart.

When that happens (and sometimes I hasten the process), I slip individual pages into clear plastic sleeves, and reassemble the books in duo-tangs or ring binders. Beyond extending the life of my resources, this provides a remedy of sorts for those tactile and visual learners. When someone does make a mark or notation, it's made on a plastic sleeve that I can replace at the cost of about 10 cents.

I still ask them not to write in the books; knowing full well this is an unnatural and ineffective request. I also provide scribblers, loose-leaf and graph paper in abundance so they have someplace to draw and note and scribble and exclaim. It's not a perfect solution, but it's something.

Oh, and I also try to eat right, get enough sleep, and spend time with people who love me, just to minimize the amount of time I spend complaining about learners doing exactly what they need to do to learn.

adult learning styles

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