CTL Blog

V is for Variation

February 14, 2011 | 5 Minute Read

The first term in VARIABLES before Assessment is Variation.  In this case, the specific thought process is to appreciate the variation in the students' backgrounds when they come to a learning experience.  Failure to appreciate the variation and heterogeneity may lead to a great learning experience for some students—those who happen to be best attuned to the teaching style you are using—but is unlikely to result in an optimal learning experience for all students or for all students or for the class as a whole.  Sometimes it is impossible to know the variation prior to the start of the class and there are not always good ways to assess the variation even at the start of the class but attempts can be made.  Additionally, it is possible to make sure in advance that the learning opportunities that are provided appeal to students who learn in different ways, for example using different options among the “multiple intelligences” (suggested by Gardner).  In online classes, each student could be asked to simply provide a short paragraph about himself or herself that included key aspects about their learning process. 

What types of variation are of most interest: students vary in terms of (1) personality which may be associated with learning style; (2) General experiences and learning experiences; and (3) motivations.  Groups of students vary in terms of size and overall interactivity or “the personality of the class” based on how they interact with each other and with the instructor.

There is work using the Myers-Briggs personality descriptions that demonstrate that different students are likely to learn in different ways.  Some appreciate discussion and trying to imagine how to apply what they are learning and wanting to take things a step beyond what they read or have told to them.  Other students are mostly interested in facts and memorization and would prefer that instructors stay on a relatively straight and narrow path when they teach.  Some students do not particularly like to engage in conversation and find anything that is even a slight digression to not fit with their vision of the class or their expectations.  There are other ways of describing personalities and there are other ways in which personality might be associated with learning style.  Multiple intelligences and the idea that there are different characteristics of an individual and different aspects of how they learn was alluded to earlier.  Regardless, the key is to comprehend just how important this is.

Students vary in their backgrounds.  One thing that is likely to shape their preference for a learning style is the experiences they have had in the past.  These could be General experiences or experiences primarily in a learning environment.  The quality of students’ experiences in the classroom previously will greatly influence what they expect from an instructor and how they expect to learn.  Students will most likely hope for whatever is similar to their best learning experience.  Of course, we would hope that students are sufficiently adaptable to try new experiences and new learning styles, but we all have a comfort zone with activities in our lives.  So, an instructor should not be surprised when it is suggested that he or she should try something similar to a style of instruction and providing learning opportunities similar to what students have felt has been successful for them in the past.

Students also vary in terms of motivation.  Some really want to learn for the sake of learning and for the sake of understanding.  I am tempted to describe it as learning for the sake of knowledge, but it really is more than just knowledge that I am hoping to important.  It is understanding—how to use this again in the future.  Other students are not nearly so worried about the lifelong learning process but are focused on learning what they need to know to pass a test.  The test is just a step on the way to a grade.  The grade is just a step on the way to a credential.  The credential is the focus of their effort rather than the focus being the learning itself.

Groups of students also vary.  And each student may act somewhat differently depending on the nature of the group. The size of the group is at least a partial determinant of the level of interaction that can be expected—particularly from each student.  In a class of 100, it is impossible for each student to say as much as he or she might in a class of 10.  The instructor will be much more likely to have to cut off a conversation and just move on in a class of 100.  I think about this a lot as I try to encourage interaction but realize that it must have its limits in large classroom settings.

Finally, each class takes on its own personality.  The number of students, the personalities of students, and the ways in which a small number of students are the dominant ones asking questions all have an influence on how the learning process will work for the group.  It is critical for me to get a feel for this as I move forward in teaching a class.  This is definitely something that can only be ascertained after several lectures, but it is critical to try to shape the personality of the class and to guide the interaction not just with each student but with the class as a whole.  Conversation should be productive and not antagonistic.  Conversation should focus on supplementing and extending the discussion.  Conversation should not be forced.  All of these are critical considerations.