What runs through your mind when you’re assigned a group project? For some, it’s excitement at the opportunity to cooperate, collaborate and learn with peers. For others, it’s viewed as a chance to slack off and get a good grade while their fellows shoulder the load. And still some don’t even register the difference–group project or individual, they’re going to do all the work anyway. How we respond to group projects is one indicator of what kind of learner we are. As sociologists have noted for decades, different students learn in different ways, and because these different learners are lumped into the same classes, not all teaching is optimal for all students. Researchers have worked at solving this age-old educational quandary for some time, and one of the latest to make headway is Ryan Jensen, chair of BYU’s Department of Geography.
Using what he’s termed “the Q-method,” Jensen (along with two other researchers) distinguishes between three different kinds of learners:
The Lone Pragmatist: Lone pragmatists don’t like group projects; in fact, they “prefer not to be involved in cooperative or group learning” of any kind, according to Jensen’s findings. They’re neither outgoing nor social with other students in their class, and they’re proactive and realistic in their approach to classwork. The lone pragmatist thrives when information is provided in a clear rather than abstract manner, and do well in an “I teach, you listen” classroom atmosphere.
The Explorer: Group projects are a bit more tolerable to the explorers, who, according to Jensen, “learn better when talking about new material with other students.” However, they’re still somewhat ambivalent about immersive group study. Explorers are visual learners, and appreciate learning in terms of concepts and theories (as long as the theories aren’t too abstract). They value sensibility over imagination, and exploring multiple ways to learn new things.
The Synergist: If you’re a synergist, you prefer to have things written down, not in maps in pictures, but in words. Synergists tend toward verbal learning over visual, and see themselves as detail-oriented. They’re also the most likely to be enthusiastic about a group project, perhaps because they “enjoy brainstorming as part of the group learning process.” Synergists try to make connections between their learning and the bigger picture; in this way, they better understand the details of why they learn what they learn.
Of course, no student falls completely into one of the above categories–each learner is individual, and grouping students into three pre-labeled factions instead of one would do little to personalize education. But in a 2013 study, Jensen provided some suggestions for how teachers could optimize their education to assist as many different learning styles as possible.
“We propose adopting a balanced approach in which teachers create course plans to address the variety of learning styles present in their class,” Jensen says. One potential suggestion would be “moving from teacher regulation to student regulation in what [researchers] refer to as process learning,” or in other words, giving the students more leeway in deciding what projects would help them learn best. This and other optimizations allow greater chances for individualized learning; according to Jensen, this means that “instructors can think of using learning styles as a way of helping students gain satisfaction from learning and thus develop life-long skills by better understanding their own learning processes and preferences.”