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Personal 'Learning Style' Key to Educational Success

Monday July 12, 2010
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Every student on the education ladder from elementary school through college and continuing education has one. It’s called a “learning style,” and it can mean the difference between successfully assimilating new information and failing to grasp a subject. And with constant advances in medicine, it can mean the difference between a stellar nursing career trajectory and ending up in a rut.

Susan Bastable, RN, EdD, chair and professor in the department of nursing at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and author of “Nurse as Educator: Principles of Teaching and Learning for Nursing Practice,” notes there are no inherently “good” or “bad” learning styles. “The definition of learning style is simply the way in which a learner prefers to learn. That does not mean that they can’t learn other ways. It just means they have a tendency to like to learn in a certain way,” she says. “Learning style is really dependent on a lot of things: genetics and heredity, past experiences, the situation in which you’re in.”

A self-assessment of learning style is the first step. And there are many resources to help. “I read a citation that there are over 70 different models [of learning styles],” notes Barbara Patterson, RN, PhD, professor of nursing at Widener University in Chester, Pa.

In her research, Patterson has used the Solomon/Felder Index of Learning Styles, which measures four dimensions of learning: processing (active vs. reflective); perception (sensing vs. intuitive); input (visual vs. verbal); and understanding (sequential vs. global).

“A lot of students don’t understand what works best for them until they’re not successful [at learning] and they’re almost forced to look at themselves. You know, ‘I’ve been doing this and this is not working for me,’” says Anne Marie Krouse, RN, PhD, associate professor of nursing at Widener University. “If we can allow them to assess what their learning style is up front, it may give them that ‘Aha!’ moment. Maybe then they can seek out those activities that will promote really deep learning and long-term learning.”

Colleen Meakim, RN, MSN, director of the Learning Resource Center in the College of Nursing at Villanova (Pa.) University, teaches a course on learning styles based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. She says that as part of the course, the students take a three-part learning styles test, which helps them tap into “the best way for you to accommodate yourself and your brain to learn information the easiest way possible,” she says.

Set No Limits
Knowing where you fall on an inventory of learning styles never should be a stumbling block to learning, says Lyn DeSilets, RN-BC, EdD, assistant dean and director of continuing education in nursing and healthcare in the College of Nursing at Villanova University. For example, nurses shouldn’t opt out of a sim lab experience because they’re not kinesthetic learners. “I think any of the models would suggest that you can strengthen your learning by encouraging yourself, so to speak, to operate in other dimensions that are not your preference,” she says.

Krouse knows she is a reflective, intuitive, global type of learner, with a somewhat even preference for verbal and visual input. While she uses that knowledge of her own learning style to help her get the big picture of a new concept before delving into the details, she doesn’t let her preferences limit her learning opportunities.

As lifelong learners, nurses will be exposed to many teaching strategies that may or may not be congruent with their preferred learning styles. If not, they can develop study aids in their preferred style. For example, visual learners might draw a diagram to correlate material in a course. Auditory learners might read the textbook aloud. Kinesthetic learners might practice a new concept before taking a written test.

“Knowing yourself — how you prefer to learn — can be beneficial, but it doesn’t need to prevent you from learning in other ways,” Bastable notes. Sometimes what is being learned dictates a method. Even reflective learners who like to read, create lists and contemplate their learning can’t just think about the right way to catheterize a patient — they actually have to practice it.

“If you have to teach using a certain method because that’s the only way to get the content across, that’s OK,” Bastable says. “In essence, you’re preparing them for having some flexibility in the world.”

For example, on the job, visual learners may need to get orders over the phone. Auditory learners may only have written instructions. Kinesthetic learners cannot practice every possible combination of skills.

No matter what their preferred learning style, nurses need to continually challenge themselves. “Flexibility is key here,” Bastable says. Nurses shouldn’t “get so into one mode that they almost block themselves, saying ‘I can’t learn this way.’”

Anne Federwisch is a freelance writer.

To comment, e-mail editorNTL@gannetthg.com.
Learning for Life

Nurses have a plethora of career learning opportunities available to them. Once you discover your preferred learning style, you might want to try some of the following ways to further your quest for knowledge.

Continuing Education
Healthcare is constantly evolving, and continuing education is a way for nurses to keep up-to-date on new developments in patient care and nursing practice. RNs can take part in CE activities in many ways. Here are a few CE options that might appeal to your preferred style of learning:

Self-Study: RNs with an intrapersonal learning style and prefer to study alone or those who have a visual learning style and like reading notes and reviewing diagrams may enjoy self-study modules such as this issue’s “Low-Back Pain: The Nurse’s Nemesis.”

Webinars: Seminars and workshops presented online offer different levels of interactivity to appeal to RNs with different types of learning styles. Visual learners may benefit from viewing the presentation on the computer, while auditory learners may prefer listening to the presentation by phone. Interactive learners can enhance their webinar experience by asking questions by computer or phone.

Seminars: Traditional CE seminars remain popular with RNs, perhaps because they incorporate techniques that appeal to many types of learners. Those with an active learning style connect with knowledge when it’s applied in case study, while reflective learners can review material and draw connections between concepts.

On the Job
Grand Rounds: More and more facilities are hosting nursing grand rounds, where RNs get the opportunity to present to fellow nurses their clinical experiences, best practices and research. Nursing grand rounds might appeal to learners with visual and verbal learning styles. Intrapersonal learners may enjoy watching nursing grand rounds online, such as what is presented by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital at cincinnatichildrens.org/ed/cme/library/nursing.htm.

Simulation Labs: Kinesthetic learners absorb the most through touch, movement, trying techniques, using models and moving while studying. The use of a simulation lab, such as the one at Penn State Hershey, pennstatehershey.org/web/simlab/home/courses, can help RNs with kinesthetic learning styles retain what they learn during education experiences.

Mentoring: Experienced nurses get the opportunity to share their years of skill and knowledge, while the novice nurses learn the essentials of nursing practice. On-the-job mentoring might appeal to RNs who learn best by accommodating, which includes hands-on learning, or through intuitive learning, which allows them to discover relationships between concepts.