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Learning about Learning Styles at Head Start

August 16, 2009

I’m not ready for the end of summer, but I’m definitely ready to get back into the classroom. On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of presenting at one of the Head Start sessions offered at UTM. Presented by the Academic Skills Centre, Head Start is an optional part of orientation — a series of 2-hour sessions to ease the first-year transition by introducing incoming students to a variety of university resources, study skills, and lecture styles.

I was impressed by the inclusion of the meta-commentary. University orientations often stress resources and opportunities — usually via a barrage of 10 minute pitches by various offices on campus — but Head Start takes a longer approach. The series includes 9 sessions spread over three weeks, with some students attending only one or two and others registering for all 9. Each session features 1-3 instructors who present one or two small ideas from their home discipline in whatever style they wish, and the session’s moderator steps in between talks to encourage the students to think not only about the topic being discussed but also how it was delivered (“Why did the instructor use a lecture format?” “What did you think of the ‘icebreaker’?”) and what the instructor’s expectations are (“How do you recommend students prepare for your lectures?” “What online resources do you provide your classes?”).

The students were (by and large) engaged and active in the discussion. A few left between speakers, but the majority stayed through the entire lecture, and I saw better participation in the in-class activities than I typically get from first year classes. Of course, the group is self-selected, but I believe the focus on learning and teaching styles made them more willing to try and engage.

The session reminded me of two things. First, the students will be stronger — and happier — if they know why the course is structured as it is, so I should incorporate Head Start-like commentary into my first year lecture. Nothing will help students succeed in their first year more than being aware of how they learn and what they can do to adapt to learning environments that don’t naturally match their learning styles. Second, I should include more active components to my large lecture classes. On Wednesday, we played 20 questions to illustrate mental modeling, and the students and I had a blast!

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