I'm not slow, I'm a holistic learner

One thing that struck me as odd when I was studying for my teaching award was the way in which teachers must consider the varied learning styles of their students when planning lessons. Clearly this is common sense and good teaching practice, what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. The issue I have with it however is that the students themselves, in my experience, are never taught to consider their own learning method despite it having a huge impact upon an individual’s performance.

One theory of learning styles groups students into either linear or holistic learners. Linear learners, as the name implies, prefer to learn new material in a linear fashion, where each new lesson follows on from the previous in a coherent structure. These students tend to pick up each step quickly, however can take longer to gain an overall understanding. Holistic learners on the other hand are much less organised and prefer to understand the subject as a whole, rather than learning each new step sequentially. Their learning style can appear more chaotic, in that they will stick with one seemingly random bit of material until they understand it before moving on to the next piece which they believe will bring them closer to understanding the overall picture.

Now if it’s not obvious by now I’m of the latter group, I much prefer having access to the whole material and studying through it at my own rate and direction. In a university setting this means I do not cope well with being handed one lecture a week of new material, which linear learners are much more comfortable with (provided there’s a clear logical progression through the course).

It strikes me as odd that throughout our education we are never taught how to find our individual optimal study techniques. Because I don’t naturally learn things in a sequential fashion it means I am slow at picking up new material especially compared to linear learner friends, resulting in a decrease in my self confidence particularly during my PhD where most people at some point experience imposter syndrome. If at some point during my school years we’d been told how to find our most effective working strategies I would have been prepared for this and would have not attempted to follow along each week or compare myself to others, rather I’d have preferred to learn things in my own time.

In a modern classroom which tends to place greater emphasis on the role of the student as a result of constructivist ideology, why is it that only the teacher should have to consider the students learning methods?

And just some reassurance for others who with similar experiences who are starting on a PhD. During your research you are exposed to such a huge range of knowledge it can feel overwhelming for a holistic learner as you want to understand the bigger picture straight away. During the first two years of your PhD you may constantly feel like John Snow (“you know nothing”).

However the main benefit of being a holistic learner is that once you have gone through studying at your own rate and organised everything in your mind, you tend to have a much greater overall understanding than a linear learner. I particularly notice this aspect when I’ve been answering questions on my work at a conference. Such questions frequently take the form of Have you considered this other closely related approach?. As I’ve read around my subject in huge detail to understand the global picture I am very able to respond to such questions demonstrating my breadth of knowledge of the field.

Don’t worry, you’re not slow or stupid and in the end you’ll have a very good global understanding, it’ll just take some time getting there. In the meantime just keep going, always write down titles and subtitles in your notes so you can see simple hierarchies and the relationships between them. You won’t be able to work 247, you may find out of the blue you get a sudden desire to understand one area, just go with it. Likewise not attending classes in favour of going through the slides at your own pace can be worth it sometimes, as this allows you to flick back between previous lessons to see how the material all relates together. I find drawing diagrams and relationships really helps my grasp of the material, although I’m not sure this is true for all holistic learners.

Obviously there are far more aspects to how we learn, such as intrinsic/extrinsic learners, and so on. This is just one small thing that has had a large impact upon how I work which I’m glad I’m now aware of.


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