Guide on the Side – Climbing the Learning Ladder

Previous articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

While you wait in line for coffee at the break, you overhear comments about the continuing education (CE) program you are in. “I wish he had given us the big picture. All those war stories were too much.” The friend replies “Hey, I really liked all the personal stuff. It gave me an idea of the real issues, but I wanted some discussion.” Then you realize what bothered you. There was no handout with a list of key citations.

Why do three people have three different reactions to the same program? Answer: People have different learning styles, are on different rungs of their “learning ladder” and, as adults, have unique profiles of prior knowledge and experience.

What are learning styles? The pattern of how you learn, solve problems, communicate, do your work, and interact with others. Each person takes in the world in differently. Knowing your style helps to realize your personal and professional goals, especially the ones tied to CE choices.

What determines your learning style? A number of things: genetics, teachers and life experiences, such as hobbies, interests and jobs. Learning results in two kinds of knowing: knowing about (knowledge) and knowing how (skills). You learn incrementally, a bit at a time. The gradual progression of acquiring knowledge and skills is sometimes called the “learning ladder.” Recognizing and naming are on the bottom rung and at the top is the kind of knowledge Nobel prize and Olympic medal winners demonstrate. There are several levels of comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis in between. It is not uncommon for people to prefer different styles as they go up the ladder. The view from the top is not the same as from the bottom.

Research on memory and the brain reveals another fascinating dimension of learning. The four basic modes of communication (listening, speaking, writing and reading) take place in four separate parts of the brain. Some learning styles favor one part of the brain more than others. Brain specialization explains why some people follow written instructions better than oral ones.

Learning Style of an Independent, Active, Visual Learner

My formal education began with a teacher whose philosophy was to teach students how to learn first and subjects second. This was in a one-room, one-teacher, eight-grade elementary school with 35 students in Northern California. She used a potpourri of instructional techniques to tell us, show us, let us try and then check to see if we got it. If someone didn’t get it, the student was paired with a tutor (student who knew) to go outside under an oak tree until the problem was solved. Consequently, we all learned there was more than one way of “knowing,” to teach, to be taught by peers, to be comfortable asking questions and asking for help as soon as we didn’t understand something. Art, drama, music, poetry, sports and storytelling were taught to us as a learning community without grade segregation.

I also discovered that learning was fun. One of my report cards had a teacher’s comment “Marie is a good student but she laughs a little too much.” I hate to admit the teacher had one blindspot. She didn’t understand that laughter produces endorphins which makes a person feel good and learn faster but back then no one knew about hormones.

Assessing Your Learning Style

You can learn your dominant learning style from simple life experiences. Take assembling a piece of shipped furniture, for example. Do you read the instructions? Study the diagram? Sort out the pieces and try to figure out how they go together? Go from global to sequential by looking at the photograph? Call a friend and ask for help? Organize a “get it together” party? Email the vendor to ask if there is a tutorial? Pay someone to do it? If you ignore the instructions, follow the diagram and feel good that you “figured it out yourself” you are a visual learner and also an independent learner on the Grasha-Reichmann social interaction scale.

There are over 50 different learning style theories. They agree on the premise that people take in the world differently but differ on how to name the differences. The most common theories are based on your sensory preferences. Studies indicate that the majority of people learn visually. Second in rank are the tactiles (kinesthetics) who learn by doing and hands-on. Finally, there is the smallest group, the aurals who learn by listening and sound cues. A simple way to distinguish sensory types is to watch the eyes. If you are a visually oriented learner, you may find yourself closing your eyes or looking up as if seeing the solution on the ceiling. You want to see illustrations, charts, diagrams and appreciate verbal images. You use language like “I see it now” or “I get the picture.”

If you are a tactile learner, you may look down, toward your hands and scan as if panning a scene. You like to manipulate things and handle models. You may say “I’ve got it.” If you are an aural learner, you are likely to look to the side and tilt your head as if to bring your ears closer to unheard vibes. You are attune to non-verbal speaker messages, delivered by tone of voice or word emphasis. You may say “That sounds right” or “I hear you.”

W.B. James and M.W. Galbraith expand the sensory categories or “perceptual modalities” to seven: Print, visual, aural, interactive, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory. The educators, psychologists and communication researchers who study learning styles, point out there are also significant learning differences between genders, generations, cultures, adults and children, adults and teenagers, plus about 20% the population has a learning/perceptual disability, such as dyslexia. Depending who is teaching, learning gets relative. (Resource Box)

What People Remember

Let these ratios of what people remember be your guide to CE selection

10% of what they read

20% of what they hear

30% of what they see

50% they both see and hear

70% what they discuss with others

80% what they experience personally

95% what they teach to someone else

If you don’t know your style, you have several options to learn.

  • Complete an online assessment instrument, such as the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire designed by Barbara A. Soloman and Richard M. Felder at North Carolina State University. Results are reported on Active-Reflective, Sensory-Intuitive, Visual-Verbal and Sequential-Global scales.
  • Look for a local professional organization to feature a licensed expert on one of the theories, such as the Myers-Briggs model of personality preference. The expert will test the audience individually and explain what the categories mean. The assessment takes about 20 minutes.
  • Self-assess by observing how you give instructions to employees, colleagues or clients. Do you give procedures orally, assuming they are aural learners? Do you provide a manual of procedures, assuming they are comfortable reading? Do you guide them through a hands-on operation, assuming that they like you are a kinesthetic learner?

Making CE Choices

You need to be an informed consumer to invest your CE time and money wisely. Offerings in the CE bazaars often have an unseen flaw. The people who design and deliver the programs are recognized authorities in their fields. They are strong on the subject content but often weak on instructional methodology and how to accommodate a variety of learning styles. (Adult Learning and Continuing Education Choices)

You want programs that are robust in content and method. Here are some ways to get value from your CE selections:

Articulate your learning objectives at least twice a year

Read CE brochures and catalogs critically

Does the description tell you what you will be doing or what the instructor will be doing? Does the approach or point of view correspond with your needs?

Take cues from program titles

“New Developments in…”(Subject approach)

“Does deregulation need regulation…”(Issue approach)

“How to…”(Skill approach)

Make inquiries of the instructor or sponsoring organization

Build on your own experiences/knowledge

Learn from peers in the audience

Determine where you are on your “learning ladder”

Enroll only when there is a fit between your objectives and the program.

When in doubt about a program contact the instructor. Ask what instructional strategies are planned. Explain your needs. Most instructors are happy to accommodate audience requests. If the course is multi-disciplinary in scope or marketed to a multi-discipline audience, it is extremely important that the instructor enable learners to form learning communities across disciplinary lines. This means interactional techniques such as discussion groups.

Adult Learning

Adults want instructors to teach to their style so they can take in and process the information easier and build on what they already know. Many of you have learned to learn from listening to lectures and reading, whether or not it fit your learning style. It was a requirement of your education and professional acculturation. It doesn’t have to be this way. Some of you, particularly if you are younger know you prefer styles which involve multi-tasking, multi-media, interactivity and collaboration. Many adults gravitate instinctively to adult learning norms and are eager to throw off the pedagogical yoke of instructor-led and subject oriented instruction in favor of learner-led and skill oriented instruction.

Malcolm Knowles, father of adult education, articulated the principles of adult learning after working with adults and observing how they learned best. He coined the word andragogy (rhymes with pedagogy) for the distinctive ways adults learn best.

When they are self-directed and have a say in what they will learn

When they can draw on and build on their own experiences

When they assume new life roles

When they can apply new knowledge and skills immediately

Some CE accreditation organizations pay lip service to adult learning principles but retain CE offerings in the more pedagogical form of lectures or panels followed by brief Q&A sessions. If lectures were the best method of information transfer, we would all test out at the genius level and have uniform knowledge. Knowledge is not transferred from one person to another like an assembly line of widgets. Research indicates that the lecture has a low rate of long term information transfer. Unless the learner has a need for the information, can relate it to something already known or reinforces it through application, the information never moves from short to long-term memory.

How to Make a Course Correction

You thought you exercised due diligence in making a CE choice but the program seems to hinder rather than promote your learning. What can you do?

  • Identify what is wrong. Is it a mismatch of learning styles, learning ladder level or learning objectives? If it is a mismatch of learning styles, try making the best of it by converting the information to your style. For instance, if the instructor is lecturing and you are a visual learner, make a mind map of the lecture.
  • Ask questions. If the instructor is too general, ask if he or someone in the audience can provide specific examples. If the presentation is all visuals, and you want something to read in print, ask if a reading list can be provided. Request audience discussion or a show of hands.
  • Come with a list of substantive questions you need to have answered. Ask if they are not covered.
  • Re-visit your CE investment strategy. Did you really evaluate the fit between the program and your needs? If the problem is that the program was not accurately described in the promotional materials, you may want to discuss it with the sponsor for a possible refund.
  • Look on the program as a joint venture with the instructor. Share your expectations with the instructor before the program or during breaks. Do a reality check with other members of the audience during breaks. Sometimes a peer discussion becomes a learning experience in itself, especially if there are differing points of view.
  • Consider volunteering to be the instructor in the future since the teacher always learns the most.
  • Always come prepared with a means to record ideas that are sparked by the presentation environment or to record thoughts that float through your mind during the down time before the program starts or while the technology is adjusted. Even a mediocre program often ignites related ideas worth logging for future reference. If you don’t capture the new ideas, they escape.

Take the time to assess you learning style. Doing so gives you an advantage by helping you chose and get the most of your CE offerings.

This article was originally published in ABA Child Law Practice, v. 21, no. 8, Oct. 2002, published by the American Bar Association, Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission.

Lifelong Learners Who Want to Learn More


ALI-ABA: Teaching for Better Learning: Adult Education in CLE, 1999.

Malcolm Knowles,The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (This is the 5th ed. of A Neglected Species: Adult Learners), 2000.

David Lazear,Eight Ways of Knowing: Teaching for Multiple Intelligences, 3rd ed., 1999.


Theory Into Practice (TIP): database containing summaries of the 50 major theories of learning and instruction.

Learning Style Assessment Tools

4MAT Survey Battery identifies perceiving and processing categories: Innovative, Analytic, Common sense and Dynamic.

Grasha-Reichmann Student Learning Style Scales (GRSLSS). Six social interactions with instructor and peers: Independents, Dependent, Collaborative, Competitive, Participant, Avoidant

Gregoric’s Style Delineator groups learners into four categories: Abstract random, Abstract sequential, Concrete sequential, Concrete random.

Perceptual Modality W.B. James and M.W. Galbraith identifies seven modes of taking in information: Print, visual, aural, interactive, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory

Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory is a four dimensional inventory: Concrete experience, Reflec­tive observation, Abstract conceptualization, and Active experimentation. He further breaks them down into adaptive competencies: Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators, Accommoda­tors.

Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) popular instrument based on the theories of Carl Jung and used world wide. It measures four bi-polar preferences (introvert/extrovert, intuitive/sensing, thinking/feeling, and judg­ing/perceiving) and reports them as sixteen personality types. The preferences identify how you direct your energy, prefer to process information, prefer to make decisions and prefer to organize your life.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills, Training