by Livia McCoy
Each student has preferences for how he likes to learn. This is known as his learning style, and it’s how he comprehends and retains information best. Similarly, teachers like to teach and structure their classrooms in different ways, known as their teaching styles. As a result, students may find themselves in classrooms that don’t match up with their individual learning styles.
A creative, free-spirited student might be in an extremely structured algebra classroom with student desks carefully lined up in rows. Or, a student who likes step-by-step instruction might be learning history from a teacher who mostly holds Socratic-style seminars. Students who are mismatched this way often come to me to find out what to do. They say things like, “I don’t know what’s going on in there! What am I supposed to be learning?” or “I can’t stay awake in that class. It’s so boring!”
Students must be able to learn in settings that are different from what they prefer. It’s important for them to know how to learn in all kinds of classrooms, under different teaching styles. Here are some suggestions to help students when they find a teaching style that doesn’t match up well with their individual learning styles.
Encourage your child to communicate with her teacher when she has concerns. I’ve met with many students who were sure they couldn’t succeed in a class. I always encourage them to talk to their teacher about it and find out whether the teacher has suggestions for ways to study and prepare for class. For example, teachers who use Socratic seminars normally base them on research the students are doing or on readings in their text. To be successful, students must do the research and reading. Doing the homework matters more than it did before!
It’s helpful to form study groups with students who do well in the class. See whether your child can help a friend in algebra if his friend will help him in history.
Talk to your child about staying open-minded. Sometimes, the problem is fear of the unknown rather than a true mismatch in learning and teaching styles. Your child might not have been in classes before where her teacher asks open-ended questions with more than one correct answer. Maybe she’s uncomfortable expressing her ideas in class and being graded on whether she participates. Once she goes through it a few times, however, she might find that she enjoys it and does learn in that environment, after all.
There are all kinds of teachers and all kinds of students. Students have to learn to do well in classes that might not match exactly to their preferred learning styles. They’ll find they work with people who think differently than they do. But these challenges are preparing them for the future; having these experiences and learning to be successful in a variety of settings now will help them be successful later in life, regardless of their learning styles.
Livia McCoy spent many years teaching upper school science and serves as Dean of Student Support at the Steward School in Richmond, Va. She sees each student as an individual with great potential to learn and feels that her job is to help every student figure out how to be successful in school.
Originally posted in 2015 and updated regularly.