Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 5c - Activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists

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Activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists

Another useful way of classifying students' learning styles is in terms of the four-dimensional scheme developed by Honey and Mumford during the mid 1980's. This identifies four basic types of learner, characterised by preference for active, reflective, theoretical or practical learning. The basic characteristics of the four extreme types are as follows.

Activists. These love novelty, and will 'try anything once'. Give them a task, and they will throw themselves wholeheartedly into it. They like to get on with things, so they are not interested in planning what they are about to do. They live very much in the present. They get bored with repetition and what they see as raking over the dead embers of the past. They are exciting, vital, open-minded and gregarious.

Reflectors. These like to 'look before they leap'. They like to collect information and sift it. They are cautious, thorough people. They prefer to observe rather than take the lead. They are slow to make up their minds, but when they do, their decisions are very soundly based - not only on their own knowledge and opinions, but also on what they have learned from watching and listening to others. Though they are often quiet in groups, this stems from their 'Olympian detachment' rather than from nervousness.

Theorists. These live in a world of ideas. They have tidy, organised minds. They are not happy until they have got to the bottom of things and explained their observations in terms of basic principles. They want to know the logic of actions and observations. They dislike subjectivity, ambiguity, and those who take action which is not underpinned by a theoretical framework. When a teacher uses figures in support of an argument, it is the theorists who will ask questions about their statistical validity.

Pragmatists. These are also keen on ideas, bur want to try them out to see if they work. They are much less interested in actually developing the ideas - in fact, they will cheerfully beg, borrow or steal those they think will help them take action more effectively. They enjoy experimentation, but are not interested in the long dissection of the results that would appeal to the reflector. They take the view that if something works, that's fine, but if it doesn't, there is no point in wasting much time wondering why. The thing to do is to find something more promising and try that. They love solving problems.

Clearly, these basic types are extremes, and most people have some characteristics of all four. Honey and Mumford have devised a highly sophisticated self-perception inventory to help people find out which type (or types) dominate in their particular case. This involves answering 'yes' or 'no' to a total of 80 statements, 20 of which characterise each of the four types. The scores are then added up, plotted along the four axes of a special chart, and joined up to produce a kite shape of the type shown in Figure 5 - which shows a typical pattern for a mature learner who can adopt any of the four learning styles when appropriate (the so-called 'trainer's norm').

Figure 5 : A typical Honey and Mumford 'kite diagram'

As with the serialist/holist dichotomy, a good teacher should recognise the existence of the four different learning styles, try to cater for all styles when planning their teaching/learning programmes, and try to help their students to adopt different learning styles in different types of situation. The object should be to produce mature learners with 'balanced' and flexible learning profiles of the type shown in Figure 5 by the time they reach the ends of their courses.


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