Survey seeks student strengths

Baltimore County uses questionnaire to detect learning preferences

December 01, 2006|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

Danielle Minowa Soriano, a 13-year-old at Cockeysville Middle School, likes working alone, but that's not because she doesn't like her classmates.

"Most people I've worked with don't help," she said, "so I've learned to take over and do it myself."

Staring at a computer-generated graphic, Danielle contemplates the results of a survey that is designed to pinpoint how she prefers to learn. Baltimore County school officials this fall began surveying students to provide a snapshot of individual students' learning preferences and enable teachers to tailor their lessons, school leaders said.

The survey charts 10 learning preferences by asking students to respond to statements such as "I like to study with a partner or in a group" and "It is easier to learn if I can see a picture." More than 10,000 county students in grades five through 12 have taken the 20-minute, 100-statement, online survey, school officials said.

"It's all about understanding how children learn and how we can teach them," Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in a recent interview.

Hairston said he has spoken with leaders from other Maryland school systems about the survey, and they've shown interest. He is expected to discuss it today with superintendents from across the state during a monthly meeting in Annapolis.

The survey's author, Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance, is scheduled to discuss the survey at the national Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development conference this spring.

In 1998, Dezmon began research at the University of Maryland, College Park that led her to create the survey of learning preferences.

Children come to school with a variety of backgrounds, cultures and attitudes about education that affect their learning preferences, she said.

"We have to eliminate the one-size-fits-all way of teaching," she said. "For instance, poor children come to school learning very concretely. They are focused on food, clothing and shelter. But when they come to school, they are hit with abstraction. We have to meet them where they are and use what they have to make learning meaningful for them."

Last year, Dezmon conducted the survey with more than 3,000 students in a random sample throughout the school system during a pilot phase. She licensed the survey this year to the school system and plans to let other Maryland school systems use it.

"One of the caveats is that although this provides useful information to help teachers, it does not supplant teacher observation," Dezmon said. "What matters is what happens in the classroom."

Toward that end, school officials have been tweaking the curriculum for the past three years to help teachers customize lessons, according to Kathy McMahon, the district's assistant superintendent for humanities in the division of curriculum and instruction. Revamped curriculum guides provide examples of how lessons can be taught using various learning modes, such as incorporating graphics and pictures to entice the visual learner, McMahon said.

Ryan Warfel, who teaches Danielle's technology education class at Cockeysville Middle, said he has found the curriculum guides useful. For a recent exercise, he said, he spent five minutes adapting the lesson to incorporate activities that involved a range of learning preferences.

Warfel said that if he sees students struggling to grasp a concept, he can check their learning preferences and devise a more effective way to teach them.

"It takes the mystery out of why this student isn't getting it," he said.

A key component of the survey is an online database, developed by the school system's technology department, that allows teachers to review results on individual children and the class. School officials said the database also will help them chart their progress as they attempt to teach students how to learn in different ways by exposing them to various instructional methods.

McMahon said she tells teachers to use various learning preferences as they plot out the week's lesson plans.

"The idea of this isn't that we provide students with instruction that is solely visual if they are visual learners, because that's not how the world works," she said. "We want to not only meet the needs of kids but also broaden their ways of learning."

Before taking the survey, 12-year-old Joanna Wicks said, she considered herself a visual learner because she likes to have written instructions. The survey suggested she is also a sequential learner, something that hadn't occurred to her, even though math is her best subject.

"Many things surprised me about this quiz," she said. "But it will help me understand what I need to do."

Learning preferences

The survey being used in Baltimore County schools focuses on 10 learning preferences. The first two, field dependent and field independent, reflect characteristics associated with other preferences.

Field Dependent

Prefers interaction with teacher

Likes group projects, discussions

Field Independent

Tends toward the abstract and to perceive analytically

Prefers clear grading criteria with specific feedback

Kinesthetic learners

Are often physically well-coordinated and have athletic ability

Learn through experience and physical activity

Tactile learners

Learn by touching and manipulating objects

Benefit from demonstrations

Active learners

Can be impulsive

Don't like note taking

Reflective learners

Prefer to think about concepts quietly before taking action

Like to review notes

Visual learners

Like to read

Learn through images and use written notes

Auditory learners

Can follow oral directions

Repeat words aloud for memorization

Global learners

Make decisions based on intuition

Like to make interpersonal connections

Sequential learners

Prefer a logical progression

Self-directed and independent

Source: Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance for Baltimore County public schools

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