Adapting an Introductory American Studies Course for Student Learning Styles

Jo B. Paoletti, American Studies Dept., University of Maryland, College Park

Description of the project

This paper describes an experimental approach to syllabus design which was based on Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences and on the literature on learning styles. Briefly, this body of work argues that human beings learn in different ways, categorized by Fleming and Mills (1992) as visual, aural, read/write and kinesthetic. Many educators have suggested that course design should take these different preferences into consideration, a practice that has been widely adopted by K-12 teachers. This literature is less familiar on college campuses, and even less likely to be adapted for college-level course design, particularly in disciplines that tend to privilege a particular learning preference. American Studies, in contrast, has a long history of attentiveness to a range of "text" formats (books, articles, film, music and material culture to name a few) and of incorporating that range not only into our research but the classroom as well. Why not link this established practice with the more recent developments in learning style research in a more deliberate manner?

Process and planning

On the first day of class, students in AMST 201 (Introduction to American Studies) were given a syllabus with dates and topics, but no reading or viewing assignments. All of the textbooks for the course were listed as "recommended", rather than "required”. After the first class, all of the students took the VARK questionnaire, a free, online learning styles inventory. At the next class, we discussed not only the results, but also the implications of their preferred learning style(s) for the selection of course materials -- videos, field trips, service learning, audio files, lectures, readings and so on. At the beginning of the second week, they were given a revised syllabus in which each unit had a resource list which was organized by learning style. Each student developed a learning plan indicating which resources she or he would use for each unit. This plan helped me organize the class discussions, based on the number of students 

For each unit, students were expected to select resources from the list and devote 4-6 hours per week preparing for class. They were to take their learning preferences and their interests into consideration in making their selection. For example, a highly visual learner with minimal interest in issues of race or ethnicity might choose a visually rich resource for that section of the course. A student could also combine a weak learning preference with a strong area of interest as a strategy for improving his or her ability to learn from different kinds of resources. Since the VARK literature suggests that learning preferences are not fixed and can be expanded and strengthened over time, this was seen as a way for students to be more aware of and actively engaged in their own learning. Students were encouraged to record their learning experiences in private online journals, read only by the student and the instructor.   

Each of the following lists represents the resources for a one-week portion of the course (two 75- minute class meetings). The usual suggestion is that the student devote 2-3 hours a week per credit hour to work or study outside the classroom. For a 3-credit course such as AMST 201, this would be 6-9 hours per week. The 4-6 hours of reading/viewing/other activity seemed reasonable, given that they also had  weekly writing assignments and a service learning commitment (10 hours over the course of the semester).

The students' initial response to this approach was wary delight. Some questioned how they could accurately estimate how long it would take them to read certain materials, and other were skeptical about the likelihood of building good classroom discussions around twenty-five students' different resource lists. Some were confused and unhappy about having to choose which books or films to use. But most were eager to join in the experiment, and made a genuine effort to produce a good learning plan and follow it through the semester.

Synthesis and authentic discussion

The most obvious implication of  using multiple sources in the classroom is the lack of a common experience on which to base discussion. The Students and I were all accustomed to the pedagogical convention of mining a single text for themes, questions and contradictions. However, I realized that this need not be an impediment to the exchange of ideas. Don’t we all, in our daily lives, engage in conversations based on our unique experiences and information sources? Viewed this way, the challenge can be re-framed: how can we promote authentic discussion in the classroom setting? Each student was asked to contribute discussion questions based on the resources they used, but not unique to those resources. For example, the question "How does popular media create or promote racial stereotypes?" could elicit resource-based responses from every student in the class. While at first, guiding a discussion based on half a dozen different sources seemed daunting, it became easier once we discovered how to phrase questions to focus on the larger issue, rather than on the nuances of a particular source. For example, in our unit on Race and Ethnicity, we were able to have a lively discussion on the origins and impact of stereotypes, with a mix of students who had read two different books, visited an online exhibit, tutored elementary school children, and attended a musical performance.

Expanding students' options

Another outcome of this approach was that students sought out a broader range of resources for their independent projects. In previous classes, most students looked to written resources for their research papers, despite having been exposed to a range of materials in class. Could it be that They saw my old pattern of requiring outside readings but viewing videos during class conveyed a subtle privileging of textbooks and articles? Additionally, many students mentioned their new awareness of their own learning preferences as a rationale for casting their nets more widely when looking for information. Several students, in their final evaluations, expressed the belief that attention to students' learning styles was a manifestation of the interdisciplinary of American Studies, and clearly expected that any American Studies course they took in the future would incorporate a similar approach. I had to dissuade them from this;  although  am increasingly convinced that American Studies is a very sympathetic home for this pedagogy. As one of my students pointed out, learning preferences are but another category of difference, cutting across and intersecting with the more well-known distinctions of race, ethnicity, class and gender.

Directions for future inquiry

I am repeating this experiment with three sections of AMST this semester, focusing on the differences between single-text discussions and multiple-text discussions. I am also building into the students' research project some self-reflection on their own learning from different resources, particularly how their experiential learning interacts with their inquiry. Together, we are discovering ways to weave individual strands of context, history, experience and information into new understanding of our experiences in American cultures.