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Learning Styles

Students prefer to learn in different ways. Some may regard learning as a solitary process and may learn best that way. Others may prefer a more dynamic learning environment and may learn best by discussions with their peers. Some subjects may demand a particular learning approach but, without guidance, students will tend to adopt the style they prefer or which has served them best in the past. It is a crucial responsibility of the teacher to ensure that the students adopt the most appropriate learning approach for the subject at hand. The best-known classification of learning styles divides learning into "deep" and "surface" approaches. Deep learners concentrate on gaining an understanding of a topic, while surface learners will concentrate on little more than memorising. It is easy to see how a particular method of teaching (and especially assessment) might drive a student to one of these approaches. This classification seems to work well for a subject that is essentially a body of knowledge. History, for example, requires surface learning for lists of dates but deep learning for analysis and understanding. It is clear that the surface approach comes first and the knowledge acquired is then developed in deep learning. Programming is not like this. It is not a body of knowledge, it is a skill. It might appear at first sight that deep learning is vital for programming, providing understanding that can be applied in new problem areas. However, it could equally be argued that programming can be learned as essentially a process that amounts to simple "pattern matching" where common problems are spotted and known working solutions applied. This approach sounds very much more like a form of surface learning. It seems that the best strategy lies between these two extremes. Surface learning can be useful for remembering the details of syntax, or issues such as operator precedence, but elements of deep learning (and hence understanding) are required if a true competence is to be developed. This is the key to the difference. The two learning styles must be applied at the same time. It is not sensible to memorise the rules of the syntax of some programming language and then to move on to apply it. This puts programming beyond the educational experience of most students; it requires a mixture of learning styles that most, if not all, of them have not had to apply before.

Tony Jenkins
School of Computing
University of Leeds
Leeds, UK.