All Developers Should Know How They Learn Best

This is the first post in the teaching and learning series. The teaching and learning series includes the following posts:

  1. All Developers Should Know How They Learn Best (this post)
  2. The Secret Of Being A Great Mentor
  3. The Secret Of Being A Great Apprentice
  4. Become A Better Developer By Indexing Your Brain
  5. Learn More – Faster By Using The World-Wide Community
  6. What Playing Cards Can Teach Us About Ramping-Up And Transferring Knowledge

Software development is one of those industries where you can’t really help it but be constantly learning. No matter how knowledgeable you are with the technologies you currently work with you still daily discover new, better, more efficient ways of doing what you do. It is even more hectic when you move to a new environment or end up on a new project where the technologies may not be as familiar, (or you could be a downright newbie) the domain is completely different and you have to work extra hard to get across everything in order to become effective as fast as possible.

But how do you make sure that you’re getting across all this new stuff as quickly as you can be? You probably have some personal strategies that you have developed over time that work well for you. Maybe you start doing a lot of relevant reading or maybe you browse the source code/unit tests in your free time or maybe you just ask a bunch of questions over beers after work (and some just simply wait and wait until they begin to grok what’s going on). We normally don’t know why a particular strategy works for us, we just know that we learn faster and better when we employ it. But it is actually not that hard to figure out why certain things work for you and why others don’t and if we knew this we could probably streamline our learning even more (and not just the on-the-job learning that we do, but out personal learning endeavors as well).

There are a number of theories about what makes people learn best and what personality traits effect learning. Some are better, some are worse, some have been criticized while others have been praised. I am a believer in balance in all things, so rather than subscribing to one particular learning theory, I prefer to examine myself with regard to several which in the end, gives me a broader understanding of what it is about me that effects how I learn and what strategies I would need to employ to make sure I am getting the most bang for my buck (so to speak). I would recommend all developers go through a similar exercise if only to be more aware of what makes you tick and why your favorite strategies are infact best. To that end, here is an outline of some of my favorite learning theories.

Your Personality

Personality

Personality can have a major affect on how a person learns, this just makes sense and so some of the earliest and most well known theories are centered around this. Some of the oldies (but still goodies) that most people have probably heard of are Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. Both of these are based around 4 personality dimensions each of which can have one of two values:

  1. Energizing – how a person is energized or motivated
    • Extroverted – draw energy from people and like to discuss their thoughts and ideas with others when learning
    • Introverted – expend energy while with people, like to think through new ideas by themselves
  2. Attending – what makes a person pay attention
    • Sensing – focus on what their senses tell them, notice the details
    • Intuiting – focus on the possibilities and the ‘big picture’
  3. Deciding – how someone makes decisions
    • Thinking – use logic and structure to make decisions
    • Feeling – tend to use value-judgments to make decisions, i.e. ethical or moral concerns
  4. Living – a person’s lifestyle
    • Judging – have a structured and organized approach to living and decision making
    • Perceiving – are a lot more flexible, tend to explore possibilities before committing to a course of action

You pick your leanings in each of the four categories which gives you your personality classification (e.g. if you’re extroverted, sensing, feeling, judging you would be a ESFJ). Based on the descriptions of the various traits you can combine them to figure out what kind of approach to learning can work for you. For example, you may need to walk through the big picture in a logical and structured fashion, all the while discussing your thoughts with others. Or you may need to sit down by yourself and explore the various possibilities and the details of what effect they would have. There is no right or wrong way, but knowing what kind of personality profile you have can help you focus on the most effective way for you to absorb and retain new information.

Are You A Left-Brainer Or A Right-Brainer?

Brain

These days everyone is aware that our brain has two hemispheres. This was originally proposed by Dr. Roger Sperry who in 1981 won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work. For most people one side of the brain tends to dominate even though everyone uses both in their day to day life. Despite what some would have you believe you don’t need to be either a left-brainer or right-brainer to be a good developer. You’ve probably met developers in your work who like to dive into code and explore and who tend to almost intuitively find solutions to problems (these were probably right-brain dominant). You’ve also probably met developers who like to work through the details and approach their problem solving in a logical and systematic fashion (these were the left-brain dominant).

Left-Brain Dominant

If you’re left brain dominant you probably like to walk through your learning step by step. You like resources that break down the information into a series of tasks and guide you through those tasks in a sensible fashion. You will also tend to work and learn well with other people who think the same way as you (other left brainers).

Right-Brain Dominant

If you’re right brain dominant you will prefer to know the big picture as well as see examples and case studies of best practice. You learn well from observing and discussing and are happy to start work when only a broad goal or outline exists, filling in the details as you go.

Neither of these is inherently better but it does pay to know what works best for you. On any team you work either one or the other style will tend to dominate, if it is not your style it is up to you to make sure that your style is also represented in some fashion. Maybe you may need to fill in a little more detail and come up with a little more structure to help the left-brainers on the team when you have a goal you need to achieve. Or maybe you need to zoom everyone out a little to make sure the right brainers are represented when everyone seems to be too focused on the detail.

Who The VARK Are You?

VARK is one of the most common categorizations of learning styles. VARK was created by Neil Fleming and is based on the Neuro-linguistic programming (VAK) learning model. VARK is an acronym where each letter stand for a particular type of learning style.

  • Visual Learners – prefer visual representation of information and tend to remember things better if they are organized visually (i.e. charts)
  • Auditory Learners – learn better when they hear information (i.e. learn well through talking and discussion)
  • Reading/Writing-preference Learners – this one is pretty self-explanatory, these types of people need to read and/or write to learn and remember something
  • Kinesthetic Learners – require action and movement to learn things, they need to try things out to learn and remember them

You’re probably noticing by now that there is some cross-over with the previous models that we discussed. For example auditory learners may tend to be more extroverted while reading/writing preference learners will tend to be more left-brain and thinking (as opposed to right-brain and feeling). The categories with this one are very broad and you may once again not fall neatly into just one, but as always it is best to be aware which style works for you and make sure that you give yourself the best opportunities to learn and retain new information. So, if your current environment does not provide the kind of information that works best for you (i.e. there is not enough charts or not enough discussion is going on), it is up to you to remedy that.

You’re Suffering From Multiple Intelligences

Intelligence

The theory of multiple intelligences was proposed by Howard Gardner. Basically the theory states that there are 7 different aspects to our intelligence that can be measured separately. We use all these intelligences in our day-to-day life but we have an affinity for one or several and therefore find them easier to use. This means that particular learning styles will work better for us. The 7 intelligences are:

  1. Logical/Mathematical – like information to be presented logically and systematically, they like to problem solve and make connections between concepts
  2. Verbal/Linguistic – learn best through reading, writing and discussion. This intelligence incorporates abstract thought and reasoning
  3. Musical – for this intelligence learning is enhanced when new material is associated with sound and music (this should certainly be familiar to many people who like to study with music)
  4. Visual/Spatial – here learning involves creating visual representations of content, such as graphs and charts as well as mind-mapping and content-mapping techniques
  5. Interpersonal – people who are dominant in this intelligence like to learn in groups, talking and interacting with others
  6. Intrapersonal – people who dominate with this one like to learn by themselves, they concentrate and process information better when they are alone
  7. Bodily/Kinesthetic – here people like to learn by doing, movement and action, they need to try things to retain and absorb information

Once again there is a significant amount of cross-over with the other theories but hopefully having several presented at once helps to clarify in your own mind what kind of person you are. What it also teaches us is the fact that there is no one best way to work in a team (whether it’s a software team or any other). Some people learn better in groups while others learn best by themselves, so you need to provide time for group work as well as personal work. So for example, if you always work by yourself (in your workplace) and group time is not provided (and you’re and Interpersonal learner) you need to make the group time yourself. The same could be said about all the other intelligences. If music works best for you then make sure you bring your iPod with you. If you’re visual then push for creating more charts and doing more mind-mapping exercises. If you’re kinesthetic, then maybe you need to introduce role playing exercises to the team etc.

There are many other intelligence and learning theories out there (such as the 4-MAT system, Experiential Learning etc.), some are a lot more complex than the four above. The reason the above 4 are good, aside from the fact that they are the most well known ones, is the fact that we can easily classify ourselves according to all 4 which can give us a reasonable understanding of the kind of personality we have and therefore what kind of activities can help us learn better. We can possibly do more with the more complex systems, but in my opinion the law of diminishing returns kicks in, we expend a little effort to know enough rather than expending a whole lot to learn just a little more.

Of course just like with everything we will never be able to neatly pigeonhole ourselves, we are often both thinking and feeling, or visual and auditory in equal measure. But knowing this also tells you much, such as the fact that both a visual and an auditory learning style can work for you (i.e. explanation and diagrams) so maybe next time in addition to drawing a diagram you can look really weird and talk yourself through it while doing it, you’d be surprised at the difference it can make.

I hope this has helped you become more aware of how you learn and retain information and why certain strategies work best for you. If you’d like to share your experiences with learning or if you know of other theories that are easy and work really well (perhaps you have one of your own) feel free to share them in the comments. Otherwise, stay tuned for the next post in the teaching and learning series title – The Secret Of Being A Great Mentor.

Images by country_boy_shane, Arenamontanus and George

  • http://cubeantics.com Robert

    Nice post, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

    • http://www.skorks.com Alan Skorkin

      Cheers man, I am kinda looking forward to writing them all :)

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  • Marshall

    Very well written… learning strategies is an important topic that doesn’t get much attention in software blogs. Thanks!

    • http://www.skorks.com Alan Skorkin

      There is definitely more to software development than just the tech, I believe that learning strategies, teamwork, people skills etc are just as important. Of course the tech is important as well.

  • http://giorgiosironi.blogspot.com Giorgio Sironi

    Learning is an important factor because you’ll never stop to practice on new languages and tools. A responsible developer is always trying to keep up with the cutting edge technologies so a bit of methodology on this can help.

    • http://www.skorks.com Alan Skorkin

      Exactly, but even more than that, with the amount of stuff you need to/can learn you really owe it to yourself to make your learning experiences as efficient as possible, there is way too much out there to discover to get stuck learning things less-than-efficiently.

  • Con

    From http://plover.net/~bonds/personality.html:

    “More than one scientific analysis has concluded that the Myers-Briggs test (of which the Keirsey test is an obvious rip-off) is about as useless as a test can be: it’s based on unfounded premises, measures nothing, and measures it inaccurately. So why do people fall for it? For the same reasons they fall for astrological profiles, palmistry, and psychic mediums.”

    • http://www.skorks.com Alan Skorkin

      My strategy is, get as much information as you can and then make decisions. If you have enough info you will be able to sift through what is useful to you and what is useless without too much trouble. Just because popular opinion is against something doesn’t mean you won’t find a personal application for it (the reverse is also true).

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  • Bikila Ambaw

    I am collage teacher. And I blieve in theory of MI but I want to read more on this case. To read more I need a book because the is internet the please wre I teach.Please help me by what you can. I want to talk more on MI and Know it to apply.

  • http://blogs.sourceallies.com/author/sramasamy Sudhakar Ramasamy

    Knowing how you learn best and then leveraging that to be efficient and effective in your learning is key to unlocking a world of possibilities. I find that I’ve evolved a few learning techniques myself over the years.

    But I don’t know if my techniques are the most effective for me or not. I have nothing to measure them against. I’m not sure if the categories that I put myself in are because I sort of ended up there or because they are truly my style of learning.

    What I’d like to be able to do is go through some sort of exercise that tells my what type of learner I am. That way I can use the right techniques that enhance my learning ability.

    Any suggestions on resources that help determine your learning style as opposed to simply asking you questions on how you currently learn and then pointing out what your current learning style is.

    • http://www.skorks.com Alan Skorkin

      I see it as more of a trial and error thing, as long as you remain aware while you’re learning, you eventually zero in on how YOU do it best after a few years :). I know it a long time, but you have your whole life to use it after that.

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