Monday, August 25, 2008

Learning Styles

The tendencies and characteristics that students use in their learning are known as learning styles. These styles may influence how students learn, as well as how instructors teach. Understanding something about learning styles may help instructors create the most effective learning environment and impact their instructional design. I think we are already aware, from our learning objective development process, that learning styles are combinations of cognitive, affective and physical factors, which are then used to use to help the student navigate through the learning process. As defined by Sadler-Smith a learning style is “a distinctive and habitual manner of acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes through study or experience.” (1)

There have been a number of attempts to classify learning styles. As early as 1966, Hudson (2) made a distinction between convergers and divergers. Convergers generally followed linear thinking, using a step-by-step approach to arrive at the “right” answer. The diverger was more fluid and flexible, approaching a problem from a number of different directions, some of which might be quite novel. He felt that convergers would learn best from convergent teachers, and divergers from divergent teachers. Pask (3) used this model to develop his own, breaking learning styles into holists and serialists. The holist used an overarching conceptual framework to help contextualize learning, while the serialist learns in a piece-by-piece fashion, creating knowledge out of smaller pieces of information. Holist learning is mainly associated with art training, while serialist learning would more characterize the average medical or chiropractic setting. Kolb (4) took these 2 approaches and used them to devise his own, which involves divergers and convergers, as well as assimilators and accommodators. In his model, the divergers uses creative ideas and diverse views, the converger is good at problem-solving and implementation, the assimilators uses inductive reasoning to generate theory and integrate ideas, and the accommodator actively applies knowledge but adapts to changing circumstances. These were used to develop Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, which was later used to develop The Learning Styles Questionnaire of Honey and Mumford (5). This tool is still used today.

When we begin to ask how we can best develop deep learning in our students, one of the components we need to look at is the styles of learning students use. It is a challenging environment to do so. Certain technologies that younger students use today did not exist when many of us had our undergraduate, graduate or teacher training. This includes the presence of the web, and of instructional platforms such as BlackBoard and WebCT. We have to adapt to these technologies and we can do so most effectively when we understand how our students learn.

1. Sadler-Smith E. Learning style and instructional design. Innovations Educ Training Internat 1996;33:185-193
2. Hudson L. Contrary imaginations. New York, NY; Penguin, 1966
3. Pask G. Styles and strategies of learning. Br J Educ Psych 1976;46:128-148
4. Kolb DA. Experimental learning experience as a source of learning and development. London; Prentice Hall, 1984
5. Honey P, Mumford A. Using your learning styles. London; Maidenhead, 1986

Monday, August 18, 2008

Diffusion of Innovations

One of the books I have been reading lately is Everett Rogers text Diffusion of Innovations (1). What Rogers has done is demonstrate how an innovation spreads through a social system; his work is what has led to the slightly more recent concept of a “tipping point.” This is the idea that change occurs in a system through what amounts to a domino effect (2)

When we are confronted with an innovation from within a social system (consider, for example, such new technologies as myspace, facebook, pda’s, etc.) we have to consider whether or not to use or participate in that innovation. Rogers notes that there are typically 5 steps in how we do this. First, we become aware that the innovation exists, and we gather knowledge about it. Second, we form an opinion about the innovation. This step, persuasion, may lead to use considering the innovation positively or negatively. For example, my personal initial opinion regarding myspace was negative. Third, we decide whether or not we wish to adopt the innovation or not. Then, we implement it, and put it into use. Finally, we evaluate our use of the innovation, and confirm that we did the right thing.

But this is at the personal level. There are also influences that come from our social system. Rogers notes that we can divide a social system into 5 groups: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Within medical education, for example, Howard Barrows was the innovator who began the initial talks about the use of problem-based learning methodologies. Once his work had been published, a small number of early adopters began to use that methodology. Their colleagues, noticing the success of that method, began to explore use in their own classrooms; these were the early majority. Some people were late to the game, and for whatever reason put off the adoption until its use had been fairly well established. Finally, there were some who, given the choice, refused to consider the use of this method at all. Innovators are those creative types who are in the forefront of technological developments. Early adopters are often seen as opinion leaders and change agents, people whom others see as trustworthy. When we see these people adopt an innovation, that is when we feel comfortable doing the same. This is when the majority begins to use that innovation. Some come to this early, others late. Finally, the laggards are often isolated or traditional in their work environment, and often suspicious of change.

This is but a framework for this theory, which has implications across disciplines, in media, marketing, education and many other areas of life. But as noted, it may also have implications for how innovations in education can be successfully initiated.

1. Rogers EM. Diffusion of innovations, 5th edition. New Rok, NY; Simon and Schuster, 2003
2. Orr G. Review of Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers., accessed August 15, 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

Scientific Papers: The Introduction

The Introduction to a scientific paper- whether that paper is an original data report, literature review or case report- has a very specific function. Its primary purpose is to let the reader know why your paper was written. It therefore provides context for the work you present. Typically, the introduction will provide a short overview of the topic area for your paper. For example, if you are presenting a case report on the successful management of an unusual condition, the Introduction will usually give the reader information about the condition in question, as well as some information about the intervention that was so successfully used. This information will be broad and general in nature; the Discussion section is where you can delve into the details about the condition in question.

An Introduction need not be lengthy. In fact, it is likely that a lengthy Introduction contains information that more appropriately belongs in the Discussion section. And often the Introduction is written to demonstrate where a gap in the literature exists. That is, a certain measure of literature is cited, and the author then points out areas of confusion, disagreement or question and notes where his or her paper fits into that confusion, and how it will provide information that may help to resolve some or all of that confusion.

Let me offer an example. Say we were writing a case report discussing the chiropractic management of Condition AB. My Introduction might proceed along these lines: “Condition AB is a disease affecting X% of the population at any given time, with a lifetime incidence of Y%. The condition occurs when something goes wrong in your organ system, affecting the function of this organ [AUTHOR”S NOTE: I am making this all up so am keeping comments purposely vague]. As a result, this lack of function leads to problems in the musculoskeletal system. Medical treatment for Condition X includes this, that and the other thing. However, there is no information in the literature regarding chiropractic management for Condition AB. This paper presents a case which was successfully managed using high-velocity low-amplitude adjustment.” Now, each sentence here would normally be expanded (and each factual statement referenced correctly) upon so that this entry would run to approximately 3 paragraphs, but you can see all the necessary elements in place.

I highly recommend that to get a good sense of the elements I note above, simply read over a few papers from the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics or other chiropractic journal. This will give you a template from which you can begin to develop not only the Introduction to your paper, but the rest of the paper as well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Writing an Abstract

Not all that long, the abstract for a scientific paper was a prose paragraph that attempted to provide the 5 W’s of a piece of scientific research: who, where, why, when and what. That is, it attempted to give the reader a general sense of what question was being asked, how the researchers attempted to answer it, what they found and what they felt it meant. But studies done in the late 1980s and early 1990s indicated that the abstract was failing in is goal. Squires (1) found that 56% of abstracts did not report the technical design of a study, 79% gave no information on how subjects were selected, 86% made no mention of limitations and 93% made no recommendations for further study. To resolve this failure, the Ad Hoc Working Group for the Critical Appraisal of the Literature (2) proposed the structured abstract, and that is now the professional norm.

A structured abstract is simply that; an abstract that has a specific structure. In the case of an original data report, the structure can be as simple as: Objective; Methods; Results; Conclusion. It may be slightly expanded, so that instead of a Methods section, there are sections on Subject Selection; Site, Main Outcome Measures, etc. Some journals ask that the author prepare a Background section as well, to precede the Objective section. It is important to keep mindful that there is usually a limit of 250 words to the abstract, so brevity is important. The Background section provides context; Objective provides the intent of the paper; Methods tells what was done and how; Results provide aggregate important findings; and Conclusion briefly tells what was discovered.

Abstracts for literature reviews and case reports differ. For a literature review, the main headings should include: Objective; Study Selection; Data Extraction; Data Synthesis; Results; Conclusion. In this form of abstract, the key is in describing what search terms and databases were used, what information was taken from the yield of papers, and how that information was analyzed. In a case report, the main headings include: Objective; Clinical Features; Intervention and Outcome; Conclusion. Here, clinical features refers to important findings leading to diagnosis; intervention and outcome refers to what was done and how the patient responded.

I should also note that different journals may deviate slightly from these models and as always it is important to read Instructions to Authors. And keep mindful that your abstract is the single most important key to whether people decide to read your paper, so spending a little time to get it right serves you very well indeed.

1. Squires BP. Abstracts: the need for improvement. Can Med Assoc J 1991;144:421
2. Ad Hoc Working Group for Critical Appraisal of the Medical Literature. A proposal for more informative abstracts of clinical articles. Ann Intern Med 1987;106:598-604