Thinking Like A Learner Part 2

Students deep in thought

Note: This is the second of a three part series. You can view part 1 here.

In our last blog we commenced our look at learner thinking styles as outlined by Elliot Masie in his book The Computer Training Handbook back in 1995. In that blog we looked at the reflective thinking and the implications that this style of thinking by the learner has on your teaching. In this blog we'll examine the conceptual thinker style and the practical thinker style. See how many you can recognise in your own class, and indeed see if your own way of thinking matches any of these styles.

The conceptual thinker

As the name would suggest the conceptual thinker is a big picture type of learner who needs to know the ins and outs of a ducks... well, you know. Present something on the screen to a conceptual thinker and they won't be satisfied. They need to drill right down behind the scenes and examine every nut and bolt.

According to Masie this style of thinker needs to visualise how software and systems work and they need this presented in a structured and organised way. If they're not given this they ask lots of "what is it?" style of questions in an attempt to build their visualised model of how things work.

As an educator you can't fob off a conceptual thinker. If you say "there are several ways of doing this but we'll only focus on one of them today" they'll bag you to find out about the other methods. They'll persistently and constantly badger you until they are satisfied they've been given and have acquired all of the relevant information.

As far as implications for training goes Masie sees that the conceptual thinker tends to:

  • Be more inclined to like lecture style training than other learners as long as the lectures are presented in a logical, sequential, organised and structured way;
  • Ask questions that force the instructor into more detail than may be necessary (and perhaps even tolerated by other learners);
  • Take copious notes;
  • Constantly asks the instructor to repeat things - not because they don't understand but rather to fill gaps in the notes they've taken.

From a support perspective the conceptual thinker will provide far more detail about the problem than is necessary - Masie even quips that they'll probably give you the computer's serial number! This information is usually technical information rather than the personal stories presented by reflective thinkers. To provide support to conceptual thinkers it will need to be done from an overall system perspective providing a system map or manual if one is available.

For online learning scenarios the conceptual thinker needs to be given a broad overview. They crave content maps and outlines of what will be covered. They also want a step-by-step approach with lots of detail along the way. These are the sorts of people that site maps were developed for on web sites!

The practical thinker

Unlike the conceptual thinker who needs all of the details, the practical thinker just wants to cut to the chase - no bumph, no details, just the facts. According to Masie practical thinkers edit out information they perceive as irrelevant or superfluous. They are constantly looking out for shortcuts, macros, and other tools and ways of making their computer work easy. Show them the menu or ribbon system when a short cut exists and you'll be damned for eternity!

Masie quips that when an instructor says "This system has eleven major features, but I'm only going to explain the four you'll be using," the practical thinker will ask if it's necessary to do all four.

According to Masie practical thinkers want to know how they can apply their new skills and knowledge to their work situation. They're constantly asking "how can I use this at work", "what can this do for me", "can you give me a quick version of this", and the like.

Another trait of the practical thinker is that they're hands-on and will show great disdain to prolonged lecturing. They'd prefer to have their hands on the keyboard working away rather than listening to you prattle on.

Masie makes an interesting point about practical thinkers. He claims that they are usually the most successful learners in computer training with a much greater transfer of new skills and knowledge to daily use than the other learners.

So what of the implications for training of the practical thinker? According to Masie practical thinkers:

  • Keep trainers honest by holding them accountable for the ability to transfer learning back to the job;
  • Prefer guided practice to any other training activity;
  • Feel uncomfortable with theoretical lectures;
  • Don't take many notes - they'll jot a few points down at most.

From a support perspective practical thinkers become anxious about being able to fix a problem. They like a practical and nuts and bolts approach to achieving a favourable outcome.

Practical thinkers like to have streamlined documentation, especially those that show cheat sheets or quick reference type material.

From an online training scenario Masie believes that practical thinkers want to jump into the hands on stuff first and prefer to bypass the conceptual material.

In the next and final blog in this series we'll look at the creative thinker.