Understanding Your Students

Effective teachers, like other effective communicators, recognize the value of understanding their audience. However, for an educator, audience analysis reveals a complexity of differences among students in any given learning environment. Richard Felder says, “The more thoroughly instructors understand the differences, the better chance they have of meeting the diverse learning needs of all of their students” (“Understanding Student Differences,” Journal of Engineering Education 94 [2005]: 57). An educator must consider the characteristics of the students at their institution, the mindset of the generation, the variety of learning styles and the cognitive development of students.

Information about Duquesne’s Students

The Office of Institutional Research and Planning (IRP) creates a University Fact Book which gives helpful information about Duquesne’s students. The enrollment data includes information about program enrollments, average SAT scores, ethnicity, gender, and residency origin.


The Mindset List

Beloit College compiled a list annually to help identify the experiences that have shaped the lives and influenced the mindset of entering college freshmen. The list attempts to identify the worldview of college freshmen for each academic year. The Mindset List is now hosted by Marist College. 


Learning Styles

Several ways of understanding how people learn or prefer to learn have been suggested. Two of the most common learning style models are VARK and Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.


Fleming and Mills developed an inventory to determine students’ sensory preferences in learning and to offer suggestions to modify their study habits on the bases of their preferences.

  • (V) Visual learners prefer graphical and symbolic data in learning.
  • (A) Aural or Auditory learners prefer learning through listening.
  • (R) Read / Write learners prefer printed text to learn.
  • (K) Kinesthetic learners prefer learning via hands-on activities.

Many people learn through multiple modalities (MM) employing several sensory preferences.


Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

David Kolb argues that experiential learning occurs through a cycle of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.

flow chart of quadrants

In the active learning cycle, two poles or continuums are at work. The continuums are how people tend to perceive experience and process experience.

flow chart of kolb

While effective learning entails the whole cycle, most learners tend to gravitate along the two continuums to favor a quadrant. Thus, in the perceiving continuum, people favor either concrete experiences or abstract generalizations. In the processing continuum, individuals will have a stronger preference for active experimentation or reflective observation. An individual’s leaning toward a quadrant is their learning style.

This table below shows some of the common characteristics for each type of learner.


  • ‘Hands-on’ learning
  • Like new & challenging experiences
  • Apply information to ‘real life’
  • Tend to favor intuition
  • Like carrying out plans and experiments
  • Social work, education, medicine, law


  • Like to think and reflect on experiences
  • Explore different view points
  • Strong at brainstorming ideas
  • More observant than active
  • Tend to be imaginative and emotional
  • Arts, political science, journalism


  • Practical application of ideas
  • Like to solve problems
  • Prefer technical tasks over social or interpersonal issues
  • Prefer experimentation
  • Distrust emotion
  • Engineering, business, ecology


  • Synthesize ideas into theories
  • Prefer inductive reasoning
  • Values logical soundness over practical value
  • Tend to be less focused on people
  • Prefer analytical models
  • Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics


Understanding the Cognitive Development of Students in Higher Education

William Perry developed a theory of the cognitive development of college students by studying a group of undergraduates through their university experience. Essentially, the Perry Model conceives of students moving through four stages: duality, multiplicity, relativity and commitment. While subsequent studies confirm Perry’s basic analysis, the homogeneous nature of Perry’s subjects (young-white-males) has led subsequent studies to amend Perry’s model to include an earlier stage, Silence, experienced by women who have been deprived or abused (Belenky et al).

Cognitive Stages



The individual feels incapable of having a voice, is powerless, and becomes mindless at the caprice of external authority.


Student views issues as black or white, right or wrong, and ‘them’ or ‘us.’  Has an exaggerated appreciation for authority figures.  Learns by memorizing the “right” answers.


Students think “everyone has a right to their opinion” and “my opinion is as good as any other.”  In the Multiplicity stage, students are uncritical because they believe all opinions are equally valid.


While recognizing multiple positions to an issue, the student begins judging various alternatives based on evidence, criteria, and reasoning.


Through critical reflection, the student in the commitment stage argues for a position but recognizes the relative merits and validity of competing perspectives.

Resources from CTE’s Library:

  • Women's ways of knowing : the development of self, voice, and mind
  • Belenky, Mary Field, et al (1986).
  • Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years; a scheme
  • Perry, William Graves (1970).