Learning styles and the cancer experience at stc17

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. These are my notes from one of the sessions at the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine.

This session was an interesting take on learning styles, by Debbie Kerr. She looked at the way information about a cancer diagnosis is presented, and how it could be done better based on the varying learning styles of the audience.

Debbie is a breast cancer patient and survivor, and advocate.

Goals for this session

The aim of this session was to learn about health literacy, the role that learning styles play in a cancer diagnosis, and how to improve the imparting of such information.

Approximately 10% of adults in the US have health literacy. In Canada, it’s 40%.

One possible solution to this issue is to use simpler language. Also, if reading is the problem, perhaps we could use something other than words.

Learning styles

People learn by doing (kinaesthetic), by listening (auditory), by seeing (visual), and by reading and writing (literate). But it’s more complicated. There are approximately 71 learning styles!

Different audiences have different styles. For example, your learning style is affected by you age, gender, level of education, existing knowledge, and emotional state. This latter is especially important in the medical world, relative to other types of technical documentation. Perhaps the recipient of the information is alone, or has time constraints, or receives the news at home/work.

The subject matter influences learning style. For example, you can read or watch all you like about sport, but you need to do it before you really learn. Medical information of essentially abstract, with lots of concepts and few consistent procedures. Most importantly: The learner is the recipient not the doer of the procedure.

So, the best you can do is to tie the information to something the reader already knows. For example, compare the size of a tumour to the size of a golf ball, rather than saying it’s n centimetres/inches in diameter.

Visual: Debbie showed us a very scrappy picture of hormone receptors that a doctor drew for her. Even though it was scrappy, it gave her a good idea of what was going on. She therefore created a better version of the diagram. Auditory: She also played the “Pump your Blood” video from YouTube, from the 1970s, as an example of auditory teaching.

Kinaesthetic: We saw a sample of some medical software called emmi. It showed the things that can happen to a knee joint. The learner would develop interactive software where they can select items to see the relevant instructional material.

The Know your Lemons campaign is interesting, because it very clearly shows the 12 symptoms of cancer, and because it gives people the option of looking at lemons rather than breasts. And it’s easier to download these images from the internet.

A learning style is a preferred but fluid method of learning that is influenced by various factors, some of which are listed above.

Thank you Debbie, for this engaging and informative look at learning styles.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 9 May 2017, in STC, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi, Sarah. Thanks for (once again) providing these great summaries of the STC Summit sessions.

    I’m curious as to what’s meant by “health literacy” in your statement that 10% of adults in the US and 40% in Canada have health literacy. Does it refer to some level of expertise about medical issues — and, if so, how is it measured? I’m not disputing the statistics (which I assume originated with Debbie and not with you); I’m just wondering what they mean.

    • Hallo Larry
      Good question! Yes, your assumption is correct: “health literacy” is a measure of the level of understanding people have of medical issues, medical concepts, and medical technical terms. It’s is highly relevant when someone is given a medical diagnosis.

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