Sequential and Global Learners
Most formal education involves the presentation of material in a logically ordered progression, with the pace of learning dictated by the clock and the calendar. When a body of material has been covered the students are tested on their mastery and then move to the next stage.
Global learners should be given the freedom to devise their own methods of solving problems rather than being forced to adopt the professor's strategy, and they should be exposed periodically to advanced concepts before these concepts would normally be introduced.
Some students are comfortable with this system; they learn sequentially, mastering the material more or less as it is presented. Others, however, cannot learn in this manner. They learn in fits and starts: they may be lost for days or weeks, unable to solve even the simplest problems or show the most rudimentary understanding, until suddenly they "get it"-the light bulb flashes, the jigsaw puzzle comes together. They may then understand the material well enough to they apply it to problems that leave most of the sequential learners baffled. These are the global learners.32
Sequential learners follow linear reasoning processes when solving problems; global learners make intuitive leaps and may be unable to explain how they came up with solutions. Sequential learners can work with material when they understand it partially or superficially, while global learners may have great difficulty doing so. Sequential learners may be strong in convergent thinking and analysis; global learners may be better at divergent thinking and synthesis. Sequential learners learn best when material is presented in a steady progression of complexity and difficulty; global learners sometimes do better by jumping directly to more complex and difficult material. School is often a difficult experience for global learners. Since they do not learn in a steady or predictable manner they tend to feel out-of-step with their fellow students and incapable of meeting the expectations of their teachers. They may feel stupid when they are struggling to master material with which most of their contemporaries seem to have little trouble. Some eventually become discouraged with education and drop out. However, global learners are the last students who should be lost to higher education and society. They are the synthesizers, the multidisciplinary researchers, the systems thinkers, the ones who see the connections no one else sees. They can be truly outstanding engineers-if they survive the educational process.
How to teach global learners: Everything required to meet the needs of sequential learners is already being done from first grade through graduate school: curricula are sequential, course syllabi are sequential, textbooks are sequential, and most teachers teach sequentially. To reach the global learners in a class, the instructor should provide the big picture or goal of a lesson before presenting the steps, doing as much as possible to establish the context and relevance of the subject matter and to relate it to the students' experience. Applications and "what ifs" should be liberally furnished. The students should be given the freedom to devise their own methods of solving problems rather than being forced to adopt the professor's strategy, and they should be exposed periodically to advanced concepts before these concepts would normally be introduced.
A particularly valuable way for instructors to serve the global learners in their classes, as well as the sequential learners, is to assign creativity exercises-problems that involve generating alternative solutions and bringing in material from other courses or disciplines-and to encourage students who show promise in solving them.31'33 Another way to support global learners is to explain their learning process to them. While they are painfully aware of the drawbacks of their learning style, it is usually a revelation to them that they also enjoy advantages-that their creativity and breadth of vision can be exceptionally valuable to future employers and to society. If they can be helped to understand how their learning process works, they may become more comfortable with it, less critical of themselves for having it, and more positive about education in general. If they are given the opportunity to display their unique abilities and their efforts are encouraged in school, the chances of their developing and applying those abilities later in life will be substantially increased.