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In recent years, the desire among educators to enhance the learning process for students has led to a growing concern with learning styles. CDTL Brief now presents the first of a two-part discussion on the issues surrounding Learning Styles.

September 2002, Vol. 5 No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Students’ Learning Styles and Their Implications for Teachers
 
Ms Chandrama Acharya
Research Assistant, CDTL
 

Introduction

With the shift from an instructional to a learning paradigm, there is growing acceptance that understanding the way students learn is the key to educational improvement. To achieve a desired learning outcome, one should provide teaching and counselling interventions that are compatible with the students’ learning styles. Thus, ‘learning style’ is a concept that is important not only in shaping teaching practices, but also in highlighting issues that help faculty members and administrators think more deeply about their roles in facilitating student learning. This article discusses some prominent research on learning styles and the implication of learning styles in teaching strategies.

What is Learning Style?

Learning styles can be defined as a set of cognitive, emotional, characteristic and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how a learner perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment (Keefe, 1979). A student’s style of learning, if accommodated, can result in improved attitudes toward learning and an increase in thinking skills, academic achievement, and creativity (Irvine & York, 1995).

Past research on learning styles attempted to categorise learners by ability has produced some convincing results. For example, Kolb (1984) identified four learning styles (i.e. accommodation, assimilation, converging, and diverging) and four learning modes (i.e. concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation). Dunn and Dunn (1978) developed a comprehensive model dealing with environmental, emotional, sociological, physical, and psychological learning style elements and claimed that these elements could provide information directly to teaching strategies. However, increasing research in this field is producing burgeoning sub-categories of styles as more and more differences among learners are unveiled with each study (Jonassen & Grabowski, 1993).

How Understanding Learning Styles Can Help Improve Students’ Learning

Information about learning styles can help faculty become more sensitive to the differences students bring to the classroom. It can also serve as a guide in thoughtfully and systematically designing learning experiences that match or mismatch students’ styles, depending on the teacher’s purpose. Matching is particularly appropriate in working with poorly prepared students and new college students, among which attrition rates are usually the highest. Some studies show that identifying a student’s style and then providing instruction consistent with that style contributes to more effective learning. In other instances, some mismatching may be appropriate so that students’ experiences help them to learn in new ways and to bring into play ways of thinking and aspects of the self not previously developed. Any mismatching, however, should be done carefully and with consideration for the students, because the experience of discontinuity can be very threatening, particularly when students are weak in certain areas of study.

Dimensions of Learning Styles and Implications for the Teacher

The many theories of learning styles can be condensed and examined in four dimensions as follows (Curry, 1987):

  1. Personality of the Learners

    A learner’s personality influences how he/she acquires and integrates information. Examples of learner types based on their personality dimensions are:

    1. Field-independent vs. field-dependent learners (Witkin, 1954; Witkin & Goodenough, 1981):

      Some learners look at a whole picture at first and isolate or break it down into smaller parts with ease (field-independent); while others start to examine the pattern or relationships between the parts first before looking at the whole picture (field-dependent). As abstraction is easier for the former type of learners, and integration is easier for the latter, a teacher could include both sorts of tasks to match these preferences as well as challenge learners to adjust and adapt to tasks that do not match their preferences. Field-dependent individuals are considered to be more group-oriented and cooperative and less competitive than field-independent individuals (Dunn & Griggs, 1996).

    2. Impulsive vs. reflective learners (Schmeck, 1988):

      Some learners tend to respond quickly as compared to others who do so more slowly and thoughtfully. The former could be categorised as risk-taking learners while the latter can be interpreted as cautious learners. The teacher should note this variable as it can influence students’ responsiveness in class, test-taking behaviour and assignment outcomes.

  2. Information Processing

    Information processing refers to how an individual prefers to assimilate information. It can take the form of two interdependent approaches:

    1. cognitive styles, i.e. intrinsic patterns of a learner’s typical mode of perceiving, thinking, remembering, and problem-solving (Schmeck, 1983; Kolb, 1984); and

    2. constructivism, i.e. how a learner constructs his/her own view (Fosnot, 1996).

    The latter concept is more learner-centred and includes a learner’s self-regulation in the learning process and self-determination in motivating him/herself (Deci, Vallerand, Pellertier & Ryan, 1991). In this case, the learner sets goals, organises resources, makes strategic decisions about resource use, and evaluates the entire process (Weinstein, 1996).

    Information processing discussed in this way has valuable implications for teachers. Teachers can create opportunities for students to learn and exert self-regulation of their learning by involving the students in setting learning goals, selecting and implementing learning strategies as well as monitoring their own learning. Moreover, teachers can provide situational cues to motivate students to learn on their own (Lave & Wegner, 1991). For example, methods like problem-based learning or discovery learning, where the focus is on the process of problem solving rather than getting the solution, can promote more learning.

  3. Social and Situational Interaction Among Learners

    Social interaction addresses how students interact in the classroom. Reichmann and Grasha (1974) defined a few types of learners according to their types and levels of interaction (i.e. independent/dependent, collaborative/competitive, and participant/avoidant). Understanding how students interact is crucial in formulating learning strategies to be conducted in class. For example, depending on how learners interact with others and within the learning situation, teachers can establish the foundation for collaborative learning strategies that can be potent methods of student learning in a large-class situation.

  4. Instructional Methods

    Instructional methods address the individual learner’s preferred environment for learning (Keefe, 1989; Dunn & Dunn, 1978). These models basically ascertain the importance of identifying and addressing individual differences in the learning process. However, they differ in a way that some models stress accommodation of individual style preferences in the instructional methods, while others stress flexibility and adaptation by the learners.

Identifying Learning Styles

Diagnosing and interpreting learning styles provide data as to how individuals perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment. The starting point in teaching is to respond to the learning style needs of students, which implies knowledge of students’ preferences and a conscious effort by the teacher to expand his/her range of techniques to respond to student diversity. A number of learning style inventories have been developed 1. Examples of a few prominent inventories are (Felder, 1996):

  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Myers, 1978) with dichotomous scales measuring extroversion vs. introversion, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perception;
  • Kolb’s Learning Style Model, classifying learners in four types: Type 1 (concrete, reflective), Type 2 (abstract, reflective), Type 3 (abstract, active) and Type 4 (concrete, active);
  • Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), classifying learners according to their preferences for thinking based on task-specialised functioning of the brain.

Strategies to Promote Effective Learning Using Data on Learning Styles

  • Conduct classroom research and get information on types of learning styles students are adopting. Information about style, when linked with other data about students, holds great promise for helping faculty members to improve their teaching. The collection and use of such data, done formally or informally, can also contribute to a continuing dialogue among faculty and administrators as they learn from each other about teaching and learning.
  • Establish curricular experiences that help students learn how to learn.
  • Inventories of learning styles and other processes can be used to help make students aware of their own preferences and strengths. Help should also be given to students to develop strategies for succeeding in courses taught in ways that are incongruent with their primary learning abilities.

References

Curry, L. (1987). Integrating Concepts of Cognitive or Learning Style: A Review with Attention to Psychometric Standards. Ottawa, ON: Canadian College of Health Service Executives.

Deci, E.L., Vallerand, R.J., Pelletier, L.G., & Ryan, R.M. (1991). ‘Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective’. Educational Psychologist, 26(3–4), 325–346.

Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1978). Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing.

Dunn, Rita & Griggs, Shirley. (1996). Hispanic-American Students and Learning Style. ERIC DIGEST, ED 393607.

Felder, R.M. (1996). ‘Matters of Styles’. ASEE Prism, 6(4), 18–23. Also available at http://www2.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/LS-Prism.htm. (Access date: 12 December 2001).

Fosnot, C.T. (Ed.) (1996). Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives and Practice. New York: Teachers College.

Irvine, J.J. & York, D.E. (1995). ‘Learning Styles and Culturally Diverse Students: A Literature Review’. In Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. James A. Banks (Ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 484–97.

Jonassen, D.H. & Grabowski, B.L. (1993). Handbook of Individual Differences, Learning, and Instruction. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Keefe, J.W. (1979). ‘Learning Style: An Overview’. In NASSP’s Student Learning Styles: Diagnosing and Prescribing Programs. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1–17.

Keefe, J.W. (1989). Learning Style Profile Handbook: Accommodating Perceptual, Study and Instructional Preferences, Vol. II. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lave, J. & Wegner, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, I. (1978). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Reichmann, S.W. & Grasha, A.F. (1974). ‘A Rational Approach to Developing and Assessing the Construct Validity of a Student Learning Style Scale Instrument’. Journal of Psychology, 87, 213–223.

Schmeck, R. (1983). ‘Learning Styles of College Students’. In Individual Differences in Cognition. R. Dillon & R. Schmeck (Eds.). New York: Academic Press, 233–279.

Schmeck, R. (1988). Learning Strategies and Learning Styles. New York: Plenum Press.

Weinstein, C.E. (1996). ‘Learning How to Learn: An Essential Skill for the 21st Century’. Educational Record, 66, 49–52.

Witkin, H.A. (1954). Personality Through Perception: An Experimental and Clinical Study. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Witkin, H.A. & Goodenough, D. (1981). Cognitive Styles: Essence and Origins. New York: International University Press.


1 See Karen J. Ristuccia (2001), 'Learning Styles on the Web', http://www.csrnet.org/csrnet/articles/web-learning-styles.html(Acess date: 22 October 2001) for more details on learning style inventories.

 
 
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