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 &
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,
How Understanding Learning Styles Can Help Improve
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 many theories of learning styles can
be condensed and examined in four dimensions as follows (Curry,
Personality of the Learners
A learners personality influences how he/she acquires
and integrates information. Examples of learner types
based on their personality dimensions are:
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).
Impulsive vs. reflective learners (Schmeck,
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.
- Information Processing
Information processing refers to how an individual prefers
to assimilate information. It can take the form of two
cognitive styles, i.e. intrinsic patterns
of a learners typical mode of perceiving, thinking,
remembering, and problem-solving (Schmeck, 1983; Kolb,
constructivism, i.e. how a learner constructs
his/her own view (Fosnot, 1996).
The latter concept is more learner-centred and includes
a learners 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.
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.
Instructional methods address the individual learners
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
- Kolbs 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
- 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.
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date: 22 October 2001) for more details on learning style