Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.
Why Think about Learning Styles?
Contemporary theories of learning styles emerged subsequent to Carl Jung's exploration of the variations in the way individuals perceive things, interact with others, approach tasks, and make judgments (Silver, Strong, & Pernini, 1997). As with other forms of student-centered pedagogy, tailoring the ways knowledge and informaiton is delivered, students are assessed, and learning activities are designed to suit students' leanriing styles may improve student learning and may improve students’ breadth of learning strategies. This tutorial will address:
Learning styles refer to "the ways in which individuals characteristically approach different learning tasks” and not fixed traits, but are rather fluid and can function in different ways in different contexts. (Vermunt & Vermetten, (2004). Learning styles have also been described as "a particular set of behaviors and attitudes related to the learning context" (Brown, 2003; Snow et. al., 1996; Dunn, et. al., 1995). The idea that learning styles exist is an extrapolation of the theory of multiple intelligence, postulated by Howard Gardner (1983), who identified several “intelligences” including: visual, verbal-linguistic, mathematical, visual-spatial, interpersonal, musical, naturalistic, bodily-kinesthetic, and intrapersonal.
Gardner argued that rather than being endowed with only one general intelligence that prevailed over all human cognition, human beings are endowed with many intelligences; and, further, that intelligence refers to the “bio-psychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture’’ (Gardner, 1999, pp. 33–34). These bio-psychological potentials are manifest in various modalities of knowing and strategizing, hence “multiple intelligence.”
While both the theory of learning styles and multiple intelligence call upon instructors to alter the way they teach, the theory of learning styles advocates change in order to adapt the process of learning to student preferences and aptitudes by way of individualizing activities, while the theory of multiple intelligence advocates change in what is taught or the product of learning, by way of involving an entire class in a given activity (Denig, 2004).
Vermunt (1996) developed an approach to learning styles that looked at the cognitive, metacognitive and affective experiences of learning from the student’s perspective and found four styles emerged:
- Non-Directive style characterized by a general sense of ambiguity about the learning objectives and directions and a sense of being overwhelmed by information
- Reproductive-directed style characterized by desire to pass exam by focusing on what instructors indicate is important with repeated exposures to information
- Meaning-Directed style characterized by sharp interest in concepts, theories, hypothesis, evidence, analysis, and in studies of non-prescribed materials in order to deepen understanding
- Application-Directed style characterized by interest in seeing how information related to real world and immediate conditions and problems, and seeks to concretize concepts and abstract ideas
Vermunt concluded that repetitive exposure to learning styles resulted in the internalization of styles and that those who were most likely to achieve goals idealized in higher education were those adept in the meaning-Directed and Application-Directed styles.With knowledge about the processes individuals use, instructors may better understand not only what types of instruction might be very familiar to students, but what types of processes might be important to develop (Fleming & Baume, 2006).
At present, there are over 100 learning style inventories. Some scholars have found that learning style theories appeal to educators because they: 1) provide information to instructors about what kinds of instructional strategies might be more helpful than others; 2) provide some explanation to the question of why students vary in performance; and, 3) they provide a framework for exploring the attitudinal and metacognitive variables that impact learning (Coffield, et. al., 2004). Learning style inventories call attention to habits and attitudes of which students are often unaware (Keefe, 1988) and with this information, students can not only begin to understand why they might be struggling in a given class, but can also begin to direct themselves to expanding their ability to learn in a variety of styles.
In general, there are two ways to use learning style inventories. First, with knowledge about learning style preferences, instructors may expand their use of teaching styles that match them (Woodridge, 1995). Second, because many instructors take years to develop an approach to teaching that is student-oriented (Kugel, 1993), instructors who take the inventories themselves may increase their awareness of how their own approaches to learning might influence their decisions about course design and instruction.
Inventories should be used with caution. One of the most important variables in learning is student motivation, which has the potential sabotage learning as in the case of students who believe that since they have a certain learning style, they cannot learn well from lessons using methods outside that style (Dweck, 2006; Riener & Willingham, 2010). Designing instruction to suit students' learning styles does not automatically generate desired results. (Coffield, et. al., 2004) Moreover, certain learning styles may not be conducive to developing competency in specific disciplines (Kolb, 1981), and so course design based on inventories must also factor the professional competencies targeted by discrete courses.
Many students experience their learning style preferences very strongly and sometimes expect that instructors will adjust their requirements and teaching styles to accommodate their preferences. In administering activities that use diverse learning styles, the instructor may accommodate students, but may also improve the opportunities for all students to access, process, and articulate knowledge and thus help students expand their own repertoire of learning strategies. Using diverse teaching strategies that target certain learning styles may help students expand their neurological repertoires.
Research confirms that various regions of the brain are engaged in a single act of sensing, perception, thinking, or doing, and that the brain’s plasticity makes possible the development of new neurological pathways. (Zull, 2002). Such research has at least two important implications for teachers:
- That repeated behaviors tend to “hard-wire” neurological networks
- That just as students can learn new knowledge and skills by way of creating new neurological networks, so too can they learn new ways of learning
As noted in the tutorial on Writing Course Objectives and Outcomes (link) student learning outcome drive the decisions about how to assess student work and how to proceed with instruction in a manner that prepares students to be successful in demonstrating their competencies and knowledge. Learning styles may be a factor in decision-making at all levels of course design:
- As a factor in student outcomes, the instructor may seek to improve mathematical intelligence and integrate instruction dedicated to teaching students how to calculate average and standard deviations, and how to read charts, tables, and graphs
- As a factor in assessment, the instructor may design a particular test or project in which students must demonstrate knowledge and skill in ways that are sharply aligned with both student learning outcomes and departmental standards of competence
- As a factor in instructional strategies, the instructor may consider the merits of organizing the course in a way that will allow students to “experience the material” in different ways and/or from different perspectives
Table 1 illustrates five different ways of getting students to describe the origins and causes of the Cold War. The exercises address the student learning outcome posted in a syllabus for Cold War History, “Describe the origins/causes of the Cold War.” Not all options for student articulation of learning are equal, however, and the instructor will have to make some decisions as the discussion following the table suggests.
Table 1: Activities for Describing the Cold War Origins and Causes, 1945-1949, based on Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence
Create a table that illustrates the expenditure of the USSR and USA relative to defeating the Axis powers, rebuilding after WWII, maintaining an atomic arsenal, and that documents the number of lives lost and property destroyed during WWII
Compose a scholarly essay that develops a thesis about the key events and elements of international relations that led to the Cold War
Create a portfolio of interviews with people who remember the early years of the Cold War that documents their memories of how the Cold War got started
Create a storyboard or collage that illustrates the development of Cold War from 1945-1949 in pictures
Build a display that represents a chronological account of the origins of the Cold War from 1945-1949
The efficacy of activities will depend on at least three key variables:
- Will the activity produce results that are aligned with student learning outcomes? Does the activity specifically target a specific skill or understanding of particular knowledge that is central to the course, or does it strike more at the periphery of learning outcomes? A student, for example, may create a very attracticve collage but be unable to describe the signficance of the mages in the collage or use the images to explain the evolution of an event; if the purpose of the collage was to help the student recall and explain the evolution of an event, the criteria for assesssing student learning should regard such recall and understanding.
- What is the developmental level of students and which activities are appropriate for their level? The instructor of a freshman level, general education course of history course may see instructional needs very differently than the professor who is teaching a graduate seminar in post-WWII American diplomacy. While both undergraduate and graduate instructors may design activities aimed to improve student research skills, for example, the novice student may require more graphic depictions of research strategies and the advanced student may require more intensive exercises in content analysis in order to demonostrate real progress.
- Are there sufficient resources and time to engage students in various activities? Do students need access to certain technologies? Will the time it takes to complete activities have an adverse impact on the instructor’s capacity to address other student learning outcomes?
The legitimacy of diversifying teaching strategies is manifest in whether students achieve the desired outcomes as a result of the strategies. If the student learning outcome in a course on social work, for example, is that students will demonstrate their ability to effectively communicate with clients, the instructor may find that role-playing (a style that appeals to those who favor linguistic, kinesthetic, and interpersonal styles of learning) is very effective in assessing student competence, while writing an essay (linguistic style) reveals very little about the students communication skills.
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