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Relating learning styles to learning types

In attempting to present on this topic in a scholarly fashion, a careful analysis revealed that discussion could not ensue without relating the learning styles to the learning types, learning domains and learning theories, as these do not exist independently of each other. One ought not to speak about a learner’s style without relating it to the type of learner he is, what makes him learn and the need to be armed with this knowledge. It is with this in mind that the approach taken to this discussion, is of this nature where the operative terms -learning and learning styles- cannot be dealt with in isolation, but, should be defined and extrapolated.

The concept of “learning style” is actually the result of psychologists’ studies of how students use their intellectual abilities. They are the various approaches of learning and involve educating methods particular to an individual, that is presumed to allow that individual to learn best. Unlike abilities, styles are value neutral, meaning that all styles are adaptive under the right circumstances, (Snowman and Biehler, 2003). According to Snowman and Biehler, a learning style is “a constant preference over time and subject matter for perceiving, thinking about and organizing information in a particular way.” Ryan and Cooper (2001) state that learning style models focus on the process of learning, that is, how students absorb and think about information while other sources define it as:

The various preferences and methods employed by learners in the process of learning;

Personal qualities that influence a learner’s ability with peers and the teacher, and therefore, to participate in learning experiences;

The preferred ways by which people learn: common learning styles including visual, auditory and tactile (hands on): An individual’s preferred manner of processing material, or characteristic style of acquiring and using information and can be loosely grouped into physical and cognitive styles; and last:

Preferred ways in which individuals interact or process new information across the three domains of learning identified in the taxonomy of educational objectives: cognitive (knowledge), psychomotor (skills) and affective (attitude).

It is interesting to note that within the definitions, an association is made with the learning domains and also, that it has been mentioned that learning styles may be loosely grouped as has been done by Felder and Silverman’s Index of Learning Styles 2002, where he advocates that

Some of the learning styles posited are: Relativity and Impulsitivity, Field Dependent and Field Independent, Mental Self Government:(Snowman and Biehler 2003): Mastery Style Learner, The Understanding Style, The Self Expressive Style, The Interpersonal Style: (Ryan and Cooper 2001): Intuitive Style, Visual Style, Verbal Style, Active Style, Reflective Style, Sequential Style, Global Style, (Felder 2002).

Learning styles are also further classified into or described by dimensions or domains such as the visual learner, the auditory learner and the kinesthetic learner who meet the criteria of the cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains.

A loose grouping might see a combination of several styles such as that posited by Richard Felder and Linda Silverman in the late 1980’s and revised in 2002 by Felder where he combines the styles into four dimensions, as being: Sensory Intuitive; Visual Verbal; Active Reflective; and Sequential Global, all of the cognitive domain.

However, in order to discuss how a learning style might impact a learner an effort should be made to define each style.

A Visual Learner – is one who learns best by seeing. They like to use text books, maps charts diagrams and course outlines. They need to be able to visualize the material/subject they are trying to learn and prefers a teacher who uses a blackboard or projector rather than one who mainly talks. They look for visual representations of information and learn material well by writing notes which they might recopy and often have an ability to visualize pages of print. It is believed that most learners are visually oriented.

An Auditory Learner – is one who learns best through hearing and has a propensity for remembering sounds in his mind. They like to listen and prefer teachers who lecture and encourage discussion. They learn material well by either talking to themselves, repeating words and phrases and reading textbooks out loud, studying with a group/friend and talking through key points and participating in class activities where they do well. ( Mather and McCarthy 2003).

Kinesthetic Learners – learn by doing and performing. They are hands-on, or tactile learners possessing an affinity for remembering their actions. They like to be in action/movement while learning and are especially able to associate ideas and concepts with motion. While learning material, they may prefer to walk around. This student needs frequent, short study breaks. They benefit largely from participating in classroom skits and role playing. It is suggested that they take notes and underline key points as they read. (Mather and McCarthy, 2003).

The Mastery Style Learner – absorbs information concretely; processes information sequentially in a step by step manner and judges the value of learning in terms of its clarity and practicality. (Mather & McCarthy, 2003).

The Understanding Style Learner – focuses more on ideas and abstractions; learns through a process of questioning, reasoning and testing and evaluates learning by standards of logic and the use of evidence.

The Self Expressive Type Learner – looks for images implied in learning; uses feelings and emotions to construct new ideas and products and judges the learning process according to its originality, aesthetics and capacity to surprise or delight.

The Interpersonal Style Learner – like the Mastery learner, focuses on concrete, palpable information. He prefers to learn socially and judges learning in terms of its potential use in helping others.

Reflectivity-Impulsivity Learning – is one of the first learning style dimensions investigated. Jerome Kagan, during the early 1960’s found that some students appeared to be characteristically impulsive, whereas others seem characteristically reflective. Impulsive students are said to have a fast conceptual tempo. When faced with a task for which there is no ready solution or a question for which the answer is uncertain, the impulsive student responds more quickly. In problem solving situations, the impulsive student collects less information, does so less systematically, and gives less thought to various solutions than do reflective learners, who prefer to prefers spending more time collecting information (searching one’s memory and external sources) and analyzing its relevance to the solution, before offering a response.(Morgan,1997 in Snowman and Biehler, 2003).

Field Dependent-Field Independent Learning - was proposed by Herbert Witkin in 1977, and refers to the extent to which a learner’s perception and thinking about a particular piece of information are influenced by the surrounding context. He uses the example that the field dependent learner takes significantly longer to respond and identify one of a set of simple geometric figures within a set of complex ones, by outlining it with a pencil, whereas the field- independent are more successful in isolating the target information even though it is hidden in a complex field.

Mental Self Government Style – was proposed by Robert Sternberg, who advanced the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. This is modeled on the different functions and forms of civil government and consists of thirteen styles that fall into one of five categories; functions, forms, levels, scope and learning. Constituents are legislative, executive, and judicial functions; monarchic hierarchic, oligarchic, and anarchic forms; global and local levels; and liberal and conservative leanings, with most individuals having a preference for at least one style in each category.( Snowman & Biehler, 2003).

This investigation of learning styles begs us then, to ask the question, what is learning? And we can not speak of learning styles, without defining the term “learning”. However, before attempting to define the term, brief comments ought to be made about the importance of learning.

Learning is important to everyone. It is the single most important entity able to propel an individual or to drive a society forward. It is of utmost importance to today’s student; whether juvenile or adult when one considers “lifelong learning” having become an integral part of the landscape today. It is even more important to the instructor who has to be at least one step ahead of the learners he teaches.

Learning is defined as: The act, process or experience of gaining knowledge or skill (The Free Online Dictionary);

Knowledge/skill gained through study/scholarship (schooling) or instruction;

Behavioural modification especially through experience or conditioning, (American Heritage Dictionary);

Any relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a direct result of experience, (Collins English Dictionary).

Any action, which under the under the guidance of the teacher, brings about some relatively permanent change in the way the student acts, thinks or feels, (Venson, 2010).

An awareness of learning styles is of utmost importance to the teacher/instructor in today’s typical classroom. With our classes consisting of forty or more students who together display several styles, the teacher should be prepared to come armed with a variety of teaching and assessment methods so that each student gains from the instruction/instructive method employed. Learning styles are closely linked to the theories posited by several psychologists, who, though not totally all in agreement, share common ground in some facets of their theories, and all agree that learning exists in three basic domains which must all be addressed so that the learner learns effectively. It is agreed by most theorists that the learner uses all three modalities to receive and learn new experiences. Most of the theories posited address three domains: the cognitive, affective and the psychomotor, which though not having the same nomenclature, nonetheless consists the same principles.

The Cognitive, as proposed by Piaget addresses common elements

We can not seek to approach or plan instructions for learning types or styles without understanding how students learn. To do so we must associate views on learning with the theories that support the particular view on learning. Felder purports that every learner is both active and reflective, and also sensory and intuitive. He continues to say however, that the extent to which this preference occurs with the learner, will see probably see an exhibition of one quality more than the other being expressed from a severe intensity to mild. Albert Banduas principle of the observational (imitation/modeling) states that learning occurs hen a person observes and imitates (someone’s) behavior. Reg Evans’ Action Learning Theory which proposes action through a learning process contains elements of Bandura, coincides with Laird’s Sensory Stimulation Theory that learning occurs when the senses are stimulated; Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning of accommodating, diverging, converging and assimilating, as well as Piaget’s principles of accommodation an assimilation, all have serious implications for instruction in the classroom.

Within these principles lie one common thread: elements of all the domains: the cognitive, tactile/kinesthetic/psychomotor, and the affective. In order that the instructor might effectively plan for these learners, it must be taken into account that (sensory learners), visual, verbal, active and reflective students need both experiences that will allow them to learn and and opportunities to help them to analyze and evaluate. Instructions should be planned to help the to work in groups wit tasks to allow for summarizing situations and being given time to digest the information before trying to use it.

Consideration must be taken that sensory learners (including visual and verbal) like learning facts, solving problems, dislike complications and surprises, dislike being tested on materials not covered in class, are patient with details and good at memorizing facts, and good at doing hands on work (like labs, agriculture, food and nutrition, art and craft), dislike courses disconnected from real world situations and therefore instructions should cater for these peculiarities. However, in order to create a balance, consideration should be given too, to the fact that if inclined students are allowed to rely on their sense of sensing, the student might be encouraged to foster a preference for what is familiar and known instead of being encouraged to be innovative and adapt to new situations. If no opportunities are presented for the visual learner who concentrates on visual and graphical information he will be placed at a disadvantage, as verbal and written information is still the preferred choice of delivery. For verbal learners, consideration should be given to include sketches, diagrams flow charts, web casts, pod casts and other audio visuals.

Skinner’s Reinforcement theory is good for instruction as it supports and rewards positive behavior. As the nature of the learner is, always wanting to be appreciated, the consequence of doing well is rewarded with an incentive, and negative behavior is minimized.

The intuitive Style learner is at risk of missing important details which will lead to poor decision making and problem solving. This student should be catered to by being provided with tasks that requires him to be innovative, and to explore concepts.

Having carefully explored various learning styles, the theories associated with them and their correlation to instructional activities, one must be careful that an attempt to totally analyze them or to apply any one theory, will confuse even the best of instructors. And whereas, no authoritative source will ever provide the teacher with a fail-safe method of instruction, it would be wise to employ a combination of theoretical approaches to devise instructional approaches to suit the learners.

Applying a combination of strategies based on principles drawn from Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory as well as Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory and Piaget’s Cognitive Development, will reap successes in the classroom and beyond. Between them, the various abilities can be effectively targeted and addressed. No single instructional strategy will suit a particular type of learner, but, when teachers employ the Multiple Intelligences Theory it should help students to mentally represent ideas in multiple ways so they can be able to develop a better understanding of the topic being studied and to relate it to everyday life.

Multiple Intelligence Theories will sit well with present emphases being placed on performance assessments, as students can role play, dramatize, create . It can not be overemphasized that it would be fallacious to think that every lesson can target all the abilities, however as many lessons as possible ought to be designed to include at least three or four abilities.

Technological aid is successfully being employed to complement and enhance the principles engendered by various theorists and successes are being reaped as non traditional measn of assessments (non pen/paper based) are becoming more known.

Instructions and assessments should be designed to target memory, creative and analytical abilities and the various intelligences. In targeting memory, prompts such as

Who said Describe

Who did Summarize the content of

How did

for targeting analytical abilities, prompts such as:

Why do you think Explain what accounts for

Critique Explain why

For targeting creative abilities, prompts like:

Imagine Design

Suppose that What would happen if

For targeting practical abilities, prompts like:

Show how you can use Implement

Demonstrate

Teachers should design lessons to target and emphasize the different intelligences. Teachers should recognize that different styles of learning call for different methods of instruction and understand that it might not be possible to address all the various abilities and cognitive styles of all the students all the time. The teacher should choose from among the techniques and information at his disposal. To plan effective lessons to suit the diverse needs and interests of his students. He should know how to reach his students.

Teaching in or environment will never occur under ideal circumstances and facilities and materials might be insufficient, but drawing on established research findings, effective teaching can be made possible. What instructors must do in order to know their students and adequately plan for them, is to create a learner profile for each. Only armed wit this knowledge will she be able to adequately cater for the learners she teaches.

With a considerable amount of research being conducted in the field of learning, suggestions as to what factors impact learning among humans, how most effective learning occurs, as well as other learning issues have been posited by various theorists and psychologists like Felder and Silverman, Kolb, Gagne, Skinner, Ausubel, Bandura, Rogers, among others, who have proposed their views on the concept of learning and have posited several learning theories, learning styles, learning models and learning cycles. Sternberg’s Triarchic Intelligence Theory and Mental Self government Style, Piaget’s Cognitive, Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, all contribute to the broad knowledge base one should have in order to be an effective instructor. Especially today, with the term “lifelong learning” having become popular watchwords and the concept having been steeply entrenched into our educational landscape, with web based and onsite locations and learners of various ages, it is important to instructors to know how their students learn and to plan for them and also to know how they best learn.

But what is learning and why such an interest being generated about learning styles? This paper will seek to answer these questions, in as scholarly a fashion as possible.

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