Learning styles are a person's natural, habitual and preferred ways of absorbing, processing and retaining new information and skills. It has been hypothesized that, in a language classroom, a match between the students' preferred learning styles and their teacher's teaching style will lead to success in language learning whereas a mismatch will lead to adverse effects such as failure and demotivation on the students' part. This study examined the learning style preferences of 252 Low English Proficiency (LEP) students at a local tertiary institution. It also examined the role of gender in determining the preferred learning styles of this particular group of students. Reid's (1987) Perceptual Learning Style Preferences Questionnaires (PLSPQ), a reliable 30-item self report inventory with a Likert-style response format, was used in this study to identify the students' preferred learning styles (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Tactile, Group and/or Individual). Descriptive statistics and an independent t-test were used to analyse the data. Results indicated that all six styles were negative learning styles and that gender did not seem to influence students' learning style preferences. The study concluded with the recommendation that, when dealing with LEP students, every effort must be made to boost the students' confidence and motivation in learning the language.
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It has been observed that many students are not able to become proficient in English language regardless of the number of hours of instruction that they have received. Worst, not only are they not able to become proficient in the language, they also become demotivated to learn the language and exhibit negative behaviours such as not paying attention in class or skipping English classes. Many studies have been conducted to discover the various factors which contribute to second language (L2) learners' success and also failure in learning English language. Of particular interest out of all these studies is the concept of individual learner differences which includes, among many possible variables, the language learning styles of the students.
Learning theorists generally agree that curriculum and instructional strategies should be adapted to acommodate students' individual differences (Burrows-Horton & Oakland, 1997). If serious mismatches occur between the learning styles of the students and the teaching styles of the instructors, unfortunate consequences such as students getting bored and becoming inattentive in the classroom, students performing rather poorly on tests, and students becoming discouraged about the course will result (Felder & Silverman, 1988; Godleski, 1984; Oxford, Erhman & Lavine, 1991).
In terms of learning English, a number of researchers propose that a mismatch between students' preferred learning styles and instructors' preferred teaching styles have bad effects on students' learning and attitudes to the class and to English in general (Reid, 1987; Cortazzi, 1990; Oxford, Hollaway & Horton-Murillo, 1992; Felder & Henriques, 1995; Stebbins, 1995; Jones, 1997). A match between the students' preferred learning styles and the instructors' preferred teaching styles, on the other hand, would lead to increase motivation and learning as evident in studies by Griggs and Dunn (1984), Smith & Renzulli (1984) and Wallace and Oxford (1992).
The term "learning style" has been defined in various ways. This is because, different researchers have their own understanding of what constitutes learning styles (Zou, 2006). Oxford, Hollaway and Murillo (1992), for example, define learning styles as the general approaches (as opposed to specific strategies) that the students resort to in learning a new subject. Honigsfeld and Dunn (2006) define it as a biological and developmental set of personal characteristics that make the same instruction effective for some learners and ineffective for the others. Peaock (2001) defines it as students' preferred mode of learning. And Reid (1995), meanwhile, defines language learning style as the natural, habitual and preferred way or ways of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills. For the purpose of this study, Reid's definition of learning style and her classification of learning style into six types: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile, Group, and Individual -- will be used as they are the most widely accepted and used definition and categorization of learning style (Peacock, 2001). In fact, Peacock acknowledges that Reid's work has aroused a great deal of interest in learning style since it was published in 1987.
Knowing the students' learning styles is important and beneficial to the teachers as it will allow them to tailor they way of teaching so as to accommodate the learning style preferences of their students (Hinton, 1992). Oxford (2003) regards learning styles and strategies as being among the main factors that help determine how and how well the students learn a second or foreign language.
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In her 1987 study, Reid reports that Chinese university students studying in the United States of America (USA) favour Kinesthetic and Tactile learning styles while disfavouring Group style. Melton (1990) found that Chinese university students in People Republic of China favour Kinesthetic, Tactile and Individual styles, and disfavour Group style. Jones (1997) finds that Chinese university students in Taiwan favour Kinesthetic and Tactile styles and disfavour Individual styles. The Chinese university students in Singapore, meanwhile, favour Kinesthetic and Tactile styles, and do not disfavour any style.
With regards to the Malay students, Reid (1987) reports that the Malay students studying in universities in the USA indicate Kinesthetic and Tactile learning styles as their major learning style preferences. The Malay students in her study also indicate that the remaining four learning styles are minor learning styles to them. In terms of Malay students in a Malaysian tertiary institution, Sharifah Azizah and Wan Zalina (1995) discover that the Malay students favour Individual learning style and have five negative learning styles preferences. A later study by Syaharom (1999) reveals different findings in which the Malay students apparently favour Group learning style and have three negative learning style preferences.
As for secondary school students in Malaysia, Hariharan and Ismail (2003) find that the form four students in Kedah do not have any major learning style, have two minor learning styles (Kinesthetic and Group), and have four negative learning styles. Their study also finds evidence that gender difference seems to influence the learning style preferences of the students. No studies regarding Malaysian primary school students' learning style preferences have been found so far.
Peacock (2001) proposes that more reseach concerning learning style preferences should be conducted as the findings can be used for the betterment of teaching methodology, the development of course syllabus and materials, learner training, and teachers' professional development. He also proposes that investigations concerning the links between styles and proficiency be carried out.
Peacock (2001)'s recommendation is also echoed by Thomas, Cox and Kojima (2000) who suggest that further research be carried out to investigate the relationship between learning style and performance so that the link between the two is made clearer. Apart from that, studies also should be carried out to see whether gender has any influence on students' preferred learning styles.
Based on the recommendations made by the researchers, the current study thus attempts to fill in the gap by investigating the learning style preferences of Low English Proficiency (LEP) students and whether gender has any influence on students' learning style preferences.
Specifically, the study sought answers to the following questions:
What are the learning style preferences of the LEP students?
Do learning style preferences differ according to gender?
Two hundred and fifty two students who received the two lowest band of the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) examination took part in the study. The MUET Handbook by Malaysian Examinations Council (1999) describes Band 1 students as extremely limited user and Band 2 students as limited user of the language. The handbook describes the students as having poor command and poor understanding of the language and as hardly able to function in the language. Out of the maximum 300 possible aggregate score, these students tend to score within the range of zero mark to 139 marks. The students came from various degree programmes. The majority of the students were Malays. 44 were male (17.5%) and the rest were female students (82.5%).
The instrument used in this study was Reid's (1987) Perceptual Learning Style Preferences Questionnaire (PLSPQ), a 30-item self-reporting questionnaire which sought to idenfity students' preferred learning styles as to whether they are Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile, Group and/or Individual learners. PLSPQ also sought to identify students' major (the most preferred way of learning), minor (the second most preferred way of learning) and negative (the least preferred way of learning) learning style. The validation of the questionnaire was done by the split half method. Correlation analysis of an original set of 60 statements which has 10 statements for each learning style determined which five statements should remain to identify the respondents' learning style.
PLSPQ was chosen because the findings generated through the use of this particular instrument made sense to language teachers as they were very practical in nature (Zou, 2006) and because it had been used in many learning styles' studies (Peacock, 2001). In terms of the reliability of the instrument, a study by Selime (2003) reported a Cronbach Alpha of .82 for the questionnaire.
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In order to ensure that the respondents would not face any difficulty understanding the items in the questionnaire, a Bahasa Melayu translation for each of the statement was incorporated into the questionnaire. The translation was taken from Hariharan and Ismail's (2003) study in which they used PLSPQ to investigate the learning style preferences of Kedah secondary school students.
A pilot test was conducted to 30 MUET Band 1 and 2 students prior to the actual administration of the instument to the respondents. Students were asked to rate each of the statement as it applies to their study of English language using a 5-point scale: strongly disagree (1), disagree (2), undecided (3), agree (4), and strongly agree (5).
The pilot test was carried out to ensure the comprehensibility of the questionnaire; to examine the reliability of the questionnaire and to check the amount of time required by the respondents to complete the questionnaire. The purpose of the study and the pilot test were made known to the students. It was noted that it took approximately 20 minutes for the students to complete the questionnaire. The students also reported that they did not face any problem in understanding the items in the questionnaire. The Cronbach Alpha of the PLSPQ for the pilot study was 0.774.
For the actual study, the 252 respondents were gathered in one of the lecture halls during lunch hour with the permission of the course coordinator. A brief explanation was given to the participants regarding the procedures and they were assured that their participation in the study was strictly confidential. The students were encouraged to ask for clarification if they faced any difficulty in understanding the instructions, items and statements in the questionnaire. They were also informed that they did not have to participate in the study if they did not wish to do so. Once the participants indicated that they understood what they were required to do, the questionnaires were distributed and the students were given time to read and respond to the items in the questionnaire. Once they had completed the questionnaires, the questionnaires were returned to the researcher. Only the researcher was present with the respondents in the lecture hall.
Results and discussion
The data collected was analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) version 12.0. In the actual study in which 252 students were involved, the Cronbach Alpha for the PLSPQ was 0.774. Even though the value was lower compared to the value reported for the pilot study (r = 0.852), it is still acceptable. According to Nunally (cited in Cavana, Delahaye & Sekaran, 2001), an alpha coefficient of 0.6 and above is still acceptable. In other words, the PLSPQ is still a reliable instrument.
To identify the students' learning style preferences, the mean score was computed and each learning style was assigned as major, minor or negative learning style as suggested and used by Reid (1987) and Peacock (2001). A mean score of 13.5 and above indicates that the learning style is a major learning style for the students. A mean score of 11.5 to 13.49 indicates that the learning style is a minor learning style for the students. And a mean of 11.49 or less indicates that the learning style is a negative learning style for the students. The results are shown in Table 1 and Table 2.
Table 1: Learning style preference mean scores and Standard Deviation
Means 13.5 and above = major learning style preference
Means 11.5 - 13.49 = minor learning style preference
Means 11.49 or less = negative learning style preference
Table 2: Learning style mean and type
As a whole, the mean scores show that the students do not have any major or even minor learning style preference. All of the learning styles are negative learning style preferences with individual learning style considered as the least preferred style (among all the negative learning style preferences).
The findings of this study differ from the findings concerning Malay respondents reported in Reid's (1987) study (n = 113). Her findings show that the Malay respondents indicate that Kinesthetic and Tactile as their major learning style and that the remaining four as their minor learning styles. None of the learning style is indicated as negative learning style. Reid's findings concerning the Malay students' learning style preferences seem to suggest that the respondents will not have much difficulty in learning English language because since all the learning styles are favourable to them, they will be able to accommodate the teacher's teaching style without much difficulty unlike the present study's respondents who indicate that all learning styles are negative learning styles to them.
The difference in terms of the result could be attributed to the fact that the Malay students in Reid's (1987) study are ESL students who are studying in universities in the United States. Her repondents are in an environment where English is being used extensively and that their understanding and mastery of the language is crucial for their studies as well as for their day to day use. And since achieving a certain level of English as indicated by TOEFL score is a requirement for entering universities in the United States, it can be deduced that the Malay respondents in Reid's study are students who are already very proficient in the language. Such students tend to have a favourable attitude towards English language and the native speaker culture (Brown, 2000). Conversely, students who are not proficient in the language tend to have unfavourable attitude towards English language and the native speaker culture.
In terms of the respondents not rating any of the learning style as their major learning style, the findings of this study concur with Hariharan and Ismail's (2003) findings in which there are no major learning style preferences among the form four Malay students in Kedah secondary schools. Their respondents, however, selected Kinesthetic and Group learning style as their minor learning style preferences unlike the respondents of this particular research who do not indicate any of the learning style as their minor learning style. The Malay respondents in their study also regarded the four remaining learning styles as negative learning styles which are similar with the outcome of this study.
A rather worrying hypothetical deduction can be made from the findings of Hariharan and Ismail's (2003) study and the present study. Assuming that no positive or successful intervention is carried out, the students in a secondary school who already indicated that they have four negative learning styles may graduate to having six negative learning styles by the time they enter a tertiary institution.
Since learning style preference is considered as one of the main factors that help determine how and how well a student learns a second or foreign language (Oxford, 2003) and a match between students' preferred learning style and their teacher's teaching style would lead to understanding and learning on the students' part (Reid, 1987), it is somewhat discomforting to discover that among LEP students, all learning styles are considered as negative learning styles, as that suggests that no matter what the teacher does in the classroom, or no matter what teaching style the teacher employs in teaching the LEP students, the students would not be able to learn as effectively as they should. This is because since all the learning styles are rated as negative learning styles, it could be postulated that no ideal match can ever occur between the teacher's teaching style and the students' learning style.
According to Fauziah and Nita (2002), some of the factors which contribute to low English proficiency among Malaysian students are negative attitude towards English language and the lack of confidence and motivation to learn the language.
Brown (2000) points out that attitudes are cognitive and affective, and that attitudes are related to thoughts as well as to feelings and emotions. Attitudes govern how one approaches learning. Because attitude can be modified by experience (Selma & Ashton, 2006), perhaps, teachers of LEP students should focus on motivating the students to enjoy learning the language and to focus on creating a positive experience in learning the language to the students. After the students have become more positive, confident and motivated to learn the language, then only, effective interventions related to learning style such as the ones suggested by Thomas et al. (2000), Rochford (2003) and Honigsfeld and Dunn (2006) in their respective studies could be implemented to ensure continuous success in terms of learning the language on the part of the students.
Next, to determine whether there is any significant difference between the learning style preferences of male and female students, a t-test for independent samples was used. The samples are referred to as independent samples because members of one sample (male) are not related to members of another sample (female) in any sytematic way other than they were selected from the same population (Ary, Jacobs, Razavieh & Sorensen, 2006). Table 3 shows the result of the t-test.
Table 3: t-test result on gender
P < 0.5
As can be seen from the table, the female students obtain a higher mean for Visual and Auditory learning styles compared to the male students. Hence, it is clear that the female students are more Visual and Auditory than the male students.
The male students, on the other hand, obtain a higher mean for Kinesthetic, Tactile, Group and Individual learning styles compared to the female students. This shows that the male students are more Kinesthetic, Tactile, Group and Individual than the female students.
The t-test further shows that the difference of means is not significant; for example, t(250) = -1.287, p > 0.5 for the Visual learning style. This can be interpreted to mean that students' gender does not seem to influence the students' choice of learning styles.
The findings concur with the findings of the study carried out by Thomas, Cox and Kojima (2000). In their study, they find that there is no significant difference between learning style preference and gender among the Japanese college students.
The findings of this particular study differ from the ones found in Reid (1987) and Hariharan and Ismail (2003) in which there is a significant difference in terms of gender and learning style preference. Oxford (cited in Thomas, Cox & Kojima, 2000) also suggests that women are more likely to be less tactile, less kinesthetic and more auditory than men.
There are several plausible explanations as to why there is no significant difference between male and female respondents for this study. Firstly, the number of male respondents for this study is very small (n = 44). Secondly, perhaps, due to the students belonging in the same category of students (LEP), regardless of gender, they all share the same negative preference for all the learning styles.
A significant finding from Hariharan and Ismail's (2003) study is that the lower the achievement of a student, the more number of negative learning style preference the students tend to have. Since the respondents of this study are all LEP students, perhaps, it should not come as a surprise that all of the respondents, regardless of gender, indicated that all learning styles as negative learning styles to them. An almost similar observation was made by Honigsfeld and Dunn (2006) in which they state that high achieving college students tend to have significantly different learning styles from low-achieving college students.
Another possible reason as to why there is no significant difference between learning style and gender of the respondents for this study is perhaps due to the students' similar background. Among them are: almost all of them are Malay students who have undergone 11 years of instruction in Malaysian schools; they learn English as a Second Language; and they are in an environment in which almost all day to day activities can be accomplished in their first language which is Malay language. They are also living in a country where the education system is very examination-oriented (Lewey, 1977, as cited in Fauziah & Nita, 2002). In other words, the students are living in an exam-oriented culture in which studying and learning something is done for the sake of scoring in examination. Fauziah and Nita (2002), in fact, noted that Malaysian classroom teachers tend to conduct examination-oriented lessons. Due to all these similarities in experience, perhaps, it can be deduced that all the LEP students regardless of whether they are male or female have been subjected to the same kind of instruction at school, and may have even experienced the same trial and tribulation in learning the language, which help to shape their present feelings about learning the language; and which is then translated into negative learning style preference for all six types of learning styles.
Finally, the reason as to why there is no significant difference in terms of learning style preferences and the respondents' gender might be attributed to culture. According to Oxford, Holloway and Murillo (1992), culture plays a significant part in influencing learning styles which are unconsciously adopted by the participants of that culture. In other words, students from a Chinese culture might have different learning style preferences from students from a Malay or even Indian culture. However, due to the uniqueness of the findings of this study in which all learning styles are indicated as negative learning styles, it is felt that the definition of "culture" can be expanded from its traditional use of signaling ethnicity to also incorporating subcultures such as the students' own classroom culture, the teaching and learning culture which the students are subjected to, and even the students as LEP students' culture. In short, due to the fact that both the male and female students belong to the same "LEP students" culture, they both share similar traits and preferences, and that is the reason as to why there is no significant difference between learning style preference and gender.
Some of the findings of this study such as the ones related to the first research question were not anticipated by the researcher. It seems that LEP students do not indicate any of the learning style as their major or, even, as their minor learning style. All six styles are indicated as negative learning styles. Learning style preferences of the LEP students also do not differ according to gender.
Research on learning styles has demonstrated the importance of becoming aware of students' learning styles. This is so that the instructors can make a more informed decision on the kind of teaching approach to be used in delivering lessons to the students. A match between the instructors' teaching style and the students' learning style has been shown to improve students' learning and motivation whereas a mismatch tends to have a dire outcome. Because of this, it is very important for learning-institution administrators to organize courses on learning styles so that the instructors can be exposed to the concept of learning styles, learning style theories, instruments for assessing learning styles, and on how to adapt materials and teaching approaches to meet the learning style needs of the students. The instructors also should be made aware of how certain learning styles can help promote learning and how certain learning styles can hinder language learning on the part of the students.
Such courses must also emphasise that when it comes to dealing with LEP students, the instructors need to be aware of the students' background and motivational needs. This is because, due to their own unique experience in learning the language, some of the students may have grown to believe that they will never succeed in learning the language and therefore no longer feel the need or the inclination to put in any effort in learning the language. The instructors must be able to motivate the students to believe in themselves again and must be encouraging on on-going basis in order to cater to the learners' affective needs.
Apart from that, the instructors should also be be given trainings on how to make their lessons engaging to LEP students and on how to present the lessons in "bite-size" pieces so as not to overwhelm the LEP students. By doing so, the instructors would have a better chance at encouraging and motivating the learners to be more confident in their language learning journey.
Apart from the instructors, the students also must be given exposure to the concept of learning styles. They should be taught on how to assess their learning styles so that they know their major, minor and negative learning styles as the knowledge will help them to cope with their language learning better. At the very least, by knowing their learning style preference, the students will become aware that they can take responsibility for their own second language learning. Students should be taught to tolerate teaching styles which they may have not looked on favourably as the instructors also need to cater to the needs of their peers who might have different preferred learning styles.
In order to develop students' repertoire of learning styles, they must be guided to explore learning styles which they themselves have rated as minor or negative learning style. Doing so will help the students to experience the various learning styles, understand their friends' learning styles and, hopefully, develop their ability to accommodate as many learning styles possible so that they will be able to handle the various teaching styles of the instructors.
Language instructors, however, must remember that language learning is a complex process and other factors such as the students' own language learning aptitude, parental involvement, and the classroom dynamics may also influence the success of the students in learning a second language. As such, Gregorcs (1979a, as cited in Reid, 1987) cautions that learning style preferences of the learners cannot become the sole factor for designing instruction. In spite of these constraints, however, learning styles have their own merit and benefits if they are introduced in the classroom as they can, at least, make the students aware that they can take part in handling their destiny in language learning.
Future research projects to assess the learning style preferences of LEP students in other tertiary institutions could be carried out to see whether a generalization on LEP students' learning style preferences can be made. In addition, research projects involving primary school students could also be carried out due to the dearth of information regarding learning style preferences of primary school students. The translation of PLSPQ from English to Malay for all 30 statements could also be refined to elicit a more accurate response from the respondent. Finally, the relationship between learning style and learning strategies could also be an area of investigation as both are important in helping the students to take control of their own language learning.