Learning Style Preferences by Iranian students

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Introduction

Learning styles influence learning and that learning outcome is higher for students who are able to use multiple learning styles (Felder, 1995; Reid, 1987, Reid, 1998; Claxton and Murell, 1985; Mulalic, Mohd Shah and Ahmad, 2009). Learning styles and preferences vary for each of us and in different situations. Some learners, for instance, prefer to learn by reading textbooks, while others prefer a verbal explanation (Riazi and Riasati, 2007). In addition, people may differ in how they most effectively show their understanding; either orally or in writing and through graphs or figures. In other words, learners learn and show their understandings in various ways in different situations. Learning styles refer to the cognitive, emotional, and psychological behaviours which serve as relatively fixed and unchangeable indicators of how learners understand, interact with and reply to the learning environment (Keefe, 1982). Oxford (2003) asserted that learning styles are the general approaches that learners utilize in acquiring a new language or in learning any other subjects. These styles are the overall patterns that give learning behaviour a general direction (Cornett, 1983). By understanding one's learning style(s), one will be able to develop the skills that help one learns in a variety of ways to achieve full potential.

This understanding is also helpful for teachers and educators because it enables teachers and educators to match their teaching styles, methodologies, and course organization with learners' learning styles to help learners improve their learning (Willing, 1988).

Studies have shown that personality, life experiences, purpose for learning and teachers' expectations affect learners' learning styles with the later being the most dominant influence (Briggs-Myers, 1986; Kolb, 1984; Felder, 1996; Ballard and Clanchy 1997).

In Iran, however, learners' learning styles have been ignored and have been taken into account as an insignificant component in the learning process among Iranian EFL learners in general and freshman university students in particular. Very little study has been conducted to identify Iranian learners' learning styles that not only would help learners' learning but also help improve teachers' teaching. Matching these two aspects would lead to greater success. Nevertheless, Riazi and Riasati (2007) conducted a study on 219 Iranian learners of English in Shiraz to identify their learning styles. The study employed Brindley's (1984) language learning preference questionnaire. The participants were from different levels of instruction and different ages. The findings show that the students favoured the communicative approach carried out in pair or group work and felt that it helped improve their English language skills. They also preferred taking part in classroom discussion and interaction in learning English.

Although this study found that learners preferred a communicative approach, learners at higher institutions in Iran; particularly freshmen, are still observed to be passive learners of English. Perhaps they are unaware of their learning styles and perhaps the teaching styles at higher institutions do not match learners' learning styles. Thus, the study presented in this paper was an attempt to determine Iranian EFL freshman university students' learning style(s) to help them understand how they learn and thus increase their potentials. This study also aimed to discover whether there was a difference between male and female freshman university students' learning style(s). However, this present study employed the four types of learning style preferences developed by Willing (1988) to investigate Iranian EFL freshman university students' types of learning style(s).

Learning Styles and Types of Learners

Most research studies on learning style preferences trace back to the past thirty years. Dunn (1993) asserted that lecturers cannot identify student's learning styles without utilizing a multidimensional instrument. Without evaluation, even experienced instructors may misinterpret learners' behaviours such as hyperactivity or inattentiveness (Mulalic, Mohd Shah and Ahmad, 2009).

Reid (1987) investigated 1300 ESL students from three different cultures; namely the Japanese, Malay, and Korean. The study found that a large number of these students strongly preferred tactile and kinaesthetic learning styles. The study also found that the inherent differences in cultural or language backgrounds and disciplines (engineering and computer science) often play an important role in identifying types of cognitive styles.

Meanwhile, Willing (1988) investigated a group of five hundred and seventeen learners from more than thirty ethnic groups to study whether there is a relationship between learning style preferences and biographical variables. However, only five ethnic groups were large enough for statistical analysis (Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, South Americans, and Polish/Czech speakers). The learning style questionnaire included thirty learning style items, fifteen learning strategy items, and a several items on individual biographical aspects. The results indicated that there were cultural differences with regard to the learners' learning style preferences. For instance, although the means of the item 'I like to study grammar' was lower than expected, all learners from the different cultures responded that they liked studying grammar. The Arabic learners preferred grammar where 65% of them ranked this item as the "best" (Willing 1988). Meanwhile, the findings indicated that authority-oriented and analytical learning styles were highly valued by the Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, South American, and Polish students. The mostly preferred items were 'practicing sounds and pronunciation in English' and 'everything explained by their teacher', and the least preferred ways of learning were 'playing games' and 'watching films'(Willing 1988, p. 130). Willing (1988) further identified four types of learners: concrete, analytical, communicative, and authority-oriented learners. Nunan (1999) briefly summarized the definition of these four types of learners: 1) Concrete learners are those who employ very direct means of taking in and processing information; 2) Analytical learners are those whose cognitive strengths lead them not only to analyze carefully and demonstrate great interest in structures but to put a great deal of value on revealing their independence by performing these things themselves, autonomously. In other words, they prefer to study grammar (from specific to general), studying English books and reading newspapers, studying individually, finding their own mistakes, and working on task problems assigned by their teachers; 3) Authority-oriented learners are those who are probably not predisposed to actively organize information; they would like their teacher to explain everything to them, tend to have their own textbooks, to write everything in a notebook, to study grammatical rules, learn by reading, and learn new words by looking at them; and 4) Communicative learners are those who have a desire for a communicative and social learning approach, probably because they feel that this would be most helpful to their needs in relation to language learning. In other words, they like to learn by watching, listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English and watching television in English, using English out of class, learning new words by hearing them, and learning by conversations (Willing, 1988; Nunan, 1999, p. 57).

The Study

Participants

A group of 92 (37 males and 55 females) Iranian EFL freshman university students majoring in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course at the Faculty of Foreign Languages in a university in south of Esfahan were randomly selected from nine classes to take part in this study. As freshmen, their average age was 18 years old. They learn English language for academic purposes. Freshman university students were selected as participants of this study because they were at the beginning level of tertiary education. Knowledge of their learning style(s) would be useful in identifying and acquiring learning skills which would enhance their learning. Thus, increase their performance in learning English.

Instrument

The instrument utilized in this study was the Learning Style Preferences Questionnaire adapted from Willing (1988). The four-point Likert scale questionnaire consisted of 45 items on "How do you learn best"; ranged from 1: Strongly Disagree to 4: Strongly Agree. It was piloted prior to the actual data collection and the reliability Cronbach's Alpha was 0.844. The questionnaire consisted of four categories (Communicative, Concrete, Authority-Oriented, and Analytical learners). A list of twenty four items out of forty five items related to these four types were chosen and modified based on the Iranian EFL freshman university students' learning. Items one to six represented learners who liked to learn through watching and or listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English and watching television in English, and learn through conversations (Communicative Learners). Items seven to twelve represented learners who liked to learn through games, films, cassettes, talking in pairs, and using English outside of the classroom (Concrete Learners). Items thirteen to eighteen represented learners who preferred their teachers to explain everything to them, have their own textbooks, study grammar, learn by reading, and learn new words by seeing the words (Authority-Oriented Learners). Items nineteen to twenty four represented learners who liked studying the rules of grammar, studying English books, reading newspapers, studying by themselves, finding their own mistakes, and working on problems set by the teacher (Analytical Learners).

Findings and Discussions

Descriptive analysis of the Learning Style Preferences (37 Males, 55 Females)

In order to discover the types of learning style preferences of the students, the descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) of the four types of learning style preferences (communicative, concrete, authority-oriented, and analytical) were computed (see Table 1). The one which indicated the highest mean value was considered to be the students' preferred learning style.

Table 1 shows the mean and standard deviations of the four distinct categories. Responses to the statements of type one (communicative) had the highest mean value of 3.24 and a standard deviation of 0.35, while the responses to analytical type of learning styles had the lowest mean score of 3.02 and a standard deviation of 0.38 for both males and females. It is implied that the majority of Iranian EFL freshman university students in this sample considered themselves communicative types of learning styles. This is consistent with the results of

Ho's (Undated) study on two groups of university year one and four groups of year two Computer Studies students across five academic years. The study indicated that most students were communicative learners; contradictory to the results of Liu's (2008) study on students in Taipei. Liu reported that responses to the statements of authority-oriented type of learning styles were the highest with the mean score of 11.52 and a standard deviation of 3.13 and communicative type of learning styles had the lowest mean score (M=8.87 and a standard deviation of 3.55).

Table 1 Mean and Standard Deviation of Learning Styles (by Category)

Learning Styles

Mean

SD

N

Communicative

3.24

0.358

92

Concrete

3.07

0.381

92

Authority-Oriented

3.10

0.353

92

Analytical

3.02

0.381

92

N= Number of respondents; SD= Std. Deviation

In addition to the mean scores for the four types of learning styles in general, Table 2, 3, 4, and 5 show the mean and standard deviations of the students' use of learning styles by category and items: communicative, concrete, authority-oriented, and analytical learning styles.

Table 2 Mean and Standard Deviations of the Students' Communicative Learning Style Items

Learning Styles

Mean

SD

1

Communicative Learning Style

I like to learn by watching, listening to native speakers of English.

3.24

3.32

0.35

0.755

2

I like to learn by talking to friends in English.

3.24

0.732

3

If I have choice, I would like to learn English by watching TV in English outside of the classroom.

3.17

0.735

4

I like to learn by speaking in English with foreigners when there is a chance.

3.27

0.757

5

I like to learn English words by hearing the words.

3.25

0.673

6

In English class, I like to learn through the use of conversations.

3.22

0.739

Table 2 demonstrates that the overall mean value of communicative learning style was 3.24 with a standard deviation of 0.35. The highest mean value of 3.32 with a standard deviation 0.75 was noted for the item "I like to learn by watching, listening to native speakers of English." Meanwhile, the item "If I have choice, I would like to learn English by watching TV in English outside of the classroom." scored the lowest average mean with the value of 3.17 and a standard deviation of 0.73. It is inferred that the Iranian EFL freshman university students have strong desire to learn by watching and listening to native speakers of English in classrooms. In other words, they tend to watch videos and listen to tapes in classrooms. They like to communicate with one another. This is in agreement with the results of Riazi and Riasati's (2007) study.

Table 3 Mean and Standard Deviations of the Students' Concrete Learning Style Items

Learning Styles

Mean

SD

7

Concrete Learning Style

In English class, I like to learn through game.

3.07

3.27

0.37

0.757

8

In English class, I like to learn by using pictures, films, and videos.

3.29

0.749

9

I like to study English by talking with another classmate

3.23

0.743

10

I like to learn by using cassettes at home.

2.65

0.733

11

In English class, I like to listen to and use cassettes.

2.80

0.829

12

Outside of the classroom, I like to use English.

3.17

0.735

With regard to concrete learning styles, Table 3 demonstrates the overall mean value of 3.07 and a standard deviation of 0.37. The results related to concrete learning style dimension indicate that the item "In English class, I like to learn by using pictures, films, and videos." scored the highest average mean with the mean value of 3.29 and a standard deviation of 0.74; while the lowest mean value of 2.65 with standard deviation of 0.73 was noted for the item "I like to learn by using cassettes at home". It is concluded that these learners like to learn by examples in classrooms. The common characteristic of concrete learners according to willing (1988) is the development of inadequacy or an inferiority complex. They disfavour learning monotonously and written work. They like variety. They prefer verbal and visual experiences. They have strong desire to be entertained by using games, and tend to be involved in learning physically.

Table 4 Mean and Standard Deviations of the Students' Authority-Oriented Learning Style Items

Learning Styles

Mean

SD

13

Authority-Oriented Learning Style

I like the teacher to explain everything to me.

3.10

3.32

0.35

0.755

14

I want to write everything in my notebook.

2.91

0.751

15

I like to have my own textbook.

3.27

0.757

16

In English class, I like to learn by reading.

3.17

0.720

17

I like to study grammar from specific to general.

3.23

0.728

18

I like to learn English words by seeing them.

2.70

0.795

Regarding the third type of learning styles (authority-oriented), Table 4 indicates that the overall mean value was 3.10 and a standard deviation of 0.35. Therefore, the item "I like the teacher to explain everything to me" scored the highest mean value of 3.32 and a standard deviation of 0.75. While the lowest mean value of 2.70 and a standard deviation of 0.79 were noted for the item "I like to learn English words by seeing them". It is inferred that authority-oriented learners tend to be taught clearly. They have desire to learn from their teachers. They look for structures and step by step progression. In general, they consider their teachers as authority in the class. According to Willing (1988) they like to follow some patterns.

Table 5 Mean and Standard Deviations of the Students' Analytical Learning Style Items

Learning Styles

Mean

SD

19

Analytical Learning Style

I like to study grammar from general to specific.

3.02

2.68

0.38

0.838

20

At home, I like to learn by studying English books.

3.24

0.732

21

I like to study English by myself.

3.32

0.755

22

I like the teacher to let me find my mistakes.

3.25

0.750

23

I like the teacher to give me exercises to work on.

3.15

0.725

24

At home, I like to learn by reading English newspaper.

2.49

0.791

Finally, for analytical learning styles Table 5 reveals that the overall mean value was 3.02 with a standard deviation of 0.38. Based on the results, the item "I like to study English by myself" scored as highest mean value of 3.32 and a standard deviation of 0.75 whereas the lowest mean value of 2.49 with a standard deviation of 0.79 was noted for the item "At home, I like to learn by reading English newspaper". This means that analytical types of learners are independent and tend to find solutions for their problems while learning. Analytical learners' cognitive strengths guide them not only to analyze carefully and reveal great interest in structures, but also to put a large amount of value on showing their independence by doing these things themselves, autonomously (Willing, 1988). In general, it can be inferred from the findings aforementioned types of learning styles that the mass media such as television, video, tape recorders are the most powerful devices for learning foreign languages in Iran since English is learned and spoken only in academic classes and for academic purposes. According to Celec-Murcia (2001), such media motivate learners by bringing the real life situation into the classroom and presenting language in its more complete communicative context.

Descriptive Analysis of the Learning Style Preferences by Gender

In order to discover whether there was a difference between males and females in applying learning style preferences, the Independent-sample T-test was conducted. Table 6 demonstrates that there was no statistically significant difference in the mean scores for male and female students in communicative (M= 3.27, SD= 0.35; M=3.22, SD=0.36, t(90)=0.66, p= 0.51); concrete (M=3.10, SD=0.36; M=3.05, SD=0.39, t(90)=0.67, p=0.49), authority-oriented (M=3.09, SD=0.37; M=3.11, SD=0.34, t(90)= -0.21, p=0.83), and analytical learning styles (M=3.09, SD=0.38, M=2.98, SD=0.37, t(90)=1.32, p=0.18). In other words, males and females apply learning styles in a similar way. This is in agreement with the results of Yik, Hidayu, Bariyyah and Asyimah's (Undated) study (http://apps.emoe.gov.my/ipba/rdipba/cd1/article152.pdf accessed 26 March 2010).

Table 6 T-test for gender differences in learning style Preferences

LS

G

N

Mean

SD

t

p

Com

M

F

37

55

3.27

3.22

0.35

0.36

0.66

0.51

Con

M

F

37

55

3.10

3.05

0.36

0.39

0.67

0.49

A-O

M

F

37

55

3.09

3.11

0.37

0.34

-0.21

0.83

Anal

M

F

37

55

3.09

2.98

0.38

0.37

1.32

0.18

Note: N=Number of Subjects; LS=Learning Styles; G=Gender; M=Male; F=Female;

Com=Communicative; Con=Concrete; A-O=Authority-Oriented; Anal=Analytical

In other words, all of the values of significance values were above the value of significance value of p<0.05. According to Cohen (1988), the magnitudes of the differences in the means were slightly small. Cohen believes that 0.01 indicates small effect, 0.06 shows moderate effect, and 0.14 shows large effect. Therefore the eta square for these four types of learning styles are as follows: communicative (eta square= 0.004), concrete (eta square= 0.005), authority-oriented (eta squared=0.000), and analytical learning style (eta square= 0.018) which are very small.

Implications

Regarding the results of this study, some implications are discussed with the perspective of text book designs, learning and teaching English as a foreign language in Iran. As it has been identified that many of the freshman university students are communicative type of learners, there should be a reasonably safe indicator for the general direction to consider in designing text books for Iranian EFL freshman university learners. Many research studies such as Smith (1985), Claxon and Murrell (1987), Willing (1988), and Riazi and Riasati (2007) claim that learning methods that match with learning style preferences lead to academic achievements, more communicative tasks need to be included in the course as most learners in this sample prefer to learn in a communicative way. Willing (1988) suggested the learning methods preferred by communicative learners as: 1) Learning by watching and listening to native speakers of the target language. 2) Learning by speaking in English with foreigners when there is a chance. 3) Learning by talking to friends in English. 4) Learning by conversations. 5) Learning by watching TV in English. 6) Learning English by hearing the words. Therefore, the textbook designers may need to take into account the aforementioned methods recommended by Willing (1988) while designing communicative text books for classes. They can also consider group discussions and teacher-students meetings as students prefer to talk with peers and teachers (Riazi and Riasati, 2007).

In the light of learning, effective tools to help students listen to native speakers of the target language is to use films and video programs in classes. In this case, students get familiar with the other contexts, situations, and cultures. Supplementary materials such as short stories should be utilized in classes (Riazi and Mansoorian, 2008). Generally, students need to be involved in interactive skills. In order to contribute students to be aware of their own learning styles and strengths, inventories of learning style and other processes can be utilized (Claxton and Murrell, 1987, p vi). In addition, lecturers should help learners understand more about their own preferences for learning. There are some promising strategies employed by lecturers to contribute their learners to understand more about their preferences for learning and suggest ways to deal with more effectively in courses taught in ways inconsistent with their styles. This can also help learners take increasing charge of their own learning and to be more active in the process (Claxton and Murrell 1987, p. iv).

In terms of teaching, by collecting some information on learners' learning styles can help lecturers identify learners who learn comfortably via the types of tasks designed for the course. For instance, this study recommends that lecturers should do their best to persuade freshman university learners to work in groups and teach them how to communicate (converse) with one another in English. Lecturers should introduce types of learning styles to students in order to get familiar with their way of learning a foreign language in general and learning English in particular. In general, students should be encouraged to find out their own types of learning style preferences in order to facilitate their learning.

Conclusions

The purpose of the current study was to identify Iranian EFL freshman university students' types of learning style preferences and their implications on the teaching and learning process as well as the designs of the text books. This study also aimed to discover whether or not there was a significant difference between male and female freshman university students applying learning style preferences. The dominant learning style preferences of Iranian EFL freshman university students revealed that the majority of the Iranian EFL freshman university students considered themselves as communicative learners. They tend to learn English as a foreign language by listening to native speakers of English probably because they feel that this would be most useful for their needs in relation to English language learning. This can help them in improving their pronunciation and accent. The receptive skills such as speaking and listening are appealing to the learners of this sample. They have desire to use conversations in the classrooms and communicate in English. It is also concluded that Iranian male and female students have no different preferable learning styles as the findings of this study demonstrated that there was no statistically significant difference between them with regard to their learning style preferences while learning English as a foreign language. More importantly, this research study suggests identifying the learners' types of learning styles to contribute their lecturers to adjust in the proportion of task types in text books to make learning easier for students.

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