Educators have, for many years, noticed that some students prefer certain methods of learning more than others. These traits, referred to as learning styles, form a student's unique learning preference and aid teachers in the planning of group and individualized instruction. If optimal student learning is dependent on learning styles, and these styles vary between students, then faculty should be aware of these differences and alter their preparation and instructional methods accordingly.
Knowledge of student learning preferences can aid faculty in class preparation, designing class delivery methods, choosing appropriate technologies, and developing sensitivity to differing student learning preferences within the educational environment.
In this study, the VAK learning styles inventory was administered to students who were English majors in a Saudi University. Descriptive statistics identified that participants do vary in their preference for particular learning styles with a great variety of learning style preferences distributed among the sample population.
A large number of the participants showed preference to Visual and Kinesthetic learning styles. The present study extended earlier works to a group of Saudi English Second Language learners. Implications for English Second Language teachers in Saudi Universities are that it is important to be aware of varied needs of learners from different majors and to respond flexibly by employing a broad range of teaching techniques to better reach students of different learning preferences.
Over the last twenty years, there has been growing interest in incorporating a focus on learning styles and learning-how-to-learn into language curricula. There is a general belief that such a focus helps students become more effective learners and facilitates the activation of a learner-centered philosophy (Nunan, 1988, 1995). It is also believed that learners who have developed skills in learning-how-to-learn will be better able to exploit classroom learning opportunities effectively, and will be more adequately equipped to continue with language learning outside of the classroom.
Learning styles have been the focus of considerable study (S. Montgomery, 1996; Mumford & Honey, 1996). They suggest that learning depends upon many personal factors. It is also suggested that everyone has a distinct learning style.
Learning styles have been variously described and defined. 'Styles' is the more general term, being "an individual's natural, habitual, and preferred way of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills." (Kinsella 1995, p. 171) These styles appear to be relatively stable and will be deployed by individuals regardless of the subject being studied or the skill being mastered. There are numerous ways of characterizing styles. Christison (2003) distinguishes between cognitive style (field dependent versus field independent, analytic versus global, reflective versus impulsive); sensory style (visual versus auditory versus tactile versus kinesthetic) and personality styles (tolerance of ambiguity, right brain versus left brain dominance).
Li and Qin (2006) looked at the relationship between learning styles and strategies in tertiary-level English learners in China. Utilizing both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods, including questionnaires and interview, the researchers were able to demonstrate that learning styles have a significant influence on learners' learning strategy choices. Styles may thus have an impact on learning outcomes. Based on their research, the investigators conclude that learner training and helping learners identify their strengths and weaknesses can have a positive impact on learning outcomes.
Teaching style and learning style are closely related. In fact, as Christison suggests, they can be seen as two sides of the one coin. Learners are more likely to 'stretch' their own learning style and develop greater flexibility as learners if teachers 'stretch' their own teaching style and develop greater flexibility as teachers. Stretching their style and increasing the range of teaching strategies they employ will help teachers cater to the different learner types that will almost certainly exist in their classrooms. Christison (2003).
It is obvious that the process of learning is critically important and understanding the way individuals learn is the key to educational improvement. One of the current challenges in teaching is trying to meet the needs of heterogeneous students. It is expected that styles of learning, if accommodated, can result in improved attitudes toward learning and an increase in productivity, academic achievement, and creativity. It is further supposed that the most effective learning occurs when the learning activities most closely match the learners' preferred style. Similarly, just as different learning styles require different learning techniques; different learners with varied motivations also require different learning styles.
Instructional design decisions need to be based not only on desired learning outcomes, but also on motivational, cognitive and volitional views of learning from the learners' perspective. This view of the learning process takes into account contextual and learner variables, and leads to a constructivist, learner-responsive view of materials design (Honebein, Duffy & Fishman, 1993). As expressed by these authors, the learner context is crucial in the design process. Learning styles research is of enormous significance with respect to establishing the learners' contexts of application and learning, so that these understandings can be brought into the design process.
Rowntree (1992) argues persuasively that developers need to take into account the research on learning styles, and to design materials for flexibility, diversity and balance. In a comprehensive review of literature, Richardson (1994) also concludes that higher education requires students to comprehend, and not merely to reproduce ideas and that acknowledging different approaches to learning enables authentic tasks to be created which are responsive to learner needs.
In the United Kingdom, the Dearing report Higher Education in the Learning Society has endorsed learner-centered approaches and emphasizes that learners should come to know their own learning styles. For learning tasks, they state that: an effective strategy is to guide and enable learners to be effective learners to understand their own learning styles and to manage their own learning. (Dearing, 1997: 24).
Jonassen & Wang (1993) concluded that merely providing content and information and showing learners structural relationships is not sufficient for higher cognitive performance. They conclude that "what matters most is the construction of personally relevant knowledge structures" (p. 7). This means that learners must be able to engage with the learning materials at varying levels and depths and be capable of accessing resources, which match or accommodate their learning preferences. This presents substantial evidence in favor of considering learning styles research when developing instructional materials.
Despite these evidences, the research is divided in its application of learning styles research to the development and design of instructional materials. On the one hand, some maintain that learning improves when learning styles are taken into account (eg., Riding & Rayner, 1995; Riding & Douglas, 1993). For example, Claxton & Murrell (1987: 2) remark that "consideration of styles is one way to help faculty and administrators think more deeply about their roles and the organizational culture in which they carry out their work".
Others favor extending or changing learners' cognitive systems or approaches to learning through adaptive, intelligent use of computer courseware and learning materials (Jonassen, 1988). In either case, it can be argued that both strands of learning styles research provide a wealth of insight into individual differences and orientations to learning that can be translated into instructional design.
Much empirical research signals that learning styles can hinder or enhance academic performance in several respects (Riding & Grimley, 1999; Ross & Schultz, 1999). The idea that people learn differently is venerable and probably had its origin with the ancient Greeks (Wratcher, Morrison, Riley & Scheirton, 1997). Educators have, for many years, noticed that some students prefer certain methods of learning more than others.
If there are differences in learning styles between groups of students, then faculty must use learning style information to aid their planning and preparation for delivery of educational activities. Sarasin (1998) noted that instructors should be willing to change their teaching strategies and techniques based on an appreciation of the variety of student learning styles. Teachers should try to ensure that their methods, materials, and resources fit the ways in which their students learn, and maximize the learning potential of each student". (p. 2)
Knowledge of student learning preferences can provide a bridge to course success in education mode. If optimal student learning is dependent on learning styles, and these styles vary between students, then faculty should be aware of these differences and alter their preparation and instructional methods accordingly. In any case, the first step in using learning style information to aid instruction in an educational setting is to first determine student learning styles.
What are Learning Styles?
Grasha (1996) has defined learning styles as, "personal qualities that influence a student's ability to acquire information, to interact with peers and the teacher, and otherwise participate in learning experiences" (p. 41).
The term "Learning Style" has been defined as the composite of characteristic cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how a learner perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment (Keefe, 1989). These dispositions, referred to as learning styles, form a student's unique learning preference and aid teachers in the planning of small-group and individualized instruction (Kemp, Morrison & Ross, 1998, p. 40).
Blackmore (1996) suggested that one of the first things educators can do to aid the learning process is to simply be aware that there are diverse learning styles in the student population. There are probably as many ways to "teach" as there are to learn. Perhaps the most important thing is to be aware that people do not all see the world in the same way. They may have very different preferences than you for how, when, where and how often to learn. Each person possesses some of each of the learning styles. Ideally, one would have a balance of all the learning styles, however most people gravitate toward one or two of the learning style preferences.
The term Learning Style, as is used by Kolb (1984) and Honey and Mumford (1986), describes an individual's preferred or habitual ways of processing knowledge and transforming the knowledge into personal knowledge. According to Kolb (1984), individual differences derive from the psychological attributes that determine the strategies a person chooses while processing information. In the learning literature, theorists interpret the concept of Learning Style in different ways.
Incorporating the many features of learning style, the author holds that learning style is the habitual preference learners demonstrate in their learning activities; formed from the interaction of factors such as individual experience, cognition, personality and environment; and having the characteristics of individuality, consistency and stability.
There are two important points in understanding learning styles. The first is that learning styles do not suggest one's learning ability (Riding, 1997). The second is that different learning styles should not be judged as being better or worse; they are simply different (Zhang & Sternberg, 2005).
2.1 How does the use of language learning styles relate to progress in language learning?
Many English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners encounter the frustration that their teachers' teaching does not appeal to their own learning preferences because most teachers teach the way they learn (Sitt-Gohdes, 2001). The unfavorable learning condition consequently undermines students' motivation and diminishes their learning potential (Miller, 2001; Sitt-Gohdes, 2003).
Teachers of English in Saudi universities share the same embarrassment that there are always some students who show a tendency to be inattentive in class and get bored with English learning even though teachers have made great efforts preparing for the class. This inefficient situation can be attributed to problems involving both teachers and students. Some researchers attributed the reasons for such a problem to a lack of motivation and self-efficacy from the students (Graham, 2006) and others to individual difference (Snow, 1986).
It is well accepted that when teachers are able to analyze their own teaching techniques and analyze the difference and needs of their students, the educational process is likely to become optimized for both students and teachers (Fairhurst & Fairhurst, 1995). Learning style is one of the concepts that are postulated by researchers to depict learners' differences and varied needs.
Therefore, the present study aims to depict learning style difference among a group of Saudi university students.
Learning styles were found to affect learners' learning behaviors. Learners having different learning style preferences would behave differently in the way they perceive, interact, and respond to the learning environment (Junko, 1998). Since learners differ in their preferences to certain learning styles, it will be important for teachers to examine the variations in their students on the features of their learning styles, because the information about learner's preference can help teachers become more sensitive to the differences students bring to the classroom (Felder &
Adjustments can then be made to accommodate the students' varied needs. This study, therefore, aims at depicting the variation of learners' learning style preference in the Saudi English Second Language learning community to bridge teachers' knowledge gap about learners' needs and improve their teaching practice.
According to Cronbach & Snow (1977), learning styles could be used to predict what kind of instructional strategies or methods would be most effective for a given individual and learning task.
People learn in a variety of ways, and different people prefer to learn things in different ways.
Courses should be designed to deal with different learning styles.
Information about learning styles can help faculty become more sensitive to the differences students bring into the classroom and can serve as a guide in designing learning experiences that match students' styles.
Identifying a student's style and then providing instruction consistent with that style can contribute to more effective learning.
Student performance may be related to learning preferences, or styles as learners. Students may also self-select into or away from language learning classes based on their learning preferences. As a result, student success in language learning classes may ultimately depend on understanding the learning style characteristics of the students who enroll. Since more courses will invariably be offered in the future, the students will expect a student-centered learning environment, designed to meet their individual needs.
In learning styles, the issue would appear to be in situations in which the learner required a different style than the teacher employed (Levin et al. 1974 in Larson-Freeman and Long 1991:196). In such situations, the more successful language learner may be the learner who has a teacher that teaches in the same way as the student is comfortable learning.
3.1 Research Questions:
This study aims to explore the following questions:
1. Do English Second Language learners in Saudi Universities vary in their preference for particular learning styles?
2. If they do vary in their preference for particular learning styles, what are the characteristics of the variation?
3. How can the variation of learning styles be useful in teaching of English Second Language in Saudi universities?
The main purpose of this research is to investigate the most preferred language learning styles of Saudi English Language undergraduates from the Faculty of Arts.
The respondents of the study were the Third and Fourth year English undergraduates of Faculty of Arts. A total of 150 questionnaires were distributed to the sample who is currently taking English Second Language major. The entire Subject sample consisted of female ESL learners.
One of the most common and widely-used categorizations of the various types of learning styles is Fleming's VAK model which expanded upon earlier Neuro-linguistic programming (VARK) models. The VAK learning style uses the three main sensory receivers: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic (movement) to determine the dominant learning style. It is based on modalities - a channel by which human expression can take place and is composed of a combination of perception and memory.
VAK is derived from the accelerated learning world and seems to be about the most popular model nowadays due to its simplicity. Learners use all three modalities to receive and learn new information and experiences. According to the VAK model, most people possess a dominant or preferred learning style; however some people have a mixed and evenly balanced blend of the three styles. This dominant style defines the best way for a person to learn new information by filtering what is to be learned.
The Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic learning styles model or 'inventory', usually abbreviated to VAK, provides a simple way to explain and understand your own learning style (and learning styles of others). 'Learning style' should be interpreted to mean an individual mixture of styles. Everyone has a mixture of strengths and preferences. No-one has exclusively one single style or preference.
VAK learning styles
seeing and reading
listening and speaking
touching and doing
N.B. Kinesthetic style is also referred to as 'Physical', or 'Tactile', or 'Touchy-Feely'.
The VAK learning styles model provides a very easy and quick reference inventory by which to assess people's preferred learning styles, and then most importantly, to design learning methods and experiences that match people's preferences:
Visual learning style involves the use of seen or observed things, including pictures, diagrams, demonstrations, displays, handouts, films, flip-chart, etc.
Auditory learning style involves the transfer of information through listening: to the spoken word, of self or others, of sounds and noises.
Kinesthetic learning involves physical experience - touching, feeling, holding, doing, practical hands-on experiences.
The word 'kinesthetic' describes the sense of using muscular movement - physical sense in other words. Kinesthesia and kinesthesis are root words, derived from the Greek kineo, meaning move, and aisthesis, meaning sensation. Kinesthetic therefore describes a learning style which involves the stimulation of nerves in the body's muscles, joints and tendons. This relates to the colloquial expression 'touchy-feely' ('kineo-aisthesis' = 'move-sensation').
The VAK Learning Style Inventory consists of 30 items, in a multiple choice format. Each item had 3 statements, one each for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning style. The students selected the option most suitable for their learning. Also, in order to determine the presence of mixed styles, each statement was qualitatively marked for how often the students used these styles. Each statement was marked for seldom, sometimes and often scale and scored 1 point for seldom, 2 for sometimes and 3 for often.
Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing (think in pictures; visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, handouts, etc.). Auditory learners' best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience-moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world; science projects; experiments, etc.). Its use in pedagogy allows teachers to prepare classes that address each of these areas. Students can also use the model to identify their preferred learning style and maximize their educational experience by focusing on what benefits them the most.
4.4 Research Procedure
During the study, the questionnaires were distributed at various locations in the Faculty of Arts and English Center. Before the questionnaires were distributed to them, their instructors were notified of the purpose and requested to help in collecting the data. The researcher visited English teachers and discussed the research with them, and obtained their permission to conduct the research survey immediately after their normal class time, without interrupting their scheduled classes. The respondents were approached with questions regarding their courses and year of study in order to confirm that they belong to the scope of study. The questionnaire was collected right after the respondents answered the questionnaire.
4.5 Data Analysis:
Data was analyzed manually and using other descriptive statistics. The questionnaire on the learning style test there were 30 statements arranged randomly and each statement is classified under three different categories of learning styles which are the visual, auditory and kinesthetic style. The data was presented through percentage.
Descriptive statistics was employed to investigate the language learning styles that were reported by the EFL learners. The distribution of VAK learning styles among the ESL students is shown below.
About 48% of the language learners showed preference for Visual Learning Styles hence visual style was dominant over others. 37% showed preference for kinesthetic style and remaining 15% learned by auditory methods.
See: [Figure 1]
Out of 150, the number of students preferring visual styles was 72, while 22 proved to have auditory learning style as dominant one. 56 of them preferred kinesthetic learning styles.
See: [Figure 2]
The mean scores of individual VAK learning styles also showed clear dominance of visual styles followed by kinesthetic and auditory styles. Also, about 10% of subjects showed inclination of mixed styles, having equal mean score for visual and kinesthetic styles. The overall mean score for VAK learning style inventory was 212 out of total possible score of 270. The mean score for visual style was 75 out of 90, 36 for auditory and 52 for Kinesthetic styles
See: [figure 3]
According to the results, the most frequently used learning styles were visual and kinesthetic but comparing these scores among the subject population of two most common subjects, English and Fine Arts showed that the later subjects showed higher scores for kinesthetic learning styles than visual although there was no significant difference in scores for auditory learning styles.
See: [Figure 4]
The mean scores of English major students (n=70) was 65 for visual, 42 for auditory and 49 for kinesthetic while that for fine arts major (n=45) was 73 for visual, 39 for auditory and 61 for kinesthetic styles with respective p values as 0.023, 0.6 and 0.043.
Findings from the study indicate that the participants did vary in their preference for particular learning styles. A great variety of learning style preferences were distributed among the sample population with visual learning styles mildly preferred by a large number of them.
The varied distribution of learning styles among learners implies that, as English Second Language teachers in Saudi Universities, it is important to be aware of the feature of learning style preference among learners and to respond flexibly by employing a broad range of teaching styles to better reach students of different learning preferences. The optimal condition is that teachers can help students acquire the ability to use their less preferred style modalities when appropriate and make those learners with strong preference to certain learning styles move toward a position of greater balance (Felder & Spurlin, 2005).
The results showed dominance of visual learning styles among the subject population. This clearly suggests that use of visual aids might benefit in better language learning. For example, for the sample population in this study, with a large number showing mild preference for Visual learning styles, the teacher can maximize his or her teaching efficiency by guiding learners through phases of guessing at words and searching for holistic understanding of the main ideas; presenting multi-media materials; and presenting knowledge in the way that learners can see how it connects to their prior knowledge or reflects the real world (Felder & Henriques, 1995).
To improve the situation, teachers can assign different tasks to different groups of students identified as sharing similar learning styles, that is style-alike groups, or provide classroom activities that cater for the learning style preference favored by the majority of the learners.
Although listening is frequently used in English language teaching, the subjects of this study showed moderate preference of auditory learning styles. This might be owing to the fact that being second language, the subjects don't adequately speak the language outside the classroom environment, Arabic predominating in this level.
Kinesthetic learning style was also favored by the subjects. 10% of the subjects actually showed almost equal scores for both visual and kinesthetic styles. Subjects of fine arts major also taking English subjects showed higher scores for kinesthetic and visual styles. This shows that fine arts subject population dealing with pictures and colors in their other subjects tend to use the same style more comfortably in language learning also.
Also, Teachers cannot expect to become all things to all students; however they can increase their ability to appreciate and understand learners' varied needs. Unfortunately, most English Second Language teachers show consistently favorable attitudes towards teacher-directed classroom activities in their teaching and they seldom develop a sense of appreciating and understanding learners' needs, which results in students' boredom and undermines their potentiality for achievement in learning.
Learning style is an overall pattern that provides broad direction to learning and makes the same instructional method beloved by some students and hated by others.
Faculty should use social learning style inventories and resulting data for the purpose of facilitating class preparation, designing class delivery methods, choosing educational technologies, and developing sensitivity to differing student learning preferences within the educational environment. Future field-based research should replicate the current study in different institutions and disciplines.
To conclude, a better understanding for English Second Language learning and teaching in a Saudi university is that different learners need different things. Teachers can appreciate and tolerate differences and maximize learners' potentiality by varying teaching strategies to cater for learners' preferences for different learning styles.
Recommendations for further research
This is one of the few studies of its kind among English majors in Saudi. While the results of the present research offer a list of pedagogical recommendations that should be taken into consideration by language teachers and syllabus designers to enhance the teaching and learning of the English language, they also point to areas where more research is necessary. It is recommended, therefore, that research endeavors be undertaken as a result of insights generated from the present study.
Firstly, the present study did not take into consideration the subjects' background factors such as age, gender and achievement level which could have an impact on the Learning Styles preferences of the students as demonstrated by many researchers (e.g. Dunn, 1995; Dunn et al., 1993).
Secondly, since this study was restricted to a group of university students, i.e. 150 English language learners at the School of Arts, it is recommended that the present study be replicated and the sample size be increased by including a large number of students from the same university and/or other universities to enhance the generalizability of the findings.
Finally, further research which includes teachers' perceptions of 1) the students' Language learning preferences and 2) the teaching styles used would be useful. This is because, serious mismatches may occur between the learning styles of students in a class and the teaching style of the instructor (Felder and Henriques, 1995; Felder and Silverman, 1988; Lawrence, 1993;), with unfortunate potential consequences.