Chapter 2 Literature review on learning styles
2.1 Background of learning styles
Learning styles have received considerable attention in recent years. There are more than 20 style dimensions that have been identified so far. It has come out of the more general research on cognitive styles, particularly from the field of psychology. The earliest and frequently discussed dimension of learning styles is the concept of field dependence and field independence that is advocated by psychologist Herman Witkin. Recent researchers, such as Lardner (1989), Reid(1995), Nam & Oxford (1998), Bailey & Onwuegbuzie (2000), Malinsky (2001), Ehrman & Leaver (2003), Decapua & Wintergerst (2005), have contributed greatly to the development of learning style theories.
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Kolb’s (1976) experiential learning theory is prevalent in educational settings, because his theory explains more about the teaching and learning process (Cited by Reid, 1995). Many researchers and instructors have adopted his theory and applied it into different educational areas. The most important thing is that he has proposed four learner types on the basis of his learning theories. And the four learner types are converger, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator.
Claxton and Murrell (1987) use an onion metaphor to describe the multi-constructs of learning styles (Cited by Eliason, 1995). The multi-constructs of learning styles are compared as the layers of an onion. The core is composed of personality characteristics, then from insideto outside, the layers are sequentially information-processing the second layer, social interaction the third layer, and instructional layer the fourth and the outermost layer. The core is the mostm constant and stable part, but the successive layers around it can be slightly changed to some extent.
Reid (1995) divides the learning-style researches into three major categories: cognitive learning styles, sensory learning styles, and personality styles. Cognitive learning styles, according to her introduction, include field-independent and field-dependent learning styles, analytic. and global learning styles, reflective and impulsive styles, and Kolb’s Experiential Model. Sensory learning styles consist of perceptual learning styles and environmental learning styles. Personality learning styles are made up of Myers-Briggs Temperament styles, tolerance of ambiguity styles, right and left hemisphere styles.
Riding & Rayner (1998) just discuss and describe the two basic dimensions of cognitive styles, including wholist-analytic and verbal-imagery styles. The wholist-analytic style learners tend to organize information into wholes or parts, while verbal-imagery style learners are inclined to represent information during thinking verbally or in mental pictures.
It is inevitable that diverse assessment instruments of learning styles exist. It is difficult to find a comprehensive assessment instrument because of the complex nature of learning styles. The majority of the assessment instruments are only to measure one or two dimensions of learning styles. For instance, O’Brien’s (1990) Learning Channel Preference Checklist (LCPC) and Reid’s (1984) Perceptual Learning Style Preference Questionnaire (PLSP) are instruments just to measure perceptual learning styles, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) measures personality traits, such as extroversion-introversion, sensing-perception and the like, and
Oxford’s (1993) Style Analysis Survey (SAS) is relatively multi-dimensional and includes learning styles, such as perceptual learning styles, extroverted and introverted learning styles, concrete and sequential learning styles and so on. In this study, we mainly focus on perceptual learning style preference because it is one of the most obvious aspects of learning styles. Rossi-le (1989) refers to it as an individual’s preferred mode for perceiving, organizing, and retaining information. Reid’s (1984) Perceptual Learning Style Preference Questionnaire (PLSP) is used in this study, because of her high reliability and validity for non-native speakers. It measures six types of perceptual learning styles, including visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, individual, and group learning styles. Each of the learning styles possesses unique learning characteristics. Visual-style learners like to learn through eyes. For example, they prefer to obtain information through reading, computers, TV, and bulletin boards. Students of auditory learning styles rely heavily on listening or talking; they remember what you say. Tactile-style and kinesthetic-style learners like to learn through touching or moving and prefer to obtain information from audio tapes, lectures, class discussions, field trips, and role-plays. Individual-style learners learn best when they work alone, which contrasts strongly to group-style learners who learn effectively when work with other students or peers. It is evident that all learners have individual attributes relating to their own learning process and learn differently because of their biological and psychological differences.
2.2 Definitions of styles and learning styles
The concept of style has existed in literature for approximately a century. It can be dated back to a description of personality in classical Greek literature about the ancient classification of temperament and physique created by Hippocrates (Riding & Rayer, 1998). Styles are the words used to describe differences among people. They are the general, broad approaches a person uses to learn or to solve a problem. Brown (1994) defines it as consistent and rather enduring tendencies or preference within an individual. Generally speaking, styles are an individual’s habitual patterns or preferred ways of doing something that remain consistent over a long period of time.
Learning styles originate from the concept of “style”. There is a lack of concept agreement over the basic terminology. The term has been used in various and sometimes confusing ways in the literature, often interchangeably with the terms of cognitive styles, affective styles, or learning strategies. Cognitive styles and affective styles are only sub-constructs of learning styles and learning styles are more comprehensive. Cognitive styles are often referred to as an individual’s preferred and habitual approach to organize and represent information. Its important dimensions are field-dependent and field independent, leveling and sharpening, holist and serialist, impulsive and reflective, and abstract and concrete etc. Affective styles are usually related to an individual’s emotional states, including self-esteem, inhibition, risk-taking and anxiety and the like. Learning styles are constant and innate and difficult to be changed, whereas learning strategies can be learned and consciously applied in different learning situations.
Learning strategies are specific procedures or techniques a person consciously uses in solving a problem or in working through an assignment. Literature on definitions of learning styles is also rich and diverse. Different researchers emphasize on different aspects of learning styles when rendering the definitions. Keefe (1979) defines learning styles as the cognitive, affective and physiological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment (Cited by Eliss, 1994). Reid (1995) holds the view that learning styles are an individual’s natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills. It is difficult to find an overall and comprehensive definition of learning styles, but similarities can be concluded from these definitions that the characteristics of consistency and perseverance are the core of all the learning style definitions.
2.3 Models of learning styles
For researchers, it is difficult to propose a comprehensive learning model that encompasses all dimensions of learning styles. Thus the majority of learning style models focus on one or two aspects. In the following part, only two learning style models are introduced and elaborated because of their great popularity in research field.
2.3.1 The Dunn and Dunn learning-style model
Compared with other learning-style approaches, the Dunn and Dunn learning-style model encompasses greater comprehensiveness and consistent effectiveness. According to Dunn and Dunn (1993), learning style is the way that students begin to concentrate on, process, internalize, and remember new and difficult academic information and is composed of both biological and developmental characteristics that make the identical instructional environments, methods, and resources effective for some learners and ineffective for others (Cited by Dunn and Griggs, 2000).
In this model, the Dunns describe learning style as the ways to affect an individual’s abilities to master new and difficult academic information or skills. 21 elements have been identified in this model and are classified into five categories of learning stimuli.
(1) Environmental. The elements are sound, light, temperature, and design. Part of an individual’s learning style depends on his or her preference regarding sound versus silence, bright versus soft lighting, warm versus cool temperatures, and formal versus informal seating.
(2) Emotional. These elements are motivation, persistence, responsibility (conformity versus nonconformity), and preference for structure versus choice.
(3) Sociological. These elements describe the group in which a student prefers to learn, such as whether to learn alone, with peers, or with either a collegial or authoritative adult, andlor in a variety of ways as opposed to patterns or routines.
(4) Physiological. These elements include perceptual strengths like auditory, visual, tactual, and kinesthetic skills; time-of-day energy levels; intake (snacking while concentrating); and mobility needs.
(5) Psychological. These elements describe the way in which a student processes information. For example, analytic students focus on facts or details in step-by-step fashion.
Gradually the facts build up to an understanding. Conversely, global students need to understand how they are learning relating to them and their lives before they can begin to focus on facts.
Also, analytic students respond to printed words and numbers, whereas global students respond better to illustrations and pictures (Searson, R., & Dunn, R., 2001).
In summary, Dunn and Griggs (2000) explain the theoretical base towards the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model as follows:
1. Most individuals can learn.
2. Instructional environments, resources, and approaches respond to diverse learning-style strengths.
3. Everyone has strengths, but different people have very different strengths.
4. Individual instructional preference exists and can be measured reliably (Burke, Guastello et al.,1999/2000).
5. Given responsive environments, resources, and approaches, students attain statistically higher achievement- and attitude-test scores in congruent, rather than in incongruent, treatments ( Dunn & Dunn, 1992, 1993; Dunn, Dunn, & Perrin, 1994; Dunn, Griggs et al., 1995); they also behave better in style-responsive environments (Oberer, 1999).
6. Teachers can learn to use learning styles as a cornerstone of their instruction ( Dunn & DeBello, 1999).
7. Students can learn to capitalize on their learning-style strengths when concentrating on new and difficult information (P. Roberts, 1999; Schiering, 1999).
2.3.2 Kolb’s learning style model
Kolb’s learning style model has attracted considerable interest since the mid-1970s and has greatly contributed to the development of learning style theories. Kolb remarks that learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience (Cited by Riding & Rayer, 1998). Learning style is described by Kolb (1976) as the individual’s preferred method for assimilating information and makes learners actively involve in the learning process.
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Hauer, Straub and Wolf (2005) state that Kolb’s theory of learning is based on Dewey’s emphasis on the need for learning in experience; on Kurt Lewin’s work which stresses the importance of a person’s active learning; and John Piaget’s theory of intelligence which explains the interaction between the person and the environment. According to Kolb, the learning model comprises two independent dimensions: perception and process. The first dimension involves concrete experiences and abstract conceptualization, and the second includes active experimentation and reflective observation. Perception reflects how individuals perceive information. For example, abstract learners comprehend information conceptually and analytically, whereas concrete learners learn most effectively through specific learning experiences. Processing describes how individuals process information. Active learners, for instance, learn primarily by manipulating the environment, while reflective individuals typically learn by introspection and internal reflection on the external world.
The learning model of two dimensions can be further classified into the following four learner types:
Converger (Common sense learner): these students perceive information abstractly and learn through active experimentation. They are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They prefer activities, such as small-group discussions, classroom participation, and computer use. Their favorite question is “How does this work?”.
Diverger (Innovative learner): these students learn better when they are able to perceive concretely and to process reflectively. They like to do things by themselves and have good imaginative abilities. They are interested in people and culture, and tend to be social learners. Brain-storming and lectures are their favorite activities. They usually bear the question “Why do I need to learn this?” in their minds. Assimilator (Analytic learner): these students learn more effectively when they are able to perceive abstractly and to process reflectively. They are good at putting the separate information into a logical organization and enjoy theoretical reading. They are more interested in facts and important things. They are more used to traditional classroom learning. Their favorite question is “What do I need to learn?”.
Accommodator (Dynamic learner): these students learn more effectively when they are able to perceive concretely and to process actively. They are good at hands-on experience and like to connect their learning into the context of real world. They like activities of risk-taking, presentations, debates, and group discussions, but dislike authority figures. They always hold the question like “What if…?”.
The four learner types can be summarized briefly as below: accommodators are people who learn primarily from “hands-on” experience rather than from logical analysis; divergers are best at viewing concrete situations from many different points of view; assimilators are best at organizing information into a concise and logical form; convergers are best at finding practical use for ideas and theories.
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