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Learning Styles


Definitions of Learning Style

Learning style is .....

  1. "the complex manner in which, and conditions under which, learners most efficiently and most effectively perceive, process, store, and recall what they are attempting to learn" (James and Gardner, 1995, p. 20).
  2. "an individiual's characteristic way of processing information feeling, and behaving in learning situations" (Smith, as cited in Merriam and Caffarella, 1991, p. 176).
  3. "the cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment" (Keefe, as cited in Swanson, 1995, p. 2).
  4. "the preference or predisposition of an individual to perceive and process information in a particular way or combination of ways" (Sarasin, 1998, p. 3).

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Understanding Learning Styles

With a mission statement underscoring learner-centredness, understanding how learning and teaching styles influence student learning is increasingly important. Research has demonstrated, for example, that the relationship between teaching and learning style is a factor in the success of college and university level students. Identifying, then, the modes in which students learn best becomes useful in two ways - first, in helping students understand and become aware of how they themselves learn and study best (metacognition) and second, in helping instructors achieve a more holistic approach to selecting and designing teaching strategies, lessons, and activities that maximize student learning and understanding.

While addressing the diverse learning needs of students adds to the challenge instructors face in their day-to-day teaching, accounting for differences has the potential to help students succeed in higher education and instructors improve course design, introduce variety into teaching methods and learning activities, and promote a more positive environment that places students at the heart of learning.

The many models and approaches to learning style can be grouped and examined under one of four categories:

  • personality dimensions - assesses the influence of one's personality on their preferred approach(es) to acquiring and integrating information (Eg. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator)
  • information-processing - a student's preferred cognitive approach to understanding and assimilating information (Eg. Schmeck's (1983) construct of cognitive complexity and Kolb's (1984) model of information processing)
  • social interaction - looks at how students engage with their peers in the classroom (Eg. Reichmann's and Grasha's (1974) types of learners: independent, dependent, collaborative, competitive, participant, and avoidant)
  • multidimensional and instructional preference looks at the student's preferred environment/approach for learning (Eg. Human Information Processing Model (Keefe, 1989) and Learning Style Model of Dunn and Dunn (1978))

To further your understanding of learning styles and its application to the classroom, refer to the following on-line documents, learning styles instruments, and text resources. See also Assumptions about Learning and an excerpt on learning styles from a book chapter called "Today's Undergraduate Students."

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On-line documents:

Learning Styles Can Become Teaching Strategies provides a brief introduction and overview of issues and concerns to be considered when exploring the use of learning styles in teaching.
By: W. J. McKeachie, University of Michigan

In Matters of Style the author briefly outlines four models of learning style, indicating where engineering students traditionally fall on each. Additional readings for each learning style model are further provided.
By: Richard Felder, North Carolina State University

In Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education the author summarizes elements of learning styles models (particularly relevant to science education) proposing instructional methods to reach students who span the learning styles spectrum.
By: Richard Felder, North Carolina State University

In Learning Styles and Experiential Learning the author explains learning style in terms of how individuals perceive and process information. These two elements, she notes, are the basis of the four phases (cyclical) which drive Kolb's experiential learning model. To help instructors implement Kolb's model in the classroom, she describes a selection of teaching strategies for each learning style in the cycle and some suggestions for planning and implementing experiential learning.
By: Niki Fardouly, University of New South Wales

In Seven Styles of Learning, Elaine Winters, in a short three part narrative, outlines seven styles of learning reframed from Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In part 1 she describes the various learning styles and characterizes who and how people learn within these types. In part 2 she demonstrates how context (e.g. culture) influences learning. In part 3, she provides practical tips for implementing some of her ideas for strengthening intellectual abilities in the various learning modes.
By: Elaine Winters

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On-line Resources:

Take part in an on-line, self-directed course entitled "Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills," browse through the various modules open to the public such as "Learning Styles," or check out their extensive list of learning styles resources.

Learning Modalities, Styles, and Strategies provides links to a host of inventories and assessment tools, identifies other factors which influence teaching and learning, and addresses learning styles and strategies.

The Masie Centre provides a list of books on learning styles.

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On-line Instruments:

Learning Styles Inventory
Tests for audiotory, visual, or tactile preference. A paper and pencil version is provided. Calculations have to be performed manually.

Index of Learning Styles (ILS) Questionnaire (Felder and Soloman)
This instrument can be used to assess preferences on four dimensions (active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global. A paper and pencil version or an online 44-item questionnaire for which feedback is immediate is available from the above link. Other information on learning styles can also be found on this page.

Keirsey Temperment Sorter II (David Keirsey, 1998)
This inventory is designed to identify different kinds of personality and is similar to other inventories such as Myers-Briggs. Scoring of the online, 70-item inventory is immediate. See also "Using the Keirsey Test Data".

Keirsey Character Sorter (David Keirsey,1997)
This two-part inventory is done online and is designed to identify different kinds of personality temperaments. Feedback is immediate. A graphical representation of your preferences as well as links to related information are provided. See also "Using the Keirsey Test Data".

Teaching Styles Inventory
This self-assessment tools provides a teaching styles profile. Questions are divided into categories on instructional planning, teaching methods, teaching environment, evaluation techniques, and educational philosophy. Print out the inventory and scoring sheet. Directions included.

VARK Inventory (Neil Fleming, 1987)
VARK is an acronym made from the initial letters of four sensory modal preferences (Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinesthetic). Modal preferences are used by people when they are taking in or giving out information.This short inventory tells users something about their preferences for working with information.

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Further Readings

Grasha, A. F. (1996). Teaching with Style: A Practical Guide to Enhancing Learning by Understanding Teaching and Learning Styles. Pittsburg, PA: Alliance Publishers. (available in the TRC)

Hayes, E.R. (1989). Effective Teaching Styles: New Directions for Continuing Education, 43, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs. (available in the TRC)

Kolb, D. A. (1994). "Learning styles and disciplinary differences." In K. Feldman and M. Paulson (eds), Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom. Needham Heights, MA: Ginn Press. (available in the TRC)

Lawrence, G. (1993). People Types and Tiger Stripes. Florida: Center for Applications of Psychological Type Inc.

Morgan, H. (1997). Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Palmer, P. J. (1987). "Community , conflict, and ways of knowing." Change, September/October 20-25. (available in the TRC)

Price, G.E. (1983). "Diagnosing learning styles." New Directions for Continuing Education, 19. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 49-55.

Sarasin, L.C. (1998). Learning Style Perspectives: Impact in the Classroom. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing. (available in the TRC)

Schmeck, R. R. (1998). Learning Strategies and Learning Styles. New York: Plenum Press.

Sims, R. R. (1995). The Importance of Learning Styles: Understanding the Implications for Learning, Course Design, and Education. Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Svinicki, M. D. & Dixon, N. M. (1987). "The Kolb model modified for classroom activities." College Teaching, 35 (4), 141-146. (available in the TRC)


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