What is a “Learning Style”?

Author: Dalhousie University, Centre for Learning and Teaching

Many university teachers do not realize that students vary dramatically in the way they process and understand information. These differences in learning, called “learning styles,” refer to students’ preferences for some kinds of learning activities over others. It is important to stress that we are discussing how students learn, and not what they learn.

Researchers have examined various types of learning styles and these can be organized into the following categories:

Personality – basic characteristics or predispositions

e.g., extrovert/introvert

Information Processing – how students tend to interact and behave in the classroom

e.g., concrete experience/abstract conceptualizing.

Instructional Preference – which teaching methods are preferred by students

e.g., lecture/small group discussion.

Why is learning style important?

Information about students’ learning style is important to both the teacher and the student for the following reasons:

  • Low satisfaction or poor performance in a course or particular activity may be misinterpreted as lack of knowledge or ability, when it is actually difficulty with a particular style of learning.
  • Teachers with an understanding of their students’ learning styles are better able to adapt their teaching methods appropriately.
  • Teachers who introduce a variety of appropriate teaching methods into their classes are more likely to motivate and engage students into learning.
  • Students who learn about their own style become better learners, they achieve higher grades and have more positive attitudes about their studies, greater self-confidence, and more skill in applying their knowledge in courses.
  • Information about learning styles can help teachers become more sensitive to the differences which students bring to the classroom.
  • Information about learning styles can serve as a guide to the design of learning experiences that either match, or mismatch, students’ style, depending on whether the teacher’s purpose is efficiency of students’ learning or developing skills with a style of learning in which the student is weak. Information about learning styles can assist in working with poorly prepared or new university students, as the highest drop-out rates occur with those groups.

How can teachers use information about learning style?

Some experts propose that teachers should accommodate learning style differences; others, while not totally absolving teachers of this obligation, shift the primary responsibility to students themselves. Any approach to the accommodation of learning styles should recognize the constraints inherent in teaching at the university level, e.g., large classes, limited contact with students.

The most realistic approach should respect the following principles:

Students should be empowered through the development of awareness of their own learning styles.

Teachers should vary their teaching methods and assignments so that no learning styles are totally disadvantaged across a whole course.

One particularly helpful approach to learning styles is Kolb’s “experiential learning model.” This is described nicely by Anderson & Adams (1992).1 This model describes four dimensions in a learning cycle which include a learner’s immersion in a concrete experience, followed by observations and reflections, followed by logically shaped or inductive formation of abstract concepts and generalizations, and finally, the empirical testing of the implications of concepts in new situations. This, in turn, gives rise to new experiences which starts the learning cycle again at a greater level of complexity.

Table I below lists teaching activities that support different aspects of this learning cycle. Any of these can be further adapted for individual or group, competitive or collaborative, in-class or out-of-class activities.

Table I: Teaching Activities that Support Different Aspects of the Learning Cycle

Concrete Experience Reflective Observation Abstract Conceptualization Active Experimentation
Readings Logs Lecture Projects
Examples Journals Papers Fieldwork
Field work Discussion Projects Homework
Laboratories Brainstorming Analogies Laboratory
Problem sets Thought questions Model building Case study
Trigger films Rhetorical questions   Simulations
Observations      
Simulations/ games      
Text reading      

 

 

Tips for Instructors and Teaching Assistants

  • Develop an awareness of the types of teaching activities or assignments that favor a particular learning style. (See table provided in this chapter for examples)
  • Vary your teaching activities and assignments so that certain learning styles are not constantly disadvantaged.
  • Allow students to choose, if possible, how they demonstrate competence in some assignments, e.g., paper or project, individual or team work.
  • Provide appropriate support when you know that an activity or assignment requires behaviours to which one style is unaccustomed. Techniques for doing this could include additional tutorials, group assignments, and availability during office hours and peer support.
  • Determine your students’ learning styles as much as possible. In other words, try to understand not only what your students know or don’t know, but also how they came to know it. Techniques for doing this could include observation, discussion, or asking students to write a mini-paper on “How I learn best” or “My most rewarding learning experience.” Questions also are available to assess various dimensions of learning styles.
  • Conduct your own classroom-based “action research” on the relationship between learning styles and student satisfaction/performance.

References

1 Anderson, J.A., & Adams, M. (1992). “Acknowledge the Learning Styles of Diverse Student Populations: Implications for Instructional Design.” In L.L.B. Chism, Teaching for Diversity. New Directions in Teaching and Learning. no. 42, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.