LEARNING STYLE DIFFERENCES
For many years, perceptive educators believed that people differ in how they go about learning, thinking, and problem solving. Some people like to form a picture in their mind, while others are more comfortable touching or feeling an object. Some people prefer reading about something first and then trying it out, while others like to try something out and then read about it later. Some people find that working along in a quiet, cool environment helps them learn better. Others find working in a group with some noise in the background is a definite asset to their learning. What all of these examples have in common is what educators and psychologists have termed learning styles.
Learning styles refer to characteristic ways of processing in formation, feeling, and behaving in learning situations (Keefe, 1979; Price, 1983). They are hypothetical constructs that provide clues as to how a person learns and adapts to the environment. Put simply, learning styles are indicative of how one learns.
Numerous writers have addressed the concept of learning styles and the various ways they are measured (Canfield & Lafferty, 1974; Dunn, Dunn, & Price, 1981; Gregorc, 1979; Hruska & Grasha, 1982; Kolb, 1984; Reichmann & Grasha, 1974). Although much of this evidence has tended to focus on children and adolescents, the usefulness of learning style assessment and analysis for older learners has been clearly demonstrated (Smith, 1983; Marton, Hounsell & Entwistle, 1984; Maxfield &
Smith, 1987). In the literature of adult education, there is increasing emphasis on learning styles and their implications for educators of adults (Conti & Welborn, 1987; Dorsey & Pierson, 1984; Fox, 1984; Holtzclaw, 1985; James & Galbraith, 1985; Knox, 1986; Korhonen & McCall, 1986; Loesch & Foley, 1988). Knowledge and awareness of personal learning style helps one to identify strengths and weaknesses for learning. It also assists the instructor in making better decisions about curriculum development and instruction as well as counseling individual learners about problems, strengths, and opportunities. Most importantly, learning style assessment and analysis is a key to identifying individual differences and integrating these within the learning environment.
Following is an example of how knowledge about learning styles can help you be a more effective facilitator of learning.
You are an instructor of English at a local community college and who knows something about learning style differences
among your adult learners. You know that some of your learners learn best through listening, others prefer to see the material, while still others are more comfortable relating the information to a practical problem. By organizing your learning activities in a manner that involves time spent telling, showing, and doing, you have ensured that each learner will be operating at least part of the time, in their preferred or dominant style of learning. The result should be more effective learning for everyone involved.
How can you determine the learning styles of your adult learners? Learning style diagnosis is carried out in a variety of ways ranging from informal analysis to formal testing. Informally, you can ask learners about their preferred ways of learning and learning environments. You can also watch learners in action noting those who prefer concrete examples, and those who are comfortable dealing with theoretical explanations. Perhaps the most informative approach is administration of various instruments. There are many such instruments available to the adult instructor. Examples include the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory (Canfield & Lafferty, 1974), Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory (Kolb, 1976), and Gregorc's Type Indicator (Gregorc, 1979). Learning style instruments are best used as tools to create awareness that learners differ and as a starting point for each individual's continued investigation of self as a learner.
A thorough examination of various learning style instruments is beyond this book's scope. However, Smith (1982) contains a review of more than fifteen that are appropriate for use with adults. Also, Price (1983) reviews eight learning style instruments, what they measure, approximate time needed to administer each instrument, and where they can be obtained.
In addition to learning styles, there are two related concepts that deserve some attention; cognitive styles and thinking styles. So closely related are these concepts that they are often used interchangeably with some resulting confusion (Bonham, 1988a, 1988b; Keinholz, 1984). This is unfortunate since the terms are distinct and should be used with greater precision. Learning styles
are the most inclusive and overarching in that they contain cognitive, affective, and physiological traits that indicate how learners perceive, interact with, and relate to the learning environment (Keefe, 1979). In short, learning styles include cognitive and thinking styles in addition to other dimensions such as personality and environmental traits.
Cognitive styles are "information processing habits representing the learner's typical mode of perceiving, thinking, problem solving, and remembering" (Messick & Associates, 1976). They tend to focus on how people encode and decode information through such operations as selective encoding, selective combination, and selective comparison (Sternberg, 1986).
Thinking styles are those characteristic modes of functioning which govern our perceptions and intellectual activities in a highly consistent and pervasive way. They describe systemized ways of apprehending that include a variety of perceptions and cognitions (Harrison & Bramson, 1982).
Messick and Associates (1976) describes more than 20 cognitive style dimensions derived from experimental research. They are conceptually independent of each other, although some are more straightforward than others. One dimension is an analytic, impersonal approach to problem solving versus a more global, social orientation. A second dimension deals with breadth of categorization where tolerance for different types of errors are measured. A third dimension analyzes how well developed is an individual's short-term memory. A fourth dimension tests whether an individual is impulsive (a tendency to select the first answer that comes to mind even if it is incorrect) versus reflective (choosing among several alternatives before deciding which is correct). A fifth dimension measures degree of cognitive complexity versus simplicity.
Cognitive style research offers the instructor knowledge about how each learner is likely to perform typical learning tasks such as remembering, selecting, comparing, focusing, reflecting, and analyzing (Sisco, 1987). Knowledge of these and other cognitive style dimensions can also help you and the learners make more informed decisions about learning activities that will be most likely useful and productive.
An additional source of information about your adult learners can be gleaned from the thinking styles research of Harrison and
Bramson (1982). They have developed an instrument called the Inquiry Mode Questionnaire (InQ) that attempts to measure the characteristic thinking style of individuals on five major dimensions: synthesist, idealist, analyst, realist, and pragmatist through 18 hypothetical situations.
Briefly, the synthesist focuses upon change, abstract conceptual ideas and underlying assumptions. Idealists tend to be future oriented, value process relationships, and are interested in social issues. Analysts focus on problem solving in a careful, logical, methodological way, paying great attention to details. Realists tend to be practical and concrete, focus on the "here and now" and like to deal with facts. The pragmatist focuses upon what is useful or utilitarian, value step-by-step thinking, and strive for immediate payoff and tactics.
Similar to learning styles and cognitive styles, knowledge of your learner's thinking styles can help you be a more effective facilitator. You can provide examples that cover the styles present ranging from theoretical analysis to practical applications. You can provide a mixture of telling, showing, doing, and applying in each of your instructional units. By making sure that time is spent addressing each style, you can assist each learner in operating at their optimum or preferred style of thinking which will result in more satisfying and productive learning. To the extent that you do this in an systematic and attentive way, the likelihood of learner success will be substantially enhanced.
Go to the bibliography.
Return to the book's table of contents.
Return to the book's index.
Return to the first page.