Learning Styles & Preferences

What are Learning Styles?

The term learning styles is widely used by students and instructors alike to describe how learners gather, sift through, interpret, organize, come to conclusions about, and “store” information for further use.  Simply put, it refers to the cognitive and affective processes by which we learn, suggesting in its plurality that there are multiple ways to do so. For over fifty years, educational and cognitive psychologists as well as educational theorists have developed various models to account for and describe that plurality.

Models of Learning Styles and Preferences

In a 1987 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report entitled Learning Styles: Implications for Improving Educational Practices (click here for access to Acorn record ), Charles S. Claxton and Patricia H. Murrell categorize models in general circulation at the time according to four types: personality models, information processing models, social-interaction models, instructional preference models.

Personality Models

In terms of personality models, many Vanderbilt students and instructors will be familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which identifies an individual’s personality preferences according to four dichotomies based on Jungian psychology: extroverted v. introverted, sensing v. intuition, thinking v. feeling, and judging v. perceiving.

Information Processing Models

Many Vanderbilt students and instructors may identify themselves as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, that is according to the mode by which they prefer to process information.  Neil Fleming, an educator in New Zealand, has popularized these categories in a learning styles inventory known by the acronym VARK (Visual – Auditory – Reading – Kinesthetic).  The separation of reading from other visual forms of processing information emphasizes the sequential (as opposed to global) and linear (as opposed to spatial) nature of reading in distinction from other ways of processing information visually (e.g. from maps, drawings, diagrams, pictorial representations, etc.)

Drawing on the work of Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, and John Dewey, David A. Kolb elaborated a more complex information processing model, accounting for preferences 1) for perceiving/accessing information through concrete experience or abstract conceptualization and 2) for processing information through active experimentation or reflective observation.  Experiential Learning, which details the genesis of Kolb’s model and suggests applications for it in higher education, is available at the Center for Teaching library (click here for access to Acorn record ).

Richard E. Felder and Linda Silverman formulated a learning styles model that presents a hybrid of personality and information processing models.  Their model asks learners to identify preferences for learning in four dimensions: active v. reflective, sensing v. intuitive, visual v. verbal, and sequential v. global.  With his colleague, Barbara Soloman, Felder developed an online instrument, the Index of Learning Styles, to help learners identify their learning preferences.

Here’s further information about Felder and Silverman’s Learning Styles:

Learning styles reflect students’ preference for

  • Type of information—sensory or intuitive
  • Mode of sensory perception—visual or verbal
  • Kind of organization of material—inductive or deductive
  • Way that information is processed—actively or reflectively
  • How progress towards understanding occurs—sequentially or globally

Descriptions of learning preferences

  • Sensing learners like a methodical approach and real-world connections; intuitive learners like abstractions and innovation
  • Visual learners remember best what they see; verbal learners get more out of words
  • Inductive learners learn more easily by starting with specifics and working towards the general principles; deductive learners prefer to begin with general principles and to deduce specifics
  • Active learners like to try it and see if it works; reflective learners like to think about it first
  • Sequential learners learn in a logical stepwise fashion; global learners tend to learn in large jumps

Teaching methods to match/extend students’ learning preferences

  • Balance concrete information with conceptual information
  • Make use of graphs, schematics, demonstrations in addition to oral and written explanations
  • Stimulate interest by presenting examples of phenomena first and then the underlying theory
  • Provide time in class for students to think about material and for active student participation
  • Encourage or mandate cooperation on homework
  • Demonstrate how course topics fit within the course and connect them to other courses, other disciplines and everyday experience

Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner, a faculty member at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, notes in an FAQ on his web site that “educators are prone to collapse intelligence and style” but cautions them against doing so because they are “fundamentally different psychological constructs. (Click here to download the FAQ as a PDF document.)   Styles refer to the customary way in which an individual approaches a range of materials (…). Intelligence refers to the computational power of a mental system.”

Gardner’s distinction is important to keep in mind when considering his theory of multiple intelligences, which Gardner identifies not as styles, but ways of learning.  Although Gardner has expanded and revised his list of multiple intelligences over the years, it currently counts seven intelligences:

  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence—the ability to detect patterns and reason deductively
  • Linguistic Intelligence—the ability to manipulate language effectively
  • Spatial Intelligence—the ability to manipulate and create mental images in order to solve problems
  • Musical Intelligence—the ability to recognize and compose musical pitches, tones, and rhythms
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence—the ability to use one’s mental abilities to coordinate one’s own bodily movements
  • Interpersonal—the ability to understand or work with others’ feelings and intentions
  • Intrapersonal—the ability to understand one’s own feelings and motivations

To apply multiple intelligences in the classroom, start by answering the following questions:

  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence—How can I bring in numbers, calculations, classifications, logic, or critical thinking?
  • Linguistic Intelligence—How can I use the spoken or written word?
  • Spatial Intelligence—How can I use visual aids, visualization, color, art, metaphor, or visual organizers?
  • Musical Intelligence—How can I bring in music or environmental sounds, or set key points in a rhythm or melody?
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence—How can I involve the whole body, or hands-on experiences?
  • Interpersonal—How can I engage students in peer sharing, cooperative learning, or small group situations?
  • Intrapersonal—How can I evoke personal feelings or memories, or give students choices?

For more information about multiple intelligences, visit Gardner’s multiple intelligences
web site. 

Helping Students Identify Learning Styles and Preferences

Learning how to learn in college is an important step for students making the transition from high school.  Encouraging first-year students to recognize and capitalize on their learning styles and preferences may thus be particularly helpful.  In Tools for Teaching, Barbara Gross Davis recommends the following ways to help students recognize their learning styles:

  • Ask students to observe their own learning styles and preferences.
  • Administer a short survey that students can score themselves.  VARK and Felder’s Index of Learning Styles provide online, out-of-class alternatives to this type of survey.
  • Have students interview each other about their learning processes.
  • Use metaphors to help students identify their learning processes.

Tools for Teaching is available at the Center for Teaching library. See its ACORN record for call number and availability.  The online version of Tools for Teaching does not include this chapter.


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