Learning Styles & Preferences
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.
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.
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.
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
Descriptions of learning preferences
Teaching methods to match/extend students’ learning preferences
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:
To apply multiple intelligences in the classroom, start by answering the following questions:
For more information about multiple intelligences, visit Gardner’s multiple intelligences
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: