Learning Styles

The term learning styles refers to the preferences that an individual has regarding the organization of information. How people actually learn is a question that is best answered by considering a particular person’s preferred learning style. There are many instruments available that can guide individuals in identifying their preferred learning styles. Furthermore, research with those instruments has potential for identifying some “best practices” for teaching students with specific learning preferences.

Learning-style research has its roots in the work of Carl Jung and David Kolb. Both psychologists developed models useful for classifying learning styles; however, much of the contemporary work on learning styles developed from Kolb’s 1983 study of “Learning supports learning” as a cyclical process. He described a process through which concrete experience is followed by reflection and observation, which then leads to the formulation of abstract concepts and generalizations, the implications of which are tested in new situations through active experimentation.

Learning StylesKolb identified four main styles of learner and developed his Learning Style Inventory (LSI) to establish an individual’s relative emphasis on each of the four styles. Kolb’s LSI is based on the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget. John Dewey emphasized the need for learning to be grounded in experience. Kurt Lewin stressed the importance of active learning, and Jean Piaget articulated a theory of intelligence as the result of the interaction of a person and his or her environment.

Kolb’s learning style model separated learners on the basis of four steps of learning defined from a two-dimensional model. The first dimension is based on task, and the second dimension is based on the soul or ego. The dimension based on task ranges from performing tasks to observing tasks. The soul or ego dimension ranges from logical (left brain) to creative and emotional (right brain). The model is usually shown with the task dimension displayed horizontally and the soul dimension displayed vertically. The four resulting quadrants are labeled with four steps to learning and four personal learning styles. The four steps to learning are labeled (1) concrete experience, (2) reflective observation, (3) abstract conceptualization, and (4) active experimentation. The four personal learning styles are (1) theorists, (2) pragmatists, (3) activists, and (4) reflectors.

An LSI high score on concrete experience represents an open, experience-based approach to learning that relies on feeling-based judgments. These learners generally find theoretical approaches to be unhelpful and prefer to treat each situation as a unique case. They learn best from specific examples. The instructor serves as a coach/helper for this self-directed autonomous learner. Students scoring high on reflective observation indicate an impartial and reflective approach to learning. They prefer lectures and look for an instructor who is both a taskmaster and a guide. A high score on abstract conceptualization indicates an analytical, conceptual approach to learning relying on logical thinking and rational evaluation. These learners prefer authority-directed, impersonal learning situations that focus on theory and systematic analysis. Case studies, theoretical readings, and reflective-thinking exercises are the best vehicles to use with these learners. Finally, a high score on active experimentation indicates an active “doing” orientation relying heavily on experimentation for learning. These learners prefer projects, homework, and group discussions and show a clear dislike for lectures.

The personal learning style labeled theorist represents a person who likes to learn using abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. Theorists’ strength lies in the ability to create theoretical models. They prefer case studies, theory readings, and thinking alone. This learning style is characteristic of those gravitating toward basic science and mathematics. The theorist adapts and integrates observations into complex but logically sound theories. They think problems through in a vertical, step-by-step, logical way and assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They tend to be perfectionists who won’t rest until things are tidy and fit into a rational scheme. They like to analyze and synthesize and are keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models, and systems of thinking. Their philosophy prizes rationality and logic. Questions they frequently ask are “Does it make sense?” “How does this fit with that?” and “What are the basic assumptions?” They tend to be detached, analytical, and dedicated to rational objectivity rather than anything subjective or ambiguous. Their approach to problems is consistently logical. This is their “mental set,” and they rigidly reject anything that doesn’t fit with it. They prefer to maximize certainty and feel uncomfortable with subjective judgments, lateral thinking, and anything flippant.

Pragmatists like to learn using abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. Their strength lies in the practical application of ideas. They prefer laboratories, fieldwork, and observation. This learning style is characteristic of individuals specializing in the physical sciences. The pragmatist is keen on trying out ideas, theories, and techniques to see whether they work in practice. They positively search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications. Within organizations, pragmatists are the people who return from management courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice. They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them. They tend to be impatient with ruminating and open-ended discussions. They are essentially practical, down-to-earth people who like making practical decisions and solving problems. They respond to problems and opportunities “as a challenge.” The pragmatist’s philosophy says, “There is always a better way,” and “If it works, it’s good.”

Individuals with an activist personal learning style use concrete experimentation and active experimentation. Their strength lies in doing things and involving themselves in new experiences. They prefer practicing a skill, problem solving, small-group discussions, and peer feedback. This learning style is characteristic of individuals who choose technical or practical fields, such as business. Activist learners involve themselves fully and without bias in new experiences. They enjoy the “here and now” and are happy to be dominated by immediate experiences. They are open-minded and not skeptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is, “I’ll try anything once.” They tend to act first and consider the consequences afterward, and they tackle problems by brainstorming. As soon as the excitement from one activity has died down, they are busy looking for the next. They tend to thrive on the challenge of new experiences but are bored with implementation and longer-term consolidation. Activist learners are gregarious people constantly involving themselves with others, but in doing so, they seek to center all activities on themselves.

Reflectors use reflective observation and concrete experience. Their strength lies in their ability to imagine. They prefer lectures with much reflection time and an instructor who provides expert interpretation. This learning style is characteristic of individuals who choose humanities and liberal arts. Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives. They collect data both firsthand and from others and prefer to think about information thoroughly before coming to any conclusion. The thorough collection and analysis of data about experiences and events are what counts, so they tend to postpone reaching definitive conclusions for as long as possible. Their philosophy is to be cautious. They are thoughtful people who like to consider all possible angles and implications before making their own points. They tend to adopt a low profile and have a slightly distant, tolerant, unruffled air about them. When they act, it is part of a wide picture that includes the past as well as the present and others’ observations as well as their own.

Although many specific recommendations can be derived from the work on learning styles, the most important factor to consider in designing and delivering education is to provide products that tap multiple learning dimensions for a particular content area. The following represent some of the most utilized instruments for assessing and understanding individual differences in learning. Components of Kolb’s work can be identified in most of the instrument descriptions that follow.

The Gregorc Differentiator is designed specifically for adult use. It was developed as a self-analysis tool to aid individuals in recognizing and identifying the channels through which they receive and express information effectively and efficiently. Anthony Gregorc’s model uses a Concrete-Abstract continuum, representing perception, as well as a Sequential-Random continuum, representing ordering, which results in four identified learning style preferences: (1) Concrete/Sequential, CS; (2) Concrete/Random, CR; (3) Abstract/Sequential, AS; and (4) Abstract/Random, AR.

CS individuals see themselves as objective, persistent, careful with detail, realistic, thorough, and logical. They tend to be perfectionists and choose order and seek proof or multisolutions. The CS is product oriented rather than person oriented. Hands-on learning and accredited experts are helpful to learning.

CR individuals see themselves as intuitive, experimenting, creative, troubleshooting, and risk taking. They are concerned with multisolutions and innovation. Demonstrations and personal proof, rather than outside authority, are helpful to learning.

AS individuals see themselves as evaluative, analytical, logical, concerned with ideas, and oriented to research rather than perfectionism. They are concerned with quality and see themselves as judges. Knowledge facts and documentation are helpful to learning.

AR individuals see themselves as sensitive, evaluative, intuitive, aware, not careful with detail, and spontaneous. They are concerned with research and risk taking. They are person oriented rather than product oriented. AR individuals appreciate self-directed learning.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is another tool for measuring personal learning preferences. The first of the four preference scales measured through the MBTI is Extraversion (E) versus Introversion (I). This preference indicates how people “charge their batteries.” Introverts find energy in the inner world of ideas, concepts, and abstractions. They can be sociable but need quiet to recharge their batteries. Introverts want to understand the world. Introverts are concentrators and reflective thinkers. For the introvert, there is no impression without reflection. Extroverts find energy in things and people. They pre­fer interactions with others and are action oriented. Extraverts are interactors and “on-the-fly” thinkers.

The second scale is Sensing (S) versus Intuition (N). Sensing people are detail oriented, want facts, and trust them. Intuitive people seek out patterns and relationships among the facts they have gathered. They trust hunches and their intuitions and look for the “big picture.” They see patterns where others see randomness or chaos.

The third scale is Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F). Thinking individuals value fairness. They choose to make decisions impersonally based on analysis, logic, and principle. Feeling individuals value harmony, and they focus on human values and needs as they make decisions or arrive at judgments. They tend to be good at persuasion and facilitating differences among group members.

The final MBTI scale is Judging (J) versus Perceptive (P). Judging people tend to be decisive, planful, and self-regimented. They focus on completing the task, want to know only the essentials, and take action quickly. Perceptive people are curious, adaptable, and spontaneous. They start many tasks, want to know everything about each task, and often find it difficult to complete a task.

An instrument helpful to studying learning in a college-student environment is the Grasha and Reichmann Student Learning Style Scales. Anthony Grasha and Sheryl Reichmann developed the Grasha-Reichmann Learning Style Scales (GRSLSS) in 1974 to determine college students’ styles of classroom participation. Their model focuses on student attitudes toward learning, classroom activities, teachers, and peers. Six styles are identified: (1) avoidant students tend to have high absenteeism, organize their work poorly, receive grades at the lower end of the grade distribution, and take little responsibility for their learning; (2) participative students are characterized as willing to accept responsibility for self-learning, and they relate well to their peers; (3) competitive students can be described as suspicious of their peers, leading to competition for rewards and recognition; (4) collaborative students enjoy working harmoniously with their peers; (5) dependent students typically become frustrated when facing new challenges not directly addressed in the classroom; and (6) independent students prefer to work alone and require little direction from the instructor. There are two forms of the instrument; one for general class responses and one for use with a specific course. Each instrument has 90 questions, 15 questions per style. Subjects respond to each statement on a 5-point disagree-agree scale, with agreement being 5. Scale scores range from 15 to 75, where the highest score is considered to be the preference for a student. As with most scales, it is noted that anyone can demonstrate any style given an appropriate environment. Nonetheless, the scale identifies a preference for classroom behavior.

Howard Gardner provided a framework that recognizes several intelligences and suggested that people use one or two to maximize their personal learning. The U.S. culture teaches to, tests, and rewards primarily two kinds of intelligence: verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical. However, Gardner asserts that there are at least six other kinds of intelligence that are equally important. The full list includes verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

Verbal-linguistic intelligence is marked by individuals, such as poets, being sensitive to the meaning and order of words. Logical-mathematical intelligence is defined as the ability to handle chains of reasoning and recognize patterns and orders, as scientists do. Musical intelligence is recognized as sensitivity to pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone, as composers do. Spatial intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive the world accurately and to trying to re-create or transform aspects of that world, as do sculptors and airline pilots. Bodily kinesthetic intelligence reflects the ability to use the body skillfully and handle objects adroitly, as do athletes and dancers. Interpersonal intelligence reflects an understanding of people and relationships, as salespersons or teachers have. Intrapersonal intelligence is demonstrated by those who possess access to their emotional lives as a means of understanding themselves and others, exhibited by individuals with accurate views of themselves. Finally, naturalist intelligence is connected to the intricacies and subtleties in nature.

According to Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, the intelligences are not necessarily dependent on each other, but they rarely operate in isolation. According to Gardner, all normal individuals possess varying degrees of each of these intelligences. However, the ways in which intelligences combine and blend are as varied as the personalities of individuals.

Putting learning styles together, it must be noted that no single measurement of style ensures that a learner’s needs will be met. Those who wish to teach with student learning as their goal need to build an adaptable learning environment that presents material in a variety of methods.

See also:


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