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Styles in Learning 1

Styles in Learning 1
Dorothy MacKeracher
Faculty of Education, UNB Fredericton

The Concept of Learning Style

Individual learners have preferred strategies for learning. An individual's collective strategies for
learning are his or her "learning style." A learning style includes strategies for cognitive
(mental), affective (emotional), social (interpersonal and cultural), and physiological (physical)
components of learning (Keefe, 1987).

A learning style is a relatively stable and consistent set of strategies that an individual prefers to
use when engaged in learning. These strategies are used to:

ƒ take in information through sensory organs;

ƒ select information for further processing;

ƒ store and retrieve information from memory;

ƒ make sense of information to create new meanings, ideas, values, skills or strategies or
revise existing meanings, ideas, values, skills or strategies;

ƒ use meanings, ideas, values, skills and strategies to solve problems and make decisions;

ƒ plan and act in accordance with such decisions, resulting in new experiences from which
new information can be taken in;

ƒ interact with others in the learning environment; and

ƒ change any or all of the strategies referred to above.

Learning styles also relate to such factors as: the environmental conditions under which learners
prefer to learn and report on that learning; their preferred activity level during learning; their
preferred form and type of information; and their preferred strategies for processing information.

Most learning styles can be understood as a set of opposing behaviours that serve a similar
function. For example, field independence and field dependence are two opposing cognitive
behaviours that serve the same function – to allow the individual to select from and make sense
of the potentially overwhelming tumult of experiences and information that bombard us daily
(Witkin & Goodenough, 1977).

This article is based on a similar chapter which appears in Making Sense of Adult Learning (2nd edition), by
Dorothy MacKeracher (2004, University of Toronto Press).
Styles in Learning 2

ƒ Field independence allows the individual to pay attention to an experience by focussing

selectively and narrowly on one aspect of the entire experience. That part of the field of
the experience that is selected becomes the central “figure” in the action. Everything else
that happens may be ignored and thereby becomes part of the “ground” (background) for
the figure. This approach provides a detailed impression of selected aspects of an

ƒ Field dependence allows the individual to focus very broadly on an overall experience
thereby blurring the figure and the ground, and sometimes ignoring details of any central
“figure.” This approach provides a broad impression of what is happening in the whole
field of the experience.

Some additional facts about learning styles:

1. There is no “one best way to learn.” Learning styles should be considered to be value-neutral.
Individuals with differing learning styles manage to learn quite productively. In a set of
paired opposites, one type of behaviour should not be viewed as being better than its

2. Each style results in certain strengths during learning as well as certain weaknesses. For
example while field independence allows the individual to focus on a central figure or action
in an experience, it also tends to obscure details of the context or broader picture in which the
figure or action is placed. A field independent learner may be oblivious to the social or
cultural context in which an experience occurs. A field dependent learner may be very
sensitive to the social or cultural context but miss important details while learning.

3. Learning style is distinct from performance level or ability. If one of the paired behaviours
associated with a set of learning strategies is valued more highly, then both behaviours are
related to ability and should not be considered a learning style (Sternberg, 1997).

4. An instructor, however, may view one component of a paired set of behaviours as more
appropriate (i.e., better) than the other. Uninformed instructors often believe that their own
style is more appropriate than the opposite style and unfairly assess the performance of
students using the opposite style. Confusing style and ability in this way leads to beliefs that
the use of certain learning styles constitutes a “learning disability.” For example, the
preference of field dependent learners to not separate out individual components from any
experience should not be viewed by field independent instructors as a “learning disability.”
Real learning disabilities have nothing to do with learning styles.

5. Some learning styles have a physiological basis and may be affected by genetic inheritance.
But mostly, learning styles are learned during childhood and adolescence – in part through
encouragement and rewards from significant others in the individual’s life; in part through
the expectations of the social or cultural environment in which the individual is raised; and in
part through the schooling style which the individual experiences.
Styles in Learning 3

6. Since most learning styles are themselves learned, a learner, with diligence, can learn
alternate strategies to augment his or her preferred strategies.

7. Every group of learners will present the instructor with a heterogeneous mixture of learning
styles and levels of ability. An instructor should never assume that a group of learners of the
same gender or age, or with similar cultural, social, economic, occupational or educational
backgrounds, will share common learning styles.

8. Individuals of different learning styles who participate in the same learning activity will
perceive the experience differently, will develop different interpretations about the
experience, and will come away from the experience having learned different things.

For example, field independent and field dependent learners use different sources of
information to make sense of a learning experience. In early sessions in any course, field
independent learners are likely to attend to information about the course assignments and pay
little attention to their fellow learners; field dependent learners are more likely to attend to
their fellow learners and pay less attention to information about completing course
assignments. By later sessions, field dependent learners may know everyone else's name but
ask for an opportunity to review details about assignments. Field independent learners, on the
other hand, may find themselves working with students about whom they know nothing.

9. Certain learning strategies tend to occur in company with other strategies to form an over-
arching set of strategies or styles. Cognitive strategies can be grouped together to form an
analytic and a holistic (or global) style (Miller, 1991). The two lists (Figure 1 at the top of the
next page) show how opposing strategies are distributed between these two over-arching

Both sets of strategies lead to competency in learning. However, analytic learners do better
when solving well-defined problems and carrying out sequential learning tasks calling for
verbal and analytical reasoning; while holistic learners do better when solving poorly-defined
problems and carrying out global learning tasks calling for visual and analogical reasoning.

A small percentage of learners can use a combined set of these two styles, a style that is
described as synthetic or integrated (Miller, 1991); and the learners capable of using this
style as "reasonable adventurers" (Entwistle, 1981).
Styles in Learning 4

Figure 1: Two Over-arching Learning Styles

Analytic Style Holistic Style

ƒ narrow scanning (of visual and auditory ƒ broad scanning (of visual and auditory
fields of experience) fields of experience)

ƒ narrow, well-differentiated categories or ƒ broad, overlapping categories or concepts


ƒ verbal memory codes ƒ visual and analogical memory codes

ƒ sequential or linear strategies to ƒ simultaneous or parallel strategies to

process the meaning of an experience process the meaning of an experience and
and store information in memory store information in memory

ƒ convergent (narrowing) search ƒ divergent (broadening) search

strategies for retrieving information strategies for retrieving information
from memory – search for best fit from memory – search for most
interesting fit

Learning Style Models

Many different learning style models exist. Curry (1983; see also Atkins, Moore, Sharpe &
Hobbs, 2001) developed an “three-layered onion” metaphor to categorize learning styles into
three broad groups:

o The outer layer of the "onion" reflects instructional preferences and behaviours that are
observable and somewhat unstable because they are more easily influenced by others and
the environment than the behaviours in the middle or inner layers. This layer includes
instructional preferences that are affected by environmental conditions (temperature,
light, sound, seating comfort); emotional issues (motivation, persistence, and
responsibility for structure and direction in learning activities); sociability (preference to
work alone, in pairs or small groups, or with an authority); and the varying contexts of
learning. A test for assessing such individual instructional preferences has been
developed by Dunn and Dunn (1978).

o The middle layer in the "onion" metaphor reflects information processing styles and is
composed of behaviours that, in comparison to the outer layer, are not directly observable
and are somewhat more stable although modifiable through learning new strategies. A
variety of learning styles are included in this group; most are measured through self-
report and self-assessed instruments, including:

ƒ Grasha-Reichmann Student Learning Style (Grasha, 1993): sorts individuals

on the basis of six learning styles – independent, dependent, participant, avoidant;
collaborative, competitive.
Styles in Learning 5

ƒ Gregorc’s Style Delineator (Gregorc, 1982): sorts individuals on the basis of

preferences for abstract or concrete information and for sequential or random
presentation of information. The model describes four learning styles – abstract
sequential, concrete sequential, abstract random, concrete random.

ƒ Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (Kolb, 1984, 1999): sorts invidivuals on the
basis of preferences for concrete or abstract sources of information and active or
reflective strategies for using information. The model describes four learning
styles – converger, accommodator, diverger, and assimilator. A separate article
has been provided on Kolb's Learning Styles.

ƒ McCarthy’s Hemispheric Mode Indicator (McCarthy, 1985, 1986): assesses

preferences for using the left or right hemisphere of the brain. McCarthy has also
developed a complex system for assessing learning and facilitating styles which
combine hemispheric mode with Kolb’s learning styles (McCarthy, 1985).

ƒ Suessmuth’s Learning Styles Inventory (Suessmuth, 1985): distinguishes

among five types of learners – auditory-language, visual-language, auditory-
numeric, visual-numeric, and auditory-kinaesthetic learners; and two types of
reporting styles – oral and written.

ƒ Felder-Solomon Inventory of Learning Styles (a modification of the Felder-

Silverman Learning Style Model) (Felder, 1993, 1996; Felder & Silverman,
1988): distinguishes four groups of learning styles – active/reflective preferences
for processing information; sensing/intuiting preferences for perceiving;
visual/verbal preferences for sensory input; and sequential/global preferences for
understanding. This inventory has the added virtue of being available online at

ƒ Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles Inventory (Dunn & Dunn, 1978; Dunn &
Griggs, 2000): assesses individuals in terms of global/analytical approaches to
learning; hemispheric preferences; and perceptual modality preferences – visual
(observing, reading), auditory (listening), tactile (touching, manipulating), and
kinaesthetic (doing, experiencing).

o The innermost layer in the "onion" metaphor reflects cognitive and personality styles that
affect an individual’s approach to adapting and assimilating information. These styles
are viewed as relatively permanent traits and less amenable to change through learning.
This group of learning styles includes:

ƒ Field dependence-independence (FDI) (Witkin & Goodenough, 1982) described

previously. FDI can be measured using the Group Embedded Figures Test
(GEFT) (Oltman, Raskin & Witkin, 1970).
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ƒ Myers Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1985): assesses preferences on four paired
styles – sensing/intuiting, thinking/feeling, perceiving/judging, and

ƒ Keirsey Temperament Sorter (Keirsey & Bates, 1984): assesses preferences on

the same paired styles as Myers-Briggs.

ƒ Personal Empowerment through Type Check (P.E.T. Check) (Cranton, 1998)

assesses individuals on the basis of introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuiting
and thinking/feeling.

Some Final Words of Caution

Information about learning styles is more practical when you are working with individual
learners on a one-to-one basis. First, identify the learner’s preferred style and then get them
started on an activity which falls within their preferred style — rather than within your preferred
style. When an individual has trouble, try to assess the difficulty in terms of both their preferred
learning style and the opposite style.

Because most groups of learners present a mixture of learning styles, it is not practical to assess
all the individual styles and then attempt to plan a program which incorporates everyone’s
preferred style. This approach is a good way to frustrate yourself and is likely to result in failure.

A better approach is to assume that all groups include a mixture of learning styles and to develop
plans which, over whatever time you have available, include activities that support different
styles at different points in the overall program or alternative activities or assignments at suitable
points. In other words, use your knowledge about learning style to expand your repertoire of
teaching strategies and to vary the types of learning activities you use.

References and Related Reading

Atkins, H., Moore, D., Sharpe, S. & Hobbs, D. (2001) Learning style theory and computer
mediated communication. Paper presented at the ED MEDIA, Tampere, Finland, 24-26 June.
Accessed 29 'March 2002 from http://oufcnt5.open.ac.uk/~Hilary_Atkins/edmedia.htm

Cranton, P. (1998) Personal empowerment through type. Sneedville, TN: Psychological Type
Press, Inc.

Curry, L. (1983) An organization of learning styles theory and constructs. In L. Curry (Ed.),
Learning style in continuing medical education (pp. 115-23). Ottawa, ON: Canadian Medical
Association. (ERIC Reproduction Document ED 235 185).

Dunn, R. & Dunn, K. (1978) Teaching students through their individual learning styles. Reston,
VA: Reston Publishing.

Dunn, R. & Griggs, S.A. (Eds.) (2000) Practical approaches to using learning style in higher
education. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey.
Styles in Learning 7

Entwistle, N. (1981) Styles of learning and teaching: an integrated outline of educational

psychology. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Felder, R.M. (1993) Reaching the second tier: Learning and teaching styles in college science
education. Journal of College Science Teaching, 23 (5), 286-290.
Felder, R.M. (1996) Matters of style. ASEE Prism, 6 (4), 18-23.

Felder, R.M. & Silverman, L.K. (1988) Learning and teaching styles in engineering education.
Engineering Education, 78 (7), 674-681.

Grasha, A.F. (1993) Teaching with style. Pittsburgh: Alliance.

Gregorc, A.G. (1982) An adult’s guide to style. Maynard, MA: Gabriel Systems.

Keefe, J.W. (1987) Learning style theory and practice. Reston, VA: National Association of
Secondary School Principals.

Keirsey, D. & Bates, M. (1984) Please understand me: Character and temperament types.
Delma, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential learning: Experiences as the source of learning and
development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Kolb, D.A. (1999) The Kolb learning style inventory. Boston: Hay Resources Direct.

MacKeracher, D. (2004) Making sense of adult learning (2nd edition). Toronto: University of
Toronto Press.

McCarthy, B. (1985) The 4MAT system: Teaching to learning styles with right/left techniques.
Barrington, IL: Excel, Inc.

McCarthy, B. (1986) Hemispheric mode indicator: Right and left brain approaches to learning.
Barrington, IL: Excel, Inc.

Miller, A. (1991) Personality styles: a modern synthesis. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Myers, I.B. (1985) Gifts differing. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Oltman, P.K., Raskin, E. & Witkin, H.A. (1970) Group embedded figures test. Palo Alto, CA:
Consulting Psychologists Press.

Sternberg, R.J. (1997) Thinking styles. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Styles in Learning 8

Suessmuth, P. (1985) A learning style inventory. Training Ideas, 44, 2-20.

Witkin, H.A., & Goodenough, D. (1977) Field dependence and interpersonal behaviour.
Psychological bulletin, 84, 661-89.