The Index of Learning Styles (Felder & Silverman, 1988), developed by Richard Felder and Linda Silverman, provides a way to understand and map the learning preferences of individuals and groups. Understanding these preferences can help identify strengths, tendencies and habits that help or act as barriers to learning.
Have you ever found yourself struggling a classroom or work situation in understanding a lesson, presentation or a debate, and wondered "why can't I get this when everyone else in the room doesn't seem to have a problem understanding it?" You may have berated yourself for taking time in getting to grips with the subject matter. But, the underlying issue may not have been immediately apparent; the style of the lesson or presentation might have only catered for a narrow learning style.
"When mismatches exist between learning styles of most students in a class and the teaching style of the professor, the students may become bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the courses, the curriculum, and themselves, and in some cases change to other curricula or drop out of school. Professors, confronted by low test grades, unresponsive or hostile classes, poor attendance and dropouts, know something is not working. They may become overly critical of their students (making things even worse) or begin to wonder if they are in the right profession. Most seriously, society loses potentially excellent professionals. To overcome these problems, professors should strive for a balance of instructional methods (as opposed to trying to teach each student exclusively according to his or her preferences.)" (Felder. R, 2012)
The Learning index
The index outlines four dimensions of learning styles,
By understanding how the learning strengths and weaknesses (or challenges) in each dimension we can then apply this knowledge to our design solutions. In this way we can ensure the ideas and information we communicate is presented in a way that accommodates different learning styles.
Sensory learners like concrete data, procedural information and facts. These learners like problem solving by well-established methods and tend to be patient with details, good at memorising facts and performing hand-on work. They also dislike complication or surprises and can also resent being tested on subject matter they have not yet covered or had time to think about.
Intuitive learners prefer to discovers facts and relationships, and also prefer theoretical information. These learners like innovative ideas and are better at grasping new concepts (and abstract ideas). However, they dislike repetition, including learning that involves lots of memorisation and routine calculations.
Visual learners remember best what they see. Their preferred learning style is through images, colour, maps and information diagrams. They can easily visualise plans and objects within their mind and are also good at spatial orientation tasks. These learners may however forget verbally communicated information.
Verbal learners remember much of what they hear. They learn well from discussions and prefer verbal explanation to visual demonstrations. They are also good at explaining things to others and find it easy to express their ideas in writing. These learners like word plays and knowing the meaning of words. Verbal learners may take longer than visual learners to understand and absorb information.
Active learners perform better in situations that allow group work and hands on experimentation. They like to use their body and senses to learn about the world around them. These learners like physical activities and like to think through problems while being active. Active learners also tend to use large hand gestures and other body language to communicate. They can sometimes however act too hastily and this can lead to making ill-informed decisions.
Reflective learners need the opportunity to think about information and concepts they are presented with. They work well learning alone or in one-on-one situations with another person. These learners prefer to think problems through and evaluate the options. They also enjoy problem-solving tasks; especially working problems out on their own. Reflective learners however can risk inaction (or avoid making a decision) by taking far longer than other learners in working through various options.
Sequential learners prefer learning (and having information presented) in a logically ordered manner. They like to piece various details together, or break components down into smaller parts, in order to understand the bigger picture. These learners are strong in convergent thinking (finding a single, well-established answer to a problem) and analysis. They also learn best with a steady progression of complexity and difficulty. Sequential learners can get caught up in the smaller details and sometimes lose sight of the big picture.
Global learners prefer to look at the big picture first, and then fill in the smaller details. They can spend some time feeling lost in trying to understand a problem, but this can followed with a ‘break-through’ moment. These learners may gain a quicker overall understanding (using intuitive leaps) of a problem in order to then apply their understanding to other situations. They also tend to be better at divergent thinking (generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions) and synthesising information allowing them to absorb more complex material. Global learners risk missing vital bits of information or a critical step by wanting to move or rush ahead.
" [and] by understanding that other people can have quite different learning preferences, you can learn to communicate your message effectively in a way that many more people can understand. This is fundamentally important, particularly if you're a professional for whom communication is an important part of your job." (Manktelow. J, Carlson A. 2012)
But there’s a hitch…
There have been many detractors about learning styles, including “Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence” by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer and Bjork. The main critism they have is the lack of validated evidence for the Leanrning Style theory
"Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis."(Pashler et al 2009)
Explicitly matching material to a specific learning style (also known as "meshing hypothesis') requires matching the learning material to the learning preference of the student. Meshing information, with a specific learners’ given style in mind, has proved to be far from satisfactory, and also impractical from a delivery point of view.
Learning styles are not mutually exclusive within a person. We have a mixture of the different styles, with a preference sometimes of using one over another. For example, a visual learner will still need to read a textbook or refer to a manual at certain times; and a verbal learner will also need to refer to a map to discover the shape and location of a country.
"Learning styles are not mutually exclusive categories but preferences that may be mild, moderate, or strong, and the fact that someone is classified as a sensor says nothing about how good he or she is at intuitive skills, or for that matter at sensing skills." (Felder, R. 2011)
Putting it all to practice
So although there seems to be a lack of robust testing of learning styles, there is a case for awareness of how different people interpret the same data, instructions or information.
A more blended approach could be a better approach, where an idea, concept or instructions are communicated through a number of means together (overview, summaries, state the application of the information, visual flows or visual diagram of steps involved and also long form description, etc.) on the same page.
As Pashler et al also concluded in their research on learning styles,
"Although we have argued that the extant data do not provide support for the learning-styles hypothesis, it should be emphasized that we do not claim that the same kind of instruction is most useful in all contexts and with all learners. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another." (Pashler et al 2009)
Learn more about your learning style
To find out what your learning style is, try this online questionnaire.
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