A New Look at Learning Styles - By Barbara S. Bonham and Hunter R. Boylan

A New Look at Learning Styles
 By Barbara S. Bonham and Hunter R. Boylan
                                                     individuals, not just different “styles.” Each
       Learning        styles      has   become
                                                     instrument measures different preferences,
something of a “hot issue” in developmental
                                                     characteristics,   or   traits;   has   different
education during the past decade. Each year,
                                                     degrees of reliability; and is used for
more presentations on the topic are given at
                                                     different purposes. It is, therefore, important
national conferences. Articles on learning
                                                     for practitioners to determine the dimensions
styles have appeared more frequently in
recent literature. And, more learning styles         they wish to measure and what they want to

inventories are appearing on the educational         do with the resulting information before

market. In spite of the increasing attention         selecting a learning styles inventory. In an

paid to this issue, however, our conception          effort to assist in this process, this issue of

of learning styles remains somewhat limited.         Research in Developmental Education will
                                                     explore an organizational framework for
       Many professionals in the field
                                                     understanding learning styles issues and
consider learning styles to represent a
                                                     instruments and discuss some of the
singular, monolithic concept. Differences in
                                                     implications of this framework.
learning styles are often considered to be
represented by the nomenclature used to                        An Organizational Framework

identify the modalities of learners, such as             Curry (1983), proposed a framework that
“iconic”      versus     “direct     experience”     has since been used by many researchers
(Canfield, 1976) or “accommodator” versus            attempting to classify human styles of
“converger” (Kolb, 1986). All of these               learning. In Curry’s model, learning styles is
labels are assumed to measure some                   simply a generic term under which three
characteristic of learners that falls under a        distinct levels of learning behavior are
general category called “learning styles.”           subsumed.     These     levels    include    the
       In actuality, various learning styles
instruments     really     measure       different
dimensions       and      characteristics      of

                                                                                         Page 1 of 8
1. Cognitive personality style: the
       individual’s approach to adapting
       and assimilating information.

   2. Information processing style: the
       intellectual   procedures     used    my
       individuals       in         assimilating

   3. Instructional       preference:        the         Figure 1. Learning Style Theories.
       individual’s preference for learning        Cognitive Personality Style
       environments and activities.
                                                             Cognitive personality styles are, in
   Curry presents this model graphically as        effect,     attributes    of      an    individual’s
an onion with the various levels of learning       personality that influence approaches to
styles represented as layers of the onion.         learning. In theory, at least, any instrument
   As this representation suggests (see            designed to measure personality attributes
Figure 1), cognitive personality styles are        would      be   related     to    cognitive      style.
central to individual approaches to learning.      However, the two best known cognitive
They influence all other aspects of learning       personality style instruments are those of
styles. Cognitive personality styles are then      Witkin (1976) and Myers and Briggs (1985).
translated through the middle layers of                      The    research        of    Witkin     and
information processing and attain their final      associates is probably the most extensive
expression as instructional preferences. Each      work on cognitive personality style (Witkin,
of these layers is discussed below in detail       Moore,      Goodenough,          &     Cox.     1977).
and a fourth layer is postulated.                  Witkin’s research suggests that there are two
                                                   basic types of cognitive personality styles:
                                                   field dependent and field independent. Field-
                                                   dependent learners tend to be more sensitive
                                                   to people and social situations whereas field-
                                                   independent learners tend to be more
                                                   sensitive to situations requiring analytical
                                                   and       problem-solving        abilities.     Field-

                                                                                            Page 2 of 8
dependent learners do better in math and              McCaulley and Natter (1980) suggests that
science. According to Witkin (1976), field            instructors     “tend     to   understand     and
dependence or independence influences not             appreciate students whose minds work like
only such factors as how well students do in          their own” (p. 185).
a given subject area but also what course,                       Originally developed for use in the
majors, or careers they may select. The most          military, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
common           measurement        of        field   has found a variety of applications in
dependence/field      independence       is    the    civilian     counseling    and    training    and
Embedded Figures Test developed by                    development. It can be administered to
Witkin et al. (1977).                                 groups or individuals and may be used to
       It   is    worth    noting   that      field   help individuals understand themselves,
dependence is a personality style that                understand how they learn, or increase their
influences ways of learning.                          sensitivity to other ways of learning. Unlike
                                                      many other instruments, however, it requires
       A similar set of personality styles is
measured    by      the   Myers-Briggs        Type    a trained counselor to administer.

Indicator (1985). This instrument is based                       The personality attributes measured
on the concepts of Carl Jung (cited in                by field dependence/field independence and
Myers. 1976). It has been used extensively            by the MBTI are at the inner level of
to provide information of 16 categories               Curry’s “onion.” They tend to be central to
related to learners’ ways of thinking and             the     development       of     preference    or
feeling, sensing and perceiving, intuiting            organizational patterns for learning. They
and judging, etc.                                     not only influence characteristics at other
                                                      levels, they are also more stable than other
       Research suggests that the Myers-
                                                      characteristics at the outer level. Assessment
Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is most
                                                      measures at this level will, consequently,
effective when the resulting information is
                                                      have greater test-retest reliability than
used with instructors as well as students.
                                                      measures at the outer levels. Cognitive
Lawrence (1982), for instance, found that
                                                      personality styles, therefore, are the most
instructors of different MBTI types are
attracted to different levels of teaching and         constant and least likely to change over
different subject areas. The work of

                                                                                           Page 3 of 8
It should be noted that instruments                as a mediator between cognitive personality
measuring cognitive personality styles do                  styles and instructional preference.
have their limitations.                                               Several researchers, most notably
        Chief among these is that they are                 Kirby (1979) and Schmech, Ribich, and
measures       of     personality,    not      learning    Ramanaiah (1977), have found that there is a
preferences. They do not measure learners’                 relationship between information processing
attitudes toward conditions in the learning                style and academic success. Students with
environment nor do they measure student                    highly developed well organized, sequential
modalities or expectations of learning.                    processing styles are more likely to be
Unfortunately, the MBTI is frequently used                 successful academically than those with less
for these purposes even though there is no                 developed processing styles.
research or other evidence to support such                            Information processing styles are
applications of the instrument.                            internal and do not involve environmental
Information Processing Style                               factors.     As     a     consequence,        they     are

        The second layer of learning styles                somewhat          less     stable   than      cognitive

and learning styles assessments is that of                 personality styles yet somewhat more stable
                                                           than instructional preferences. Furthermore,
information processing style. This refers to
                                                           unlike         personality          styles,          these
intellectual        processes   and      procedures
characteristically        by     individuals         to    characteristics          are   modifiable       through
                                                           instruction (e.g. the teaching of learning
assimilate, organize, and make sense of
information.        Examples     of     information
processing           styles     would          include                Claire Weinstein at the University of
characteristic           learning            strategies,   Texas – Austin (Weinstein and Mayer,
metacognitive         approaches,       or      critical   1986) has, indeed, provided evidence that
thinking skills. These styles are, to some                 learning strategies and metacognition can
degree, determined by personality styles.                  not only be taught but that the teaching of
Furthermore, they contribute to student                    them can improve student performance. Her
preferences for instructional environment                  work has been central to our understanding
and presentation. They function, therefore,                of information processing styles.

                                                                                                      Page 4 of 8
Information on the teaching of              &Mueller. 1987) are among the best known
learning strategies through special courses         examples        of     study      skills        assessments
can be obtained by contacting the Cognitive         instruments. As Bliss and Mueller point out,
Learning Strategies Project at the University       however, what students report as appropriate
of Texas (University Station, Austin, TX            study skills are not, necessarily, the same
78712).Kurfiss (1988) has also provided a           skills they actually apply to studying.
guide to the integrating of critical thinking       Fortunately, both knowledge of study skills
skills into disciplinary courses.                   techniques as well as study skills behaviors
                                                    are modifiable through instruction.
        A variety of measures exist for
assessing information processing styles. The        Instructional Preference
Learning and Study Strategies Inventory                       The    outer         layer    of      the   onion
(Weinstein, Schulte, & Palmer, 1987), the           represents students’ preferences for various
Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal           subjects, modes of instruction, and learning
(Watson & Glaser, 1980), and the Cornell            environments           as       well       as     students’
Test of Critical Thinking Ability (Ennis &          expectations of learning. Discussions with
Millmanin, 1962) are among the best known           practitioners           suggest            that       these
of    these    instruments.   Each    of   these    characteristics are the ones they most
instruments      can   be     administered     to   frequently associate with the term learning
individuals      or    groups.      Furthermore,    styles.     In        reality,         however,       these
specialized training is not required to             characteristics are only the most external
administer and interpret them.                      reflection of a complex interaction between
        In addition to critical thinking and        personality           styles      and           information
metacognition, study skills may also be             processing styles. They are also the least
considered to be a part of the family of            stable of all learning styles characteristics.
characteristics associated with information                   There is some evidence to suggest
processing skills. As in critical thinking and      that students learn better when taught
metacognitive strategies, study skills may          according        to     their      instructional       and
also be measured through a variety of               environmental preferences (Byrne, Hattie, &
instruments. The Survey of Study Habit and
                                                    Fraser, 1986; Canfield, 1986). Furthermore,
Attitudes (Brown & Holtzman, 1967) and              gathering information on learning styles
the    Study     Behavior     Inventory    (Bliss

                                                                                                    Page 5 of 8
preferences may help instructors identify                  skills more rapidly. On the other hand, the
those students who might have difficulty                   stronger developmental student or those who
with their particular mode of instruction and              have already mastered more basic skills
enable them to provide assistance in                       might be better served by teaching in a
advance. There is also some evidence to                    variety of instructional modes.
suggest that simply knowing their own                             In either case, the assessment of
learning      styles     contributes     to      student
                                                           instructional preferences does offer a variety
comfort       in   the      learning     environment       of benefits to developmental instructions.
(Rabianski-Carriuolo, 1989).                               Among the best known measures of
       At present, there are two schools of                instructional preference are the Canfield
thought regarding the use of learning                      Learning Style Inventory (Canfield, 1986)
preferences information for instruction.                   and the Learning Style Inventory (Kolb,
Canfield (1986) suggests that instructors can              1986). Both of these inventories provide a
improve       learning       by     adjusting      their   relatively quick and simple way of assessing
instructional      activities      to   accommodate        students’        preferences   for      learning
individual’s       student’s       learning      styles.   environments and modalities.
McCarthy (1982) suggests that, instead of
                                                           Cultural Styles
teaching directly to individual learning style,
                                                                      In addition to those styles of
instructors        should         deliberately      and
                                                           learning and cognition included in Curry’s
systematically teach in a variety of modes.
                                                           (1985) framework, it is possible that another
This enables students to learn in their own
                                                           set of styles may also exist. While research
preferred style some of the time while
                                                           on this is, as yet, limited (Anderson, 1988;
forcing them to learn in other styles the rest
                                                           Decker, 1983; Hilliard, 1989), there is some
of the time, thereby creating more flexible
                                                           speculation that different cultural groups
                                                           may have different learning styles and
       For the practice of developmental                   preferences indigenous to their particular
education, both schools of thought may have                culture. It is possible that a particular
their place. The very weakest development                  cultural    or    ethnic   group     may   have
students may be best served by instructors                 experiences, mores, or shared values that
keyed directly to their learning preferences.              cause them to prefer certain types of
This might enable them to master basic

                                                                                                Page 6 of 8
learning experiences or to approach learning          c) some attributes are more stable than
in particular ways.                                      others;

          There is evidence (Anderson, 1988;          d) students do tend to learn better when
Shade, 1982) that some ethnic groups are                 material is presented in a manner
more likely to prefer different learning                 consistent with their preferences;
experiences or to relate to learning in               e) students can become more flexible
different ways than others. Whether these
                                                         learners when material is presented in a
differences     are    based     on   personality        variety of different ways; and
characteristics,      information     processing
                                                      f) some      cultural     groups     may     have
styles,    or   instructional    preferences   or
                                                         particular styles or preferences unique
whether the represent an entirely different
                                                         to their particular.
“layer of the onion,” such as socio-economic
background, is not yet known.              They        It is probably not possible to assess
represent yet another area for further              every student on every dimension of
research.                                           learning styles. Similarly, it is equally
                                                    impossible to teach each student according
                                                    to his or her preferred mode of learning.
          It is hoped that the framework for
                                                           What developmental educators can
categorizing types of learning styles is not a
                                                    do is to determine whatever dimension of
monolithic concept.            Instead it is an
                                                    learning styles is most consistent with their
umbrella term describing several aspects of
                                                    programs       and   services    and     use    the
human personalities, processing styles, and
                                                    appropriate instruments accordingly. If no
preferences. In order to implement learning
                                                    follow-up is available, for instance, it would
styles assessment and use the resulting
                                                    probably be pointless to administer the
information properly, it is important to
                                                    Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers &
understand that:
                                                    Briggs, 1985) or the Embedded Figures Test
  a) different instruments measure entirely         (Witkin et al., 1977) for any purpose other
     different attributes of learning;              than discussion. If a particular course is
  b) some attributes are more amenable to           required to be taught in a particular way, it
     modification through instruction than          would be equally pointless to administer the
     others;                                        Canfield       Learning      Styles     Inventory

                                                                                           Page 7 of 8
(Canfield, 1976) for any purpose other than          critically    and   use   more     sophisticated
discussion.                                          strategies.

    In the absence of more research on the                               References
subject,    developmental       educators     are    Anderson, J. (1988). Cognitive styles and
probably best served by doing five things.
                                                       multicultural     populations.   Journal    of
First, the should read the technical manual
                                                       Teacher Education, 39 2-9.
thoroughly for any instrument they are
considering for use. Second, they should             (ugh these references suck ass!)
take the instrument themselves. Third, they
should choose a learning styles instrument
that they understand and discuss the results
with students in such a way as to promote
the students’ understanding of their own
learning. Fourth, they should deliberately
and systematically use as many different
types of learning activities as possible in
their classes. Fifth, they should attempt to
integrate     training   in   critical   thinking,
learning strategies, and metacognition into
their classes.

    Although these five actions may not
improve the performance of all students,
they will make it more likely that students
will understand the consequences of their
own styles of learning. They will make it
possible for students to learn according to
their own preferences more often than would
be the case with any single mode of
instruction. Finally, they will improve the
likelihood that students will think more

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