Learning Theories and Learning Styles

2. Learning Styles

Just as individuals exhibit different personalities it has been suggested that people learn (most effectively) in different ways. A number of different learning styles have been identified.

2.1 Field Dependence/Independence
Tennant [Tennant Mark; Psychology & Adult Learning; Routledge 1997] describes Witkin’s work on field dependence/independence. Essentially field dependent people are significantly influenced by context in making judgment whilst field independents pay little or no attention to context (i.e. are able to isolate their point of interest). Witkin suggests that field dependence/independence forms a continuous distribution, and that an individual’s field dependence/independence changes with the context in which they find themselves.

Field dependents tend to learn better in a social setting, e.g. class discussion, group work etc., and where direction and structured material are provided for them. They tend to specialize in work and study requiring interaction with people. Field independents tend to be more self-directed and better able to make sense of unstructured material. They are more likely to favour impersonal disciplines such as science and mathematics. Studies have shown that learners can modify their style of learning with appropriate guidance.

The field dependence/independence of the teacher will tend to influence their teaching style, e.g. field dependent teachers favour class discussions and field dependents favour more impersonal lectures. It is suggested that more effective learning takes place when the styles of the teacher and students match, however other commentators state that the conflict arising from mixing teacher and learner styles creates a challenge that ultimately enhances the learner’s experience.

Whilst it is impractical to create classes according to learning style, and in any case this would present the learners with a very artificial environment, it is beneficial for the teacher to be aware of the different styles and to teach in a manner that is accessible to the majority of students.

2.2 Neuro-Linguistic Programming
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is “a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience” [Robbins Stever; Neuro-Linguistic Programming: A Definition; http://www.nlp.org/whats-nlp.html]. It was first developed in the 1970s by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. The models used by NLP have arisen because they have been observed to work rather than being based on any deep underlying theory.

One NLP technique identifies a set of learning styles based upon an individual’s dominant sense.

  • Visual learners learn best from what they see.
  • Auditory learners learn best from what they hear.
  • Kinaesthetic learners learn best from physical manipulation.

Since any group of learners is likely to consist of members with different styles the most effective lessons will include elements suited to each.

2.3 Multiple Intelligence Theory
Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory suggests that human beings perceive and understand the world in a number of ways. Gardner proposes a not necessarily exhaustive list of seven such intelligences:

  • Verbal-Linguistic – the ability to use words and language.
  • Logical-Mathematical -The capacity for inductive and deductive thinking and reasoning, as well as the use of numbers and the recognition of abstract patterns.
  • Visual-Spatial -The ability to visualize objects and spatial dimensions, and create internal images and pictures.
  • Body-Kinesthetic -The wisdom of the body and the ability to control physical motion.
  • Musical-Rhythmic -The ability to recognize tonal patterns and sounds, as well as a sensitivity to rhythms and beats.
  • Interpersonal -The capacity for person-to-person communications and relationships.
  • Intrapersonal -The spiritual, inner states of being, self-reflection, and awareness.

Source [On Purpose Associates; Multiple Intelligences; http://www.funderstanding.com/multiple_intelligence.cfm].

2.4 Experiential Learning Model
Kolb and Fry (referred to in [Tennant Mark; Psychology & Adult Learning; Routledge 1997]) identify a four-stage learning cycle (experiential learning model) comprising concrete experience, reflection and observation on that experience, the formation of a theory and the testing of that theory under new conditions. From this learning cycle Kolb and Fry propose two dimensions, one ranging from concrete experience to abstract conceptualization (theory formation) the other from reflective observation to active experimentation. They further state that individuals will tend to favour one of the two extremes in each dimension and will in fact fall somewhere on the continuum between the two.

From the combination of an individual’s preference on the two dimensions Kolb and Fry identify four learning styles, namely converger, diverger, assimilator and accommodator. Kolb and Fry consider each style to be equally valid and assert that the most effective learners are those who learn to apply each of the styles to their learning experiences.

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