Rhonda Wynne writes a brief guide to some of the most popular theories of learner types…
All students have different intellectual abilities. They think and learn differently. Some learning patterns will have been developed as a result of the schooling experience where materials were largely presented in a way that benefited students with linguistic/numeric abilities. As a result innate learning styles may not have been developed and students may need to be encouraged to identify their own learning pattern.
There are various ways of classifying differences in learning styles. Many theories and models have been proposed. This section will look at three of the most common learning styles classifications:
· left and right brain · auditory, visual and kinaesthetic · activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists
Left and Right Brain
In the last 20 years, research has revealed that the two hemispheres of the brain perform different functions. According to Rose and Nicholl (1997):
'the left brain specialises in academic aspects of learning - language andmathematical processes, logical thoughts, sequences and analysis. The right brain is principally concerned with creative activities utilising rhyme, rhythm, music, visual impressions, colour and pictures. It's our metaphorical mind, looking for analogies and patterns.'
Although each hemisphere is dominant in certain activities, they are both involved in almost all thinking. Both sides of the brain can reason, but by different strategies, and one side may be dominant. Therefore, this has a major implication for how we learn:
Experimentation has shown that the two different sides, or hemispheres, of the brain are responsible for different manners of thinking. The following table illustrates the differences between left-brain and right-brain thinking:
Predominantly left-brained people prefer a slow step-by-step build up of information; they are sometimes called ‘linear’ learners
Predominantly right-brained people need to see the big picture, to have an overview; they are the ‘global’ type of learner
Most individuals have a distinct preference for one of these styles of thinking. Some, however, are more whole-brained and equally adept at both modes. In general, our school system has tended to favour left-brain modes of thinking, while downplaying the right-brain ones. Left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. In order to be more "whole-brained" in their orientation, schools need to give equal weight to the arts, creativity, and the skills of imagination and synthesis.
To foster a more whole-brained learning experience, teachers can adopt delivery methodologies that connect with both sides of the brain. They can increase their classroom's right-brain learning activities by incorporating more patterning, metaphors, analogies, role playing, visuals, and movement into their reading, calculation, and analytical activities.
Assessment - For a more accurate whole-brained evaluation of student learning, educators must develop new forms of assessment that honour right-brained talents and skills.
Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic Learners
Research by neuro-linguistic programming experts Bandler, Grinder andGrinder has identified three distinct communications and learning styles:
1. Visual Learners: learn through seeing... Visual learners relate most effectively to written information, notes, diagrams and pictures. These learners need to see the tutor's body language and facial expression to fully understand the content of a lesson. They may think in pictures and learn best from visual displays including:
During a lecture or classroom discussion, visual learners often prefer to take detailed notes to absorb the information. They may be unhappy with a presentation where they are unable to take detailed notes - to an extent information does not exist for a visual learner unless it has been seen written down. This is why some visual learners will take notes even when they have printed course notes on the desk in front of them. Visual learners will tend to be most effective in written communication, symbol manipulation etc.
Visual learners make up around 65% of the population.
2. Auditory Learners: learn through listening... They learn best through verbal lectures, discussions, talking things through and listening to what others have to say. Auditory learners interpret the underlying meanings of speech through listening to tone of voice, pitch, speed and other nuances. Written information may have little meaning until it is heard. These learners often benefit from reading text aloud and using a tape recorder. They will tend to listen to a lecture, and then take notes afterwards, or rely on printed notes. Auditory learners may be sophisticated speakers, and may specialise effectively in subjects like law or politics.
Auditory learners make up about 30% of the population.
3. Tactile/Kinaesthetic Learners: learn through, moving, doing and touching... Kinaesthetic Learners learn effectively through touch and movement and space, and learn skills by imitation and practice. They learn best through a hands-on approach, actively exploring the physical world around them. They may find it hard to sit still for long periods and may become distracted by their need for activity and exploration. Predominantly kinaesthetic learners can appear unresponsive, in that information is normally not presented in a style that suits their learning methods.
Kinaesthetic learners make up around 5% of the population.
All of us utilise all three types of learning, but most people display apreference for one over the other two. In early life the split amongst the overall population is fairly even, but by adulthood the visual side has become dominant.
In the mid 1980s Honey and Mumford identified four types of learners. They developed a detailed questionnaire/self-perception inventory for use in determining individual learning styles. Detailed descriptions are available online, and in texts, (see bibliography). The following summary outlines the main characteristics of each of their four types of learner and explains briefly how each style can be best accommodated.
The Reflector · Likes the opportunity to think and consider implications · Prefers passive role in discussions · Learns from listening, observing and working independently
Learns most effectively through individual project work lectures and independent study
· Dislikes being forced to contribute to discussion without considering all evidence. · Resists being rushed from one activity to another · Worries if deadlines force work to be produced without careful thought
Learns least effectively from spontaneous activity with no time for careful planning
The Theorist · Learns most effectively when dealing with models and theories and likes a clear and definite purpose for work · Enjoys exploring connections between ideas, issues and concepts
Learns most effectively through problem solving, discussion and questioning theory, or reading and evaluating books.
· Dislikes being involved in unstructured situations with no obvious theoretical framework · Likely to be more comfortable with objective facts
Learns least effectively from open-ended questions, explorative project work, skills training, etc.
The Activist · Enjoys new experiences and challenges · Thrives best in situations which involve changing range of activities · Enjoys being the centre of attention · Benefits from the opportunity to develop ideas through discussion and interaction with others
Likely to learn most effectively through group work, discussions, seminars, workshops, etc.
· Dislikes taking a passive role in learning and does not enjoy tightly constrained tasks. Prefers to work with others
Learns least effectively from lectures, labs, reading, writing on own.
The Pragmatist · Enjoys seeing how theory relates to practice · Enjoys practical techniques relevant to subject/employment and practical problem solving · Prefers practical rather than theoretical · Likes clear guidelines to work to
Learns most effectively through work based projects, practical problem solving, etc.
· Dislikes learning situations where material is too theoretically based and application or relevance cannot be seen.
Learns least effectively from theoretical discussion, debate, etc.
Clearly, these basic types are extremes, and most people have some characteristics of all four. However, an awareness of such diverse learning styles highlights the need to create a participative learning environment through the use of varied teaching methodologies, creative and focused classroom exercises, group/individual work, and problem based learning exercises.
Many other theories and models on learning styles have been proposed. One of the most influential is Howard Gardner's theory on Multiple Intelligences. His work further suggests that there are a number of distinct forms of intelligence that each individual possesses in varying degrees. Gardner proposes seven primary forms: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal (e.g., insight, metacognition) and interpersonal (e.g., social skills).
According to Gardner, the implication of the theory is that learning/teaching should focus on the particular intelligences of each person.
Rhonda Wynne is Tutor Development Manager in UCD’s Adult Education Department