Not everyone learns the same way. In fact, there is a stunning variety of learning styles. To illustrate this, Early Career workshop participants each complete the Index of Learning Styles, an online learning styles inventory based on a learning model formulated by Richard M. Felder and Linda K. Silverman. The results of this inventory are shown below. As you can see, even the geoscience professors participating in the workshop display a wide range of learning styles. If geoscience professors display this many different learning styles, imagine the variety of learning styles among the students in your classes!
About the Index of Learning StylesThe index of learning styles measures learning style preferences on four dimensions, each of which is described below. However, it does not measure aptitude. For example, one student might have both strong visual and verbal learning skills, but prefer to absorb information visually. Another student might have both poor visual and verbal learning skills, but prefer to absorb information visually. These two students could have identical "scores" on the visual-verbal dimension of the index of learning styles, despite marked differences in their aptitudes for learning via those styles (Felder, FAQs).
Learning style preferences may be strong, weak, or nearly non-existent. On the graphs below, a score near the middle of the graph represents a relatively weak preference within that particular learning dimension. For example, a score near the middle of the Active-Reflective graph indicates that the learner prefers active learning in some situations and reflective learning in others. On the other hand, a score far from the middle of the graph represents a strong preference for one learning style over the other (Felder, FAQs).
However strong your preference is for a particular learning style, you can develop your ability to learn via the "opposite" learning style. In fact, Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman have written a guide to Learning Styles and Strategies for people who want to do that.
Early Career Workshop Participants' Learning StylesThe descriptions for each of the learning style dimensions below are taken word-for-word from Felder and Soloman's Learning Styles and Strategies webpage. The data for the graphs, however, come from participants in the Cutting Edge Early Career Geoscience Faculty Workshop.
- "Active learners tend to retain and understand information best by doing something active with it–discussing or applying it or explaining it to others. Reflective learners prefer to think about it quietly first."
- "'Let's try it out and see how it works' is an active learner's phrase; 'Let's think it through first' is the reflective learner's response."
- "Active learners tend to like group work more than reflective learners, who prefer working alone."
- "Sitting through lectures without getting to do anything physical but take notes is hard for both learning types, but particularly hard for active learners."
- "Sensing learners tend to like learning facts, intuitive learners often prefer discovering possibilities and relationships."
- "Sensors often like solving problems by well-established methods and dislike complications and surprises; intuitors like innovation and dislike repetition. Sensors are more likely than intuitors to resent being tested on material that has not been explicitly covered in class."
- "Sensors tend to be patient with details and good at memorizing facts and doing hands-on (laboratory) work; intuitors may be better at grasping new concepts and are often more comfortable than sensors with abstractions and mathematical formulations."
- "Sensors tend to be more practical and careful than intuitors; intuitors tend to work faster and to be more innovative than sensors."
- "Sensors don't like courses that have no apparent connection to the real world; intuitors don't like 'plug-and-chug' courses that involve a lot of memorization and routine calculations."
- "Visual learners remember best what they see–pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations. Verbal learners get more out of words–written and spoken explanations."
- "Everyone learns more when information is presented both visually and verbally."
- "Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in linear steps, with each step following logically from the previous one. Global learners tend to learn in large jumps, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then suddenly 'getting it.'"
- "Sequential learners tend to follow logical stepwise paths in finding solutions; global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it."
Students' Learning StylesWhile no data are currently availabe on the learning styles of students in geoscience classes, data from studies of engineering students display similarly broad ranges of learning style preferences to those shown by our workshop participants (Felder and Spurlin, 2005). In addition, the engineering students in those studies are approximately as likely to prefer active and visual modes of learning as our faculty workshop participants – learning styles that are at a disadvantage in traditional lecture settings (Felder and Spurlin, 2005).
While Early Career workshop participants show relatively equal preferences for learning via sensing and intuiting, engineering students were more likely to prefer sensing. (Interestingly, engineering faculty preferred intuiting.) Similarly, Early Career workshop participants show relatively equal preferences for sequential and global learning modes, while engineering students were more likely to prefer sequential learning, and engineering faculty preferred global learning. (Felder and Spurlin, 2005).
As Felder and Spurlin (2005, p. 109) note, traditional-style lectures favor students who are reflective, intuitive, verbal, and sequential learners. However, the majority of the students in their study were active, sensing, and visual! Clearly, although lecturing works very well for some students, they are a minority in engineering classrooms, and very likely in other classrooms as well.
Implications for Teaching and LearningSeveral major implications are apparent from these data:
- Most of your students learn differently than you do.
- Each of your students learns differently from your other students.
- No one teaching method will effectively reach all of your students.
- You cannot address all of your students' learning styles all of the time.
To address these different learning styles, effective teachers use a variety of teaching styles. Richard Felder has some outstanding, very specific advice on how to address the spectrum of learning styles you find in your classroom, in his article Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education. (more info) In this case, the phrase "the second tier" refers to those students who enter college with the intention and abilities to earn science degrees, but who switch to non-scientific fields during their college years.
Felder, Richard M., Richard Felder's Responses to Frequently Asked Questions about the ILS, accessed 24 January, 2006.
Felder, Richard M., "Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education." J. College Science Teaching, 23(5), 286-290 (1993).
Felder, Richard M. and Barbara A. Soloman, Index of Learning Styles, accessed 24 January, 2006.
Felder, Richard M. and Joni Spurlin, 2005. Applications, Reliability, and Validity of the Index of Learning Styles (Acrobat (PDF) 223kB Feb2 06), International Journal of Engineering Education, v. 21, n. 1, pp. 103-112.