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Learning Styles

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Cartoon by Bill Browning, from his webpage:

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 Styles

The 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 Styles

The 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.





Students' Learning Styles

While 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).

Graph by Carol Ormand, using data from Felder and Spurlin (2005) and from the Early Career Workshop. Click on the graph to see a larger version.

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 Learning

Several major implications are apparent from these data:
  1. Most of your students learn differently than you do.
  2. Each of your students learns differently from your other students.
  3. No one teaching method will effectively reach all of your students.
  4. 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.

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