Learning Styles Can Become Learning Strategies
W. J. McKeachie University of Michigan
In the last 30 or 40 years, a number of educators have proposed that teaching would be more effective if faculty members took account of differences in students’ learning styles. A number of different conceptions of learning styles have been proposed, each with some plausibility. Probably the most widely accepted and best validated is Marton and Säljö’s (1976a,b) “deep processors” vs. “surface processors” based upon the levels of processing theory developed by Craik and Lockhart (1972). Deep processors think about the author’s purpose and relate a reading assignment to prior knowledge; surface processors read with little thought. Another well validated style is “field depen- dent” vs. “field independent” (Witkin and Goodenough, 1981). In addition to these, there are also ten or twelve less well validated attempts to describe differing styles of learning. Probably the most over- generalized and misused has been “right-brain dominant” vs. “left-brain dominant.”
Regardless of their validity, any of these methods may have heuristic value for faculty development by drawing attention to the fact that learners differ and that we need to take account of these differences in teaching. Too many teachers think
of students as a featureless mass; too many rarely vary their teaching methods, thinking that the method by which they were taught is best for ever yone.
A method appropriate for most students may be ineffective for other students who could learn more easily with a different approach. Methods of teaching (e.g., graphic or verbal), ways of representing information, personality characteris- tics of teachers — all affect learning and affect different learners differently. Thinking about learning styles can lead a teacher to think about different ways of teaching, and that is good. An effective teacher needs to vary techniques and to have an armamentarium of teaching methods and learning activities that can be drawn upon from moment to moment or from week to week to facilitate maximum learning for as many students as possible.
Nonetheless, as in most things, there are potential undesirable side effects from the use of learning style concepts. Probably the most serious is that styles are often taken to be fixed, inherited characteristics that limit students’ ability to learn in ways that do not fit their styles. Thus, some teachers draw the implication that they must match their teaching to the student’s particular style, and some students
Volume 4 Number 6 1995who have been labeled as having a particular style feel that they can only learn from a certain kind of teaching. Learning about learning styles may be helpful to teachers who have not previously thought seriously about differences among students. Where they go awry is when teachers become so committed to a particular set of learning style categories that they miss individual differences and changes over time.
Similarly, students who believe they have a particular style that cannot be changed are likely to give up when taught by a teacher whose method doesn’t match their style. Having classified the students into particular learning styles, a teacher often feels that the problem of learner differences has been solved. Some teachers become devotees of one or another learning style system. However, the “styles” or “types” identified by learning style invento- ries are not little boxes, neatly
As in most things, there are potential undesirable side effects from the use of learning style concepts.
separated from one another; rather, they represent dimensions along which learners may differ. Each individual is unique, falling at different points along the various continua that the learning style inventories purport to measure. Even when considered as dimen- sions rather than as categories, few measures of learning styles have been validated as being useful.
Most of the attempts to match students with teachers have proved to have relatively little effect upon learning. It is plausible that, at least initially, trying to fit teaching to a student’s learning style may be helpful. But the important thing to remember is that what are called “learning styles” are preferences and
habits of learning that have been learned, and that everyone is capable of going beyond the particular “style” preferred at the time. Regardless of their learning “styles,” students can learn strategies that enable them to be effective when taught by methods that are not compatible with their preferred “style.”
To assume that one must teach to a particular learning style misses the fact that a given student may be best taught by one method early in learning and by another after the student has gained some compe- tence. For example, anxious students need a good deal of structure when they first encounter a new instructor and new material. But if they are to overcome their anxiety, they later need challenges that they can successfully overcome.
None of the learning styles makes nearly as much difference as the student’s prior knowledge, intel- ligence, and motivation. All of these characteristics are learnable. My own research and teaching has focused upon teaching students skills and strategies so that they can learn more effectively regardless of differences in instruction. Our research group has developed the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Pintrich, et al., 1991), which assesses such things as the degree to which students try to relate ideas in a subject to what they already know, and the methods they use for organizing course materials.
In my “Learning to Learn” course I also teach motivational strategies. When students learn to learn in more meaningful ways they are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation for learning rather than being solely focused on the tests and grades or credentials. Similarly, when students become interested in a topic they are likely to think more about it. Cognition and motivation are interdependent.
It is important for both teachers and students to realize that learners always encounter many situations that are not adapted to their own preferences. What we teachers need to do is to help students develop the skills and strategies needed for learning effectively from teachers
THE NATIONAL TEACHING & LEARNING FORUM
Life Beyond Grades: Designing College Courses to Promote Intrinsic Motivation
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Our college holds a “Focus on Success” fair each year and various services/organizations within the college have tables with activities. There should be some type of beneficial takeaway from each table. We have done learning styles in the past, but as our program has moved away from using learning styles, I’d like to find a different learning activity.
Any ideas/suggestions out there?
Kelly Askey lodes | Peer/Group Tutoring & Study Skills Development Supervisor
Academic Support Center at Florissant Valley | IR-113