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Learning Styles
We each learn and process information in different ways. You probably didn’t realize this earlier because most of us attended schools where teachers delivered instruction in one way. Most teachers talked to us, and we answered their questions. We then took pencil- and paper-based tests. Schools taught one way and didn’t help or encourage us to learn our unique styles.

There are many different ways to classify learning styles. These fall into general categories: perceptual modality, information processing , and personality patterns. The categories represent ways to focus on the learner.

Perceptual modalities define biologically based reactions to our physical environment and represent the way we most efficiently adopt data. We should learn our perception style so we can seek out information in the format that we process most directly. Educators should pay attention to modalities to ensure programs strike all physiologic levels.

Information processing distinguishes between the way we sense, think, solve problems, and remember information. Each of us has a preferred, consistent, distinct way of perceiving, organizing, and retaining information.

Personality patterns focus on attention, emotion, and values. Studying these differences allows us to predict the way we will react and feel about different situations.

We will spend our time here on perceptual modalities because it has the most implications in education.

Perceptual Modality
Perceptual modality refers to the primary way our bodies take in information. Commonly, researchers identify auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile styles. The field of accelerated learning also relies heavily on modality to explain how learners can process information faster.

Howard Gardner established another way of grouping modalities. He asserts there are at least seven modalities or intelligences that link to our individual styles.

Gardner suggests humans can be (1) verbal-linguistic (sensitive to the meaning and order of words), (2) musical (sensitive to pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone), (3) logical-mathematical (able to handle chains of reasoning and recognize patterns and order), (4) spatial (perceive the world accurately and try to re-create or transform aspects of that world), (5) bodily-kinesthetic (able to use the body skillfully and handle objects adroitly), (6) interpersonal (understand people and relationships), or (7) intrapersonal (possess access to one’s emotional life as a means to understand oneself and others).

While Gardner’s work encourages us to think about modality in new and creative ways, a solid grasp of the core modalities applies immediately to everything we do.

Most people retain a dominant and an auxiliary learning modality. We usually rely on those modes to process information at an unconscious level, but we may be consciously aware of which modes we prefer. We access through all senses, but generally favor one. We process visually (by sight), auditorally (by sound), kinesthetically (by moving), and tactilly (by touch).

Visual learners prefer seeing what they are learning. Pictures and images help them understand ideas and information better than explanations. A drawing may help more than a discussion about the same. When someone explains something to a visual learner, he or she may create a mental picture of what the person talking describes.

If you are a visual learner, you may find it helpful to see the person speaking. You may watch a speaker talk, as well as listen to what he or she says.

Many people assume reading is a visual action. Though we see the words, most of us process the information by hearing ourselves say the words. As a result, researchers identify people who prefer to process by reading, auditory learners. Others label the readers ‘Print-oriented,’ aligning them closely with visual learners. Visual learners are more shape- and form-oriented. Print-oriented people depend more on words or numbers in their images.

Auditory learners also fall into two categories. Auditory learners prefer spoken messages. The less understood auditory learners need to hear their own voice to process the information. The more prevalent type, ‘Listeners,’ most likely did well in school. Out of school too, they remember things said to them and make the information their own. They may even carry on mental dialogues and determine how to continue by thinking back on the words of others.

Conversely, those who need to ‘talk it out’ often find themselves talking to those around them. In a class setting when the instructor is not asking questions, auditory-verbal processors (talkers) tend to mutter comments to themselves. They are not trying to be disruptive and may not even realize they need to talk. Some researchers go so far as to call these learners ‘Interactives.’

While some auditory learners prefer to listen to both themselves and others, mounting evidence suggests the two types are distinct and separate.

Kinesthetic learners want to sense the position and movement of what they are working on. Tactile learners want to touch. “Enough talking and looking,” they may say. “Let’s work with this stuff. Let’s get our hands dirty already.” Even if kinesthetic or tactile learners don’t get much from the discussion or the written materials, they may catch up and exceed the lesson plan by working through scenarios and labs. Often, they don’t thrive in traditional schools because most classrooms don’t offer enough opportunity to move or touch.

Most assessments group kinesthetic and tactile styles together, though they mean different things. Their similarity is that both types perceive information through nerve ends in the skin, as well as organs through muscles, tendons, and joints.

We can sometimes sense the way people process by listening to the words they use to describe learning situations. For example, a visual learner may say, “I see your point.” An auditory learner may instead say, “I hear what you’re saying.” And a kinesthetic learner may say, “I feel we’re moving in the right direction.”

Studies show that single-style classes (where modality indicators segregate a group) can be more effective than classes with diverse-style learners. The non-homogenous approach, however, seems impractical and doesn’t lend itself to the various challenges learners face each day.

Likewise, learners can compensate when the instructional medium doesn’t match individual style. Kinesthetic learners may benefit from reading and auditory learners can improve their understanding by touching what they are working on. Possessing various compensating strategies allows us to benefit under all circumstances.

As learners, the most important thing we can gather from processing styles is to know our own physiologic preferences and choose instructional media accordingly when possible.

Further, educators and instructional designers need to build courses and programs that address multiple learning styles. Instead of using, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as the Golden Rule of training, it may be more appropriate to say, “Present information to others as they will best learn.”

Howard Gardner (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intellegences (10th anneversary edition). New York: Basic Books.
Leslie Shelton, Joan Sheldon Conan, and Holly Fulghum-Nutters (1992). Honoring diversity: A Multidimensional Learning Model for Adults. Sacramento, CA: California State Library Foundation.
Shelton, et al. (1992).
Bob Zenhausern, at the University of St. Johns, is a leading researcher in this field.
J. Ingham, R. Dunn, L. Deckinger, and G. Geisert (1995–1996). Impact of perceptual preferences on adults’ corporate training and achievement. National Forum on Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, 12 (2).
Books on Learning Styles
Adult Education: Evolution and Achievements in a Developing Field of Study, John M. Peters, Peter Jarvis & Assoc., 1991.

Adult Education in a Multicultural Society. Beverly B. Cassara (ed). 1991.

The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development Malcolm S. Knowles, et al Gulf Pub Co. Hardcover 5th edition. August 1998.

Adult Literacy and New Technologies: Tools for a Lifetime, Office of Technology Assessment US Congress, 1993.

Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. K. Patricia Cross, 1982. Paperback. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

The Book of Learning and Forgetting Frank Smith

The Complete Guide to the Learning Styles Inservice System Rita Stafford Dunn, Kenneth J. Dunn.

The Emergence of Learning Societies: Who Participates in Adult Learning?

Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, Raymond J. Wlodkowski, 1985.

Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education:, Sharan B. Merriam & Phyllis M. Cunningham, editors, 1989.

Helping Adults Learn, Alan B. Knox, 1986.

Helping Adults Learn How to Learn Robert M. Smith, Paperback. 1983. Jossey-Bass. [This book is out of print, but worth watching for at used bookstores.]

How Adults Learn, J.R. Kidd, 1978.

How to Implement and Supervise a Learning Style Program Rita Stafford Dunn.

Inquiring Mind Cyril O. Houle

Learning How to Learn: Applied Theory for Adults, Robert M. Smith, 1982. You might want to check out Smith’s other book Helping Adults Learn How to Learn.

Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (2nd ed). Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella. Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Learning to Learn Carolyn Olivier.

Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning.

The Making of an Adult Educator. Malcolm S. Knowles. 1989.

The Making of Mind. A.R. Luria

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Oliver Sacks.

Mastering the Teaching of Adults. Jerold W. Apps, 1991.

The Mind of a Mnemonist. This is the book that inspired Oliver Sacks’ writing.

The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, Malcolm S. Knowles, 1980.

The Profession and Practice of Adult Education: An Introduction. Sharan B. Merriam, Ralph G. Brockett (Contributor) Jossey-Bass. 1996

Self-Directed Learning: A Practical Guide to Design, Development, and Implementation. George M. Piskurich. Jossey Bass, 1993.

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger.

Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. Stephen D. Brookfield, 1991 reprint. Jossey-Bass.

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation

A Teacher’s Guide to Cognitive Type Theory & Learning Style. Carolyn Mamchur. 1996.

Barsch Learning Style Inventory. Jeffrey Barsch. 1980.

Brainstyles: Change Your Life Without Changing Who You Are. Marlane Miller. 1997.

Cognitive Style: Five Approaches and Relevant Research. Kenneth M. Goldstein. 1978.

Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning. Harry Morgan. 1997.

Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies. Rayner. 1998.

Cognitive Styles: A Primer to the Literature. Robert M. Hashway. 1992.

Handbook of Individual Differences. Learning. and Instruction. David H. Jonassen, Barbara L. Grabowski. 1993.

How to Implement and Supervise a Learning Style Program. Rita Dunn. 1996.

Individual Learners: Personality Differences in Education. W. Ray Crozier. 1997.

Keys to Effective Learning. Carol Carter. et al. 1998.

Learning and Teaching Style: In Theory and Practice. Kathleen A. Butler. 1988.

Learning Strategies and Learning Styles. Perspectives on Individual Differences. Ronald R. Schmeck (ed). 1988.

Learning Style Identification Handbook. With Forms. Paul J. Malcom. 1981.

Learning Style Profile Technical Manual. James W. Keefe. 1988.

Learning Style Theory and Practice. James W. Keefe. 1987.

Modes of Thought: Explorations in Culture and Cognition. David R. Olson, Nancy Torrance (eds). 1996.

Nurturing Intelligences. Brian Haggerty. 1994.

Profiling and Utilizing Learning Style. James W. Keefe (ed). 1988.

Profiling and Utilizing Learning Style. James W. Keefe (ed). 1988.

Teaching & Learning Through Multiple Intelligences. Bruce Campbell, Dee Dickinson, Linda E. G. Campbell. 1996.

The Importance of Learning Styles: Understanding the Implications for Learning. Course Design. and Education. Contributions to the Study of Education. Ronald R. Sims, Serbrenia J. Sims (ed). 1995.

Thinking Styles. Robert J. Sternberg. 1997.

Articles about Learning Styles
The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) is a federally-funded national information system that provides services and products on a broad range of education-related issues. Copies of their articles can be ordered through http://www.ericir.syr.edu. You’ll need the specific document number (for example, ED302280) to order reports and articles.

Applying Learning Styles Research To Improve Writing Processes. Nathan B. Jones. ED400719

Learning Style: Cognitive and Thinking Skills. Instructional Leadership Series. James W. Keefe. ED355634

Learning Styles and the Classroom. Arthur J. More. ED368479

Learning Styles Counseling. Shirley A. Griggs. ED333308

Learning Styles. Charles S. Claxton, Patricia H. Murrell. ED301143

Learning Styles. ED323249

Learning Styles. What Research Says to the Teacher Series. Judith C. Reiff. ED340506

Learning Styles: A Review of the Literature. Linda J. Swanson. ED387067

Learning Styles: Implications for Curriculum and Instruction. Harley J. Ast. ED302280

Report of the New York State Board of Regents’ Panel on Learning Styles. ED348407

The Importance of Learning Styles: Understanding the Implications for Learning. Course Design. and Education. Contributions to the Study of Education. No. 64. Ronald R. Sims, Serbrenia J. Sims (ed). ED386130


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Some of this text was originally published in a whitepaper Marcia wrote in 1995 for Wave Technologies entitled “Learning: The Critical Technology.” You can download the entire whitepaper here in Adobe Acrobat format (280K).

The portions quoted from that orignial paper are provided here with persmission from Wave Technologies International, Inc.


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