Center for the Advancement of Innovative Teaching

Learning Styles

A learning style (or learning strength) is the method of learning particular to an individual that is presumed to allow that individual to learn best. For teachers, this knowledge helps them modulate instruction to help many different kinds of students. For students, understanding their personal preferences and strengths allows them to adjust their levels of effort or the kind of effort they apply to learn. John Collins, a colleague from the University of British Columbia, suggests having students explore their learning styles by using three different instruments and then examining their agreement. Why student self-understanding of learning strengths and faculty self-understanding of teaching strengths are important is described below by Richard Felder, of North Carolina State University.

Students preferentially take in and process information in different ways: by seeing and hearing, reflecting and acting, reasoning logically and intuitively, analyzing and visualizing, steadily and in fits and starts. Teaching methods also vary. Some instructors lecture, others demonstrate or lead students to self-discovery; some focus on principles and others on applications; some emphasize memory and others understanding. When mismatches exist between learning styles of most students in a class and the teaching style of the professor, the students may become bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the courses, the curriculum, and themselves, and in some cases change to other curricula or drop out of school. Professors, confronted by low test grades, unresponsive or hostile classes, poor attendance and dropouts, know something is not working. They may become overly critical of their students (making things even worse) or begin to wonder if they are in the right profession. Most seriously, society loses potentially excellent professionals. To overcome these problems, professors should strive for a balance of instructional methods (as opposed to trying to teach each student exclusively according to his or her preferences.) If the balance is achieved, all students will be taught partly in a manner they prefer, which leads to an increased comfort level and willingness to learn, and partly in a less preferred manner, which provides practice and feedback in ways of thinking and solving problems which they may not initially be comfortable with but which they will have to use to be fully effective professionals. (accessed 8/21/07 on Dr. Richard Felder’s (of North Carolina State University) web page.)

Instruments to self-assess learning style:  There are many free web-based instruments that allow individuals to self-assess learning strengths. Here are a few examples (many more can be found in web search):

  • North Carolina State University offers a 44-item questionnaire
  • VARK is a 16-item questionnaire that provides immediate web feedback.
  • A Learning Style Survey for College (by Caroline Jester, Diablo Valley State College) is a 32-item instant-feedback instrument.
  • An overview of learning styles and a web survey can be found at this page, Learning Styles Online.

The article from Skip Downing's On Course newsletter summarizes much of the present research literature on learning styles.