Monday, August 25, 2008

Learning Styles

The tendencies and characteristics that students use in their learning are known as learning styles. These styles may influence how students learn, as well as how instructors teach. Understanding something about learning styles may help instructors create the most effective learning environment and impact their instructional design. I think we are already aware, from our learning objective development process, that learning styles are combinations of cognitive, affective and physical factors, which are then used to use to help the student navigate through the learning process. As defined by Sadler-Smith a learning style is “a distinctive and habitual manner of acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes through study or experience.” (1)

There have been a number of attempts to classify learning styles. As early as 1966, Hudson (2) made a distinction between convergers and divergers. Convergers generally followed linear thinking, using a step-by-step approach to arrive at the “right” answer. The diverger was more fluid and flexible, approaching a problem from a number of different directions, some of which might be quite novel. He felt that convergers would learn best from convergent teachers, and divergers from divergent teachers. Pask (3) used this model to develop his own, breaking learning styles into holists and serialists. The holist used an overarching conceptual framework to help contextualize learning, while the serialist learns in a piece-by-piece fashion, creating knowledge out of smaller pieces of information. Holist learning is mainly associated with art training, while serialist learning would more characterize the average medical or chiropractic setting. Kolb (4) took these 2 approaches and used them to devise his own, which involves divergers and convergers, as well as assimilators and accommodators. In his model, the divergers uses creative ideas and diverse views, the converger is good at problem-solving and implementation, the assimilators uses inductive reasoning to generate theory and integrate ideas, and the accommodator actively applies knowledge but adapts to changing circumstances. These were used to develop Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, which was later used to develop The Learning Styles Questionnaire of Honey and Mumford (5). This tool is still used today.

When we begin to ask how we can best develop deep learning in our students, one of the components we need to look at is the styles of learning students use. It is a challenging environment to do so. Certain technologies that younger students use today did not exist when many of us had our undergraduate, graduate or teacher training. This includes the presence of the web, and of instructional platforms such as BlackBoard and WebCT. We have to adapt to these technologies and we can do so most effectively when we understand how our students learn.

1. Sadler-Smith E. Learning style and instructional design. Innovations Educ Training Internat 1996;33:185-193
2. Hudson L. Contrary imaginations. New York, NY; Penguin, 1966
3. Pask G. Styles and strategies of learning. Br J Educ Psych 1976;46:128-148
4. Kolb DA. Experimental learning experience as a source of learning and development. London; Prentice Hall, 1984
5. Honey P, Mumford A. Using your learning styles. London; Maidenhead, 1986

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