effective learning styles

From what you have read so far in this document, it should be clear that the best learning
occurs when students are engaged in active learning – when they are doing things instead of
sitting passively and listening. A classic study by the National Training Board found that
students retained only 5% of the information they received in lecture, twenty-four hours later.
Retention rates increased to 75-90% when active learning involving peer teaching was used
instead of lectures. Other active learning methods (e.g., demonstration and discussion) also
resulted in higher retention rates (30% and 50%, respectively).

 In another study of the
effectiveness of lectures (McLeish 1968; cited in Fink 2003), students were tested on their
understanding of facts, theory, and application after hearing a lecture that was specially designed
to be effective. Despite being able to use their own lecture notes and a printed summary of the
lecture, average student recall after the lecture was only 42%. 

A week later recall had dropped to
only 20%.
In a recent review of the effectiveness of active learning, Prince (2004) found extensive,
widespread support for active learning approaches, especially when activities were designed
around important learning outcomes and promoted thoughtful engagement. Many instructors
recognize that active learning results in significant improvements in student knowledge retention,
conceptual understanding, engagement, and attitudes about learning.
A commonly used approach in active
learning is cooperative learning. An enormous
body of research confirms the effectiveness of
cooperative learning. Compared with more
traditional individualized and competitive
models of learning, students who learn in
Wirth & Perkins -

 Learning to Learn 21
cooperative groups exhibit markedly improved individual achievement, metacognitive thought,
willingness to assume difficult tasks, persistence, motivation, and transfer of learning to new
situations, (e.g., Johnson et al. 1991; Prince 2004). Cooperative learning also improves
relationships between students and between students and faculty, and it generally improves selfesteem and attitudes toward learning.
A large body of research indicates that people have different learning styles (see Felder 1993;
and references therein). A learning style is a student’s way of “responding to and using stimuli
in the context of learning” (Clark 2004). 

That is, people tend to focus on different types of
information, they tend to operate on that information differently, and they achieve understanding
at different rates. Importantly, no single learning style is better or worse than the others. They
are simply different. Although the effects of learning styles on learning have been difficult to
quantify, new evidence suggests that the various “styles” of learning can be mapped both to the
learning cycle and to the different functional regions of the brain. Many instructors teach
(inadvertently?) in ways that are most akin to their own styles of learning.
Once aware of your learning style, you can improve learning by translating material from
other modes into a mode that best fits you. The many “dimensions” of learning style are
complex and are not entirely understood at present. As a result, there are several different
models in common use. One learning style indicator currently enjoying considerable popularity
is the VARK (Visual, Aural, Reading, Kinesthetic) guide to learning style, developed by N.
Fleming in 1987 (http://www.vark-learn.com). The VARK questionnaire profiles user
preferences for absorbing and communicating information in a learning context. In this sense it
is not a learning style indicator because it focuses on only one dimension of learning. This
questionnaire not only provides insight into one’s learning preferences, but also provides
strategies for using those preferences to enhance learning. Interestingly, research suggests that
one’s preferred learning style can change with age and experiences. Complete the VARK
questionnaire (http://www.vark-learn.com) to determine your own learning preferences and find
strategies for enhancing your learning.
In yet another model, H. Gardner (1993) proposed that there are multiple intelligences
(verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical musical/rhythmic, visual/spatial, body/kinesthetic,
interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist), 

but that we use only one or two of these for most
Table 5. Learning style dimensions (modified from Felder, 1993).
Elements of Learning Learning Style Dimensions
Type of Information Sensory (sights, sounds, physical sensations) or intuitive
(memories, ideas, insights)
Modality of Sensory Information Visual (pictures, diagrams, graphs, demonstrations) or
verbal (sounds, written and spoken word, formulas)
Organization of Information Inductive (underlying principles are inferred from facts) or
deductive (consequences are deduced from principles)
Preferred Method for Processing Information Active (through engagement in physical activity or
discussion) or reflective (through introspection)
Method of Progressing Toward Understanding Sequential (logical, incremental steps) or global (holistic,
large jumps)
22 Wirth & Perkins -

 Learning to Learn
effective learning. To find your preferences, take the multiple intelligences inventory at:
http://ps.uvm.edu/pss162.learning_styles.html. Finally, Felder and Silverman (1988) and Felder
(1993) have synthesized the findings of several of the previous studies into a learning style
model that is particularly relevant to science education (Table 5).
In summary, there are many different ways of modeling the ways of learning. No one model
provides a complete description of learning, and no single learning style is superior to another.
However, it is important to be aware of your own learning style preferences so that you can make
the necessary adjustments to maximize your learning. If you have good, caring, instructors you
will encounter unfamiliar pedagogies (e.g., active learning, cooperative learning, just-in-time
learning, student-centered learning, case studies, writing to learn, group learning, assessment as
learning, problem-based learning, service learning, online learning) in your courses. These have
largely been designed to teach to a wide variety of learning styles and to facilitate learning the
content and skills encompassed within “significant learning.” Some of these new instructional
approaches may seem foreign at first, but keep an open mind and try to understand the objectives
of each pedagogical approach. If you have questions about classroom methods, ask your
instructor. Most teachers are happy to discuss instructional practices with their students.

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