The Language of Learning Styles

By Burris, Scott; Kitchel, Tracy et al. | Techniques, February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Language of Learning Styles


Burris, Scott, Kitchel, Tracy, Molina, Quintin, Vincent, Stacy, Warner, Wendy, Techniques


TAKE A LOOK AROUND AT THE STUDENTS IN ANY CLASSROOM. YOU WILL FIND STUDENTS who love to work on group projects and those students who detest collaborative efforts. Some students are hoping for loosely defined criteria on assignments so that they can unleash their creative talents, while other students demand clearly delineated steps on how to complete their homework. This diversity among students can challenge teachers as they try to meet the needs of various learners in their classes. Consequently, the value of understanding individual learning styles possessed by students in the classroom is immeasurable. The study of learning styles has not only resulted in the development of valuable educational theory, but has also generated practical implications that can inform our classroom teaching on a daily basis.

Learning style (also known as cognitive style) is "the preferred or habitual patterns of mental functioning: information processing and the formation of ideas and judgments" such that within a learner's style, the "patterns of attitudes and interests influence what a person will attend to in a potential learning situation" (Provost and Anchors, 1987, p. 182). There are several ways of assessing a person's learning (or cognitive) style. In understanding learning styles, teachers can understand common learning needs within groups of students. Student learning styles can impact a variety of areas in the classroom such as environment, student praise or reinforcement, class structure, and teaching methods.

Some of the learning theory literature relevant to education had an interesting start outside of the educational arena. For example, Witkin and associates (1977) identified field dependent and field independent learning styles based on studies conducted to determine why certain pilots who lost sight of the ground mistakenly flew their planes upside down (Garger and Guild, 1984, p. 9, 12). The goal of the research was to determine how the subjects defined what was upright. Through a series of tests, participants were required to adjust their bodies, or a rod and frame, to maintain an upright position based on the tilt of a room. Witkin and his colleagues (1977) concluded that how one interprets the visual environment determined their field dependence, or lack thereof.

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For some career and technical education (CTE) students, navigating the classroom can seem a lot like trying to keep a plane upright. Field dependent and field independent learning styles can influence how students interact with each other and the instructor. The student who is more concerned with what is happening in the lives of his or her classmates than the subject matter at hand is probably a field dependent learner. Field dependent individuals enjoy being around others and tend to be more tactful, warm, outgoing and affectionate toward other people (Witkin et al., 1977 as cited in Kitchel, 1999). In contrast, field independent individuals have no interest in keeping up with the latest gossip. Because of the lack of concern for the social aspects of life, field independent individuals often appear to be cold and distant (Witkin et al., 1977 as cited in Kitchel, 1999).

Teachers often vary in the types of reinforcement or praise that they provide students. Some students eagerly await a sticker or a smiley face on a test or assignment on which they have done well, or a piece of candy to reward a correct answer. These field dependent learners are motivated extrinsically, while field independent learners set performance expectations for themselves and are motivated intrinsically. While it is easy for teachers to acknowledge the efforts of field dependent students, it is a little more complicated to provide rewards to field independent learners who internalize their expectations. Field independent learners may appreciate the opportunity to evaluate themselves through the completion of individual progress reports. …

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