Learning Styles and Fieldwork Education: Students' Perspectives

By Robertson, Linda; Smellie, Tania et al. | New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Learning Styles and Fieldwork Education: Students' Perspectives


Robertson, Linda, Smellie, Tania, Wilson, Phillipa, Cox, Lisa, New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy


In fieldwork placements students are involved in an intense relationship with their fieldwork supervisors over a short period of time. Poor understanding of learning styles can lead to misunderstandings about the students' motivation and ability to take responsibility for their learning. To develop an awareness of the impact of learning styles on professional development, an assessment in the final year of an occupational therapy programme required students to analyze their learning preferences. This article will review the use of one learning style questionnaire with third year occupational therapy students. It will draw from the reflections of three students who identified links between the questionnaire results and their fieldwork experiences. Authenticity is provided by using the words of the three students with pseudonyms used to protect their identity.

Over a period of several years, lecturers in an occupational therapy course in Otago Polytechnic, have noticed the impact on students of the learning style component of a course. Students who knew one another quite well were often amazed when they heard about their peer's learning preferences. Others expressed with a sigh of relief that it was reassuring to know that they were 'different' not 'dumb' which was interestingly a title for work by Fleming (2010) who developed the VARK (Visual, Aural, Reader, Kinaesthetic) learning style questionnaire. An assignment focused students on the impact of learning styles in fieldwork environments and generated a depth of reflection on this topic. Research undertaken in the course of this assignment quickly showed students that there was a dearth of literature to help them analyse their fieldwork learning. Most of the literature about learning styles is related to learning in academic environments, however, one third of the occupational therapy programme requires students to learn in a practice context. This can include hospitals, schools, community settings and private practice. Interaction with a clinical fieldwork supervisor is likely to be on a one to one basis which is a very different learning experience when compared to being one student in a large group. This overview of three students learning experiences while on fieldwork placements will go some way towards filling a gap in the literature about the impact of learning styles in fieldwork environments.

Learning styles

Kolb (1984) described learning styles as the way students prefer to process new information including strategies that are consistently adopted to learn. Although there are many theories on thinking and learning, it is largely accepted that students learn in different ways (Fleming, 2001; Gaiptman & Anthony, 1989; Howard & Howard, 1993; Schulz, 1993). While alternative approaches to learning can be used successfully, it is thought that students will learn more quickly and easily if they are able to utilise their preferred style (Brown, Cosgriff, & French, 2008; DiBartola, 2006; Forrest, 2004; Titiloye & Scott, 2001). The value of developing awareness of learning styles can help students to recognize their strengths, acknowledge weak areas, work more efficiently when self-directed and develop effective collaborative relationships with others (Provident, Leibold, Dolhi & Jeffcoat, 2009; Rogers, 2009).

The VARK questionnaire (Fleming, 2001) (see Table 1) was chosen for two reasons, scores can be reached quickly and the provision of help sheets assists students to use their knowledge of learning styles. Technically, VARK is not a learning style questionnaire, as it provides feedback only on preferred modes of communicating. Theorists would consider these modes to be only a part of what might be included in an exploration of learning styles (Fleming & Baume, 2006). However, the four aspects of learning preferences used in VARK can be readily identified by students, and are relatively stable. These features allow students to critically reflect on their fieldwork experiences to enhance future learning as explained below. …

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