Learning Theories and Learning Styles

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See also: Learning in the Information Age | New Model Learning | Instructional Design
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Learning and the Impact of Technology | Learning, Distance Learning and Learning Technology Links


1. Learning Theories
2. Learning Styles
3. References

1. Learning Theories

A number of (often competing) theories of learning have been proposed.

1.1 Andragogy
Knowles (1913-97) differentiates the needs of adult learners from those of juveniles and uses the term andragogy to describe the specific methods which should be employed in the education of adults. Smith [1] summarizes Knowles' andragogy thus:

  • The adult learner moves towards independence and is self-directing. The teacher encourages and nurtures this movement.
  • The learner's experience is a rich resource for learning. Hence teaching methods include discussion, problem-solving etc.
  • People learn what they need to know, so that learning programmes are organized around life application.
  • Learning experiences should be based around experiences, since people are performance centred in their learning.

Andragogy requires that adult learners be involved in the identification of their learning needs and the planning of how those needs are satisfied. Learning should be an active rather than a passive process. Adult learning is most effective when concerned with solving problems that have relevance to the learner's everyday experience.

1.2 Behaviorism
Skinner (1904-1990) is associated with the approach to learning known as behaviorism. Skinner conducted experiments in which pigeons and rats were taught to obtain food pellets by performing certain actions, e.g. pecking a lever a certain number of times. Skinner asserted learning occurs through operant conditioning. This is based upon the idea that organisms operate on their environment. If an action has positive consequences for the organism it is more likely to repeat that action, if the consequences are undesirable then the action is less likely to be repeated [2].

Skinner's approach has been used "to teach mentally retarded and autistic children, … in industry to reduce job accidents, and … in numerous applications in health-related fields." [2]. However some kinds of learning are not easily explained by conditioning, e.g. "those cases where skills are used in a highly flexible way, as in the use of language; … where people do things that lead only to intangible rewards; … where people appear to learn passively by observing others' actions" [3].

Skinner's 1971 work "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" drew criticism because it appeared to deny the essential human attributes of free will and dignity and declared "man's actions were nothing more than a set of behaviors that were shaped by his environment, over which he had no control." [2].

According to Tennant [3] the influence of behaviorism on adult education is "most apparent in the literature on behavioral objectives". Behavioral objectives are formulated using language that refers to observable behavior only, e.g. describes, identifies, explains, predicts… Criticisms of such predefined objectives include:

  • they are inappropriate for certain types of learning, e.g. music, drama etc.;
  • they fragment learning into many narrow categories and in so doing fail to address the whole;
  • they are concerned only with the outcomes and not the process of learning;
  • they cannot describe the acquisition of general ides which are applicable in a variety of contexts;
  • they cannot account for subjective outcomes, e.g. the development of self-concept;
  • they ignore peripheral learning, i.e. that which lies beyond the formal syllabus but frequently occurs in any course of study;
  • they do not account for changing learner needs as learning takes place.

1.3 Chomsky and Language Acquisition
A particular challenge to behaviorism comes from Chomsky's theory of language acquisition. Chomsky argues that human beings are endowed with an internal understanding of the fundamental rules of language that allow us to develop language skills far in excess of those which would result purely from environmental conditioning. Gross and McIlveen [7] give the following evidence supporting Chomsky's view:

  • language acquisition appears to occur in a culturally universal and invariant sequence of stages;
  • native speakers use language creatively, i.e. they are able to produce sentences of a form they have not previously encountered;
  • children spontaneously use grammar rules they have never heard or been taught;
  • the meaning of a sentence is more than the meaning of its individual words and varies according to context;
  • babies as young as two days have been shown (by Eimas) to be able to discriminate between 'ba' and 'pa' sounds;
  • studies of twins (by Malmstrom and Silva) have shown the existence of private languages intelligible only to the twins, such languages share certain features with ordinary languages.

1.4 Constructivism
Constructivism asserts that people construct their own individual mental models of the world in order to make sense of their experiences. Learning is the process of adding to or refining this mental model.

On Purpose Associates [4] describe how constructivism impacts on learning:

  • There is no standardized curriculum. Curricula are customized to the students' prior knowledge, and hands-on problem solving is emphasized.
  • Educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
  • Assessment is part of the learning process and students play a larger role in judging their own progress. There are no grades or standardized testing.

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2. Learning Styles

Just as individuals exhibit different personalities it has been suggested that people learn (most effectively) in different ways. A number of different learning styles have been identified.

2.1 Field Dependence/Independence
Tennant [3] describes Witkin's work on field dependence/independence. Essentially field dependent people are significantly influenced by context in making judgment whilst field independents pay little or no attention to context (i.e. are able to isolate their point of interest). Witkin suggests that field dependence/independence forms a continuous distribution, and that an individual's field dependence/independence changes with the context in which they find themselves.

Field dependents tend to learn better in a social setting, e.g. class discussion, group work etc., and where direction and structured material are provided for them. They tend to specialize in work and study requiring interaction with people. Field independents tend to be more self-directed and better able to make sense of unstructured material. They are more likely to favour impersonal disciplines such as science and mathematics. Studies have shown that learners can modify their style of learning with appropriate guidance.

The field dependence/independence of the teacher will tend to influence their teaching style, e.g. field dependent teachers favour class discussions and field dependents favour more impersonal lectures. It is suggested that more effective learning takes place when the styles of the teacher and students match, however other commentators state that the conflict arising from mixing teacher and learner styles creates a challenge that ultimately enhances the learner's experience.

Whilst it is impractical to create classes according to learning style, and in any case this would present the learners with a very artificial environment, it is beneficial for the teacher to be aware of the different styles and to teach in a manner that is accessible to the majority of students.

2.2 Neuro-Linguistic Programming
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is "a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience" [5]. It was first developed in the 1970s by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. The models used by NLP have arisen because they have been observed to work rather than being based on any deep underlying theory.

One NLP technique identifies a set of learning styles based upon an individual's dominant sense.

  • Visual learners learn best from what they see.
  • Auditory learners learn best from what they hear.
  • Kinaesthetic learners learn best from physical manipulation.

Since any group of learners is likely to consist of members with different styles the most effective lessons will include elements suited to each.

3.3 Multiple Intelligence Theory
Gardner's multiple intelligence theory suggests that human beings perceive and understand the world in a number of ways. Gardner proposes a not necessarily exhaustive list of seven such intelligences:

  • Verbal-Linguistic - the ability to use words and language.
  • Logical-Mathematical -The capacity for inductive and deductive thinking and reasoning, as well as the use of numbers and the recognition of abstract patterns.
  • Visual-Spatial -The ability to visualize objects and spatial dimensions, and create internal images and pictures.
  • Body-Kinesthetic -The wisdom of the body and the ability to control physical motion.
  • Musical-Rhythmic -The ability to recognize tonal patterns and sounds, as well as a sensitivity to rhythms and beats.
  • Interpersonal -The capacity for person-to-person communications and relationships.
  • Intrapersonal -The spiritual, inner states of being, self-reflection, and awareness.

Source [6].

2.4 Experiential Learning Model
Kolb and Fry (referred to in [3]) identify a four-stage learning cycle (experiential learning model) comprising concrete experience, reflection and observation on that experience, the formation of a theory and the testing of that theory under new conditions. From this learning cycle Kolb and Fry propose two dimensions, one ranging from concrete experience to abstract conceptualization (theory formation) the other from reflective observation to active experimentation. They further state that individuals will tend to favour one of the two extremes in each dimension and will in fact fall somewhere on the continuum between the two.

From the combination of an individual's preference on the two dimensions Kolb and Fry identify four learning styles, namely converger, diverger, assimilator and accommodator. Kolb and Fry consider each style to be equally valid and assert that the most effective learners are those who learn to apply each of the styles to their learning experiences.

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3. References

[1] Smith Mark K.; Andragogy - The history and current use of the term plus an annotated bibliography; http://www.infed.org/lifelonglearning/b-andra.htm
[2] PageWise, Inc; B. F. Skinner and behaviorism; http://nh.essortment.com/bfskinner_rgjj.htm
[3] Tennant Mark; Psychology & Adult Learning; Routledge 1997
[4] On Purpose Associates; Constructivism; http://www.funderstanding.com/constructivism.cfm
[5] Robbins Stever; Neuro-Linguistic Programming: A Definition; http://www.nlp.org/whats-nlp.html
[6] On Purpose Associates; Multiple Intelligences; http://www.funderstanding.com/multiple_intelligence.cfm
[7] Gross Richard, McIlveen Rob; Cognitive Psychology; Hodder & Stoughton 1997

All information correct and links valid - December 2001

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See also: Learning in the Information Age | New Model Learning | Instructional Design
Educational Technology - an Introduction for Teachers and Learners | Learning Technology: the Myths and Facts
Learning and the Impact of Technology | Learning, Distance Learning and Learning Technology Links

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