Learning Preferences

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When it comes to learning, we all have preferences that are influenced by the ways in which we think - our personalities, our backgrounds and our culture. For example, some students may prefer participating in group practical tasks or projects rather than reading long research articles and writing long essays on their own. In an attempt to capture and make sense of some of this, theories and models around learning styles and preferences are explored in this topic. The concept of the expert learner and how to develop this attribute is introduced.

What are learning styles and preferences?

Learning styles are defined as: "The individual's characteristic ways of processing information, feeling and behaving in learning situations" (Learning and Skills Development Agency, 2013). In a nutshell, learning styles and preferences help to describe how people learn, and are useful in raising their awareness about this. However, it is worth noting that over reliance on one or two specific learning styles can be misleading and harmful. Therefore, it is more effective to guide students to develop skills for what is known as metalearning - an awareness of how they learn. This enables them to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning and requires metacognition.

A popular model in the New Zealand context is the VARK – guide to learning styles. Neil Fleming has developed a tool to explore learning preferences that considers these in terms of the following modes of learning:

  • visual
  • aural
  • kinaesthetic
  • reader/writer.

Although they may have a preference, for example, to attend lectures rather than study online, students generally utilise a variety of learning styles to enable their learning. From a teaching perspective it is useful to be aware of your students' learning styles and make an effort to cater to a variety of these through using a mix of teaching methods. To do this, it is a good idea to understand your own learning styles first.

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A. Complete these learning styles inventories and compare them:

1. VARK questionnaire.

  • Print or download a copy if you don’t want to do this online.
  • Compare your results with the Vark categories.
  • Read the page on understanding the results.

2. Index of Learning Styles (ILS).

  • Click the link to the ILS questionnaire.
  • Interpret your results - click on the link to Descriptions of the learning styles.

B. Explore other models:

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Do you think your learning preference impacts in any way on your teaching style? Post your findings and thoughts to the Moodle forum and reply to at least three other postings.

...or is it all just imagined?

Differing viewpoints about learning styles and preferences are covered in the Introduction to this topic by Don Clark. The existence of learning styles and preferences in acknowledged in the literature, but the best way to measure them is still under discussion. Also, researchers have suggested that learning styles are far more important when we are deciding what strategies and media to use to teach particular content. For example, David Merrill (2000) believes that the design of instructional strategies based on learning styles, should be influenced by the type of content or the goals of the interactions that the teacher intends the learners to have with the content or with others such as learners and teachers. What do you think?

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What is your viewpoint?

A. Investigate these resources by researchers with views that disagree with individual learning styles... as always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

B. Could text or audio be used to teach someone how to ride a bicycle?

  • Is it better to show them visually or physically?
  • How would you teach this using learning styles-based instruction?