What are Learning Styles?


Background History

Accounting for individual learning styles in not a new idea.  As early as 334 BC, Aristotle said that “each child possessed specific talents and skills” and he noticed individual differences in young children.  


In the early 1900’s, several personality theories and classifications for individual differences were advanced; these focused especially on the relationship between memory and visual or oral instructional methods.  The research in learning styles then declined due to the emphasis on the student’s IQ and academic achievement. 


In the last half of the 1900’s, however, there has been a renewed interest in learning styles research and many educators are attempting to apply the results within the classroom.


Definition of Learning Styles

You have probably noticed that when you try to learn something new you prefer to learn by listening to someone talk to you about the information.  Or perhaps you prefer to read about a concept to learn it, or maybe see a demonstration.


Learning styles can be defined, classified, and identified in many different way.  Generally, they are overall patterns that provide direction to learning and teaching.  Learning style can also be described as a set of factors, behaviors, and attitudes that facilitate learning for an individual in a given situation.   


Styles influence how students learn, how teachers teach, and how the two interact.  Each person is born with certain tendencies toward particular styles, but these biological or inherited characteristics are influenced by culture, personal experiences, maturity level, and development.  Style can be considered a “contextual” variable or construct because what the learner brings to the learning experience is as much a part of the context as are the important features of the experience itself.


Each learner has distinct and consistent preferred ways of perception, organization and retention. These learning styles are characteristic cognitive, affective, and physiological behaviors that serve as pretty good indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment.


Students learn differently from each other and it has been determined that brain structure influences language structure acquisition. It has also been shown that different hemispheres of the brain contain different perception avenues.  Some researchers claim that several types of cells present in some brains are not present in others.


Changes in Learning Styles During Childhood

A child's brain is continually developing.  The strengths and weaknesses a child shows when he's five may be quite different than his strengths and weaknesses when he's 10 or 15. The way children learn also changes over time. As a child grows and matures his or her brain grows, develops and matures.  


One result of this growth and development can be that a child will appear to have a strength at one time, but if tested three or four years later that same skill may be judged a weakness.  The reasons are complex, but the important thing to know is that a child's strengths and weaknesses aren't carved in stone.  As time passes the way a child learns best may change significantly.


Learning and the Senses

Effective teaching usually combines several approaches, or multi-sensory instruction, so the child uses more than one sense at a time while learning.  Multi-sensory approaches work well because of the way our brain is organized.  When we learn, information takes one path into our brain when we use our eyes, another when we use our ears, and a yet a third when we use our hands.  By using more than one sense we bombard our brain with the new information in multiple ways.  As a result we learn better.  Rief (1993) says that students retain:

§         10% of what they read

§         20% of what they hear

§         30% of what they see

§         50% of what they see and hear

§         70% of what they say

§         90% of what they say and do