Exploring Learning Styles and Instruction


Karen Hood

EMT 705


Learning is an interactive process, the product of student and teacher activity within a specific learning environment. These activities, which are the central elements of the learning process, show a wide variation in pattern, style and quality (Keefe, 1987). Learning problems frequently are not related to the difficulty of the subject matter but rather to the type and level of cognitive process required to learn the material (Keefe, 1988). Gregorc and Ward (1977) claim that if educators are to successfully address the needs of the individual they have to understand what "individual" means. They must relate teaching style to learning style.

The famous case of Tinker versus DesMoines Community School District (1969) which concerns itself with student rights will be extended to encompass the right of a student to learn in ways that complement his ability to achieve. Public Law 94-142 which requires the identification of learning style and individualization for all handicapped children is one step away from mandating individualization for all students (Dunn and Dunn, 1978). Educators must learn to base programs on the differences that exist among students rather than on the assumption that everyone learns the same way (Keefe, 1987).

Learning has taken place when we observe a change of learner behavior resulting from what has been experienced. Similarly, we can recognize the learning style of an individual student only by observing his overt behavior. Learning style is a consistent way of functioning that reflects the underlying causes of learning behavior (Keefe, 1987).

Keefe (1991) describes learning style as both a student characteristic and an instructional strategy. As a student characteristic, learning style is an indicator of how a student learns and likes to learn. As an instructional strategy, it informs the cognition, context and content of learning.

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 relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment (Keefe, 1~87).

Students learn differently from each other (Price, 1977). Caplan (1981) has determined that brain structure influences language structure acquisition. It has been shown that different hemispheres of the brain contain different perception avenues (Schwartz, Davidson, &Maer, 1975). Stronck (1980) claims that several types of cells present in some brains are not present in others and such differences occur throughout the brain's structure.

Talmadge and Shearer (1969) have determined that learning styles do exist. Their study shows that the characteristics of the content of a learning experience are a critical factor affecting relationships that exist between learner characteristics and instructional methods. Reiff(1992) claims that styles influence how students learn, how teachers teach, and how they interact. Each person is born with certain preferences toward particular styles, but these preferences are influenced by culture, experience and development. Keefe (1987) asserts that perceptual style is a matter of learner choice, but that preference develops from infancy almost subconsciously. A teacher alert to these preferences can arrange for flexibility in the learning environment.

Learning style is the composite of characteristic cognitive, affective and physiological factors (Keefe, 1991). A useful approach for understanding and describing learning styles is the consideration of these factors.

Cognitive styles are the information processing habits of an individual. These represent a person's typical modes of perceiving, thinking, remembering, and problem solving (Keefe, 1991). External information is received through the network of perceptual modalities. This information is the raw data that the brain processes for learning to occur. If there is a deficit in a perceptual modality the brain will receive incorrect or incomplete data and limited or inappropriate learning will occur (Keefe, 1988).

Learning modalities are the sensory channels or pathways through which individuals give, receive, and store information. Most students learn with all of their modalities but have certain strengths and weaknesses in a specific modality (Reiff, 1992). These avenues of preferred perception include kinesthetic/tactual, auditory and visual (Eiszler, 1983).

Stronck (1980) describes the kinesthetic/tactual learners as the ones who try things out, touch, feel, and manipulate. Kinesthetic/tactual learners express their feelings physically. They gesture when speaking, are poor listeners, and they lose interest in long speeches. These students learn best by doing. They need direct involvement in what they are learning. More than thirty percent of our students may have a kinesthetic/tactual preference for learning (Barbe, 1979).

Auditory learners talk about what to do when they learn. They enjoy listening, but cannot wait to have a chance to talk themselves. These students respond well to lecture and discussion (Barbe, 1979).

Visual learners learn by seeing. They think in pictures and have vivid imaginations. They have greater recall of concepts that are presented visually (Barbe, 1979).

Most of the students not doing well in school are kinesthetic\tactual learners. Instruction geared toward the other modalities can cause these learners to fall behind. As this happens, students begin to lose confidence in themselves and resent school because of repeated failure (Reiff, 1992).

An effective means to reach all learners is modality-based instruction, which consists of organizing around the different modalities to accommodate the needs of the learner. Modality based instruction consists of using a variety of motivating, introductory techniques and then providing alternative strategies when a student fails to grasp the skill or concept. If a learner does not initially understand the lesson, the teacher needs to intervene, personalize instruction and reteach using a different method (Reiff, 1992). Perceptual modality preferences are not separate units of learning style. Instruments and assessment approaches that lead teachers and researchers to consider modality preferences in general terms may contribute to the misunderstanding of individual differences rather than help develop and use information on individual differences in teaching (Eiszler, 1983).

Affective components of learning styles include personality and emotional characteristics related to the areas of persistence, responsibility, motivation and peer interaction (Reiff, 1992).

The physiological components of learning styles are biologically based modes of response that are founded on sex-related differences, personal nutrition and health, and reactions to the physical environment (Keefe, 1991).

Student performances in different subject areas are related to how individuals do, in fact, learn. Systematic ways to identify individual preferences for learning and suggestions for teaching students with varying learning styles can be based on an individual's diagnosis of his learning style (Price, 1977). Comprehension of ~ individual differences and learning styles can provide teachers with the theory and knowledge upon which to base decisions. Once a teacher has determined why a student responds in a certain way, then they can make more intelligent decisions about instruction methods (Reef, 1992).

Several research studies have demonstrated that students can identify their own learning styles; when exposed to a teaching style that matches their learning style, students score higher on tests than those not taught in their learning style; and it is advantageous to teach and test students in their preferred modalities (Dunn and Dunn, 1978).

The Learning Style Profile (LSP) provides educators with a well validated and easy-to-use instrument for diagnosing the characteristics of an individual's learning style. LSP provides an overview of the tendencies and preferences of the individual learner (Keefe,l991).

All students can benefit from a responsive learning environment and from the enhancement of their learning skills (Keefe, 1991). No educational program can be successful without attention to the personal learning needs of individual students. A single approach to instruction whether traditional or innovative, simply does not do the job (Keefe, 1987). Using one teaching style or learning style exclusively is not conducive to a successful educational program (Dunn and Dunn, l978). "Hard to reach and hard to teach students " are more successful when taught with different modality strategies (Reiff, 1992).

Students vary widely in their cognitive styles yet few teachers consider this variable when planning instruction (Fenstermacher, 1983). If we wish students to have optimum learning in our schools, we must change the way we deliver instruction. If a student continues to fail to respond to changed instruction then we must retrain his or her cognitive styles to make school success possible (Keefe, 1987).

It is nothing less than revolutionary to base instructional planning on an analysis of each student's learning characteristics. To do so moves education away from the traditional assembly-line mass production model to a handcrafted one (Keefe, 1987). Planning appropriate and varied lessons will improve both instructional and classroom management. Realistically, a teacher cannot be expected to have a different lesson for every child in the classroom, however, lessons can reflect an understanding of individual differences by appropriately incorporating strategies for a variety of styles. When individual differences are considered, many researchers claim that students will have higher achievement, a more positive attitude, and an improved self-concept (Reiff, 1992).

Planning learning-style based instruction involves diagnosing individual learning style; profiling group preferences; determining group strengths and weaknesses; examining subject content for areas that may create problems with weak skills; analyzing students' prior achievement scores; remediating weak skills; assessing current instructional methods to determine whether they are adequate or require more flexibility; and modifying the learning environment and developing personalized learning experiences (Keefe, 1991). A better understanding of learning style can help teachers reduce frustration for themselves and their students (Reiff, 1992). A knowledge of style can also show teachers how some of their own behaviors can hinder student progress (Keefe, 1988).

Eiszler (1983) claims that varying teaching strategies to address all channels promotes learning no matter what students' preferences of cognitive styles are. Dunn (1979) showed that slow learners tend to increase their amounts of achievement when varied multisensory methods were used as a form of instruction. However, not everyone agrees with matching learning styles and teaching styles. Rector and Henderson (1970) have determined through their research that the effect of various teaching strategies depends on such factors as the nature of the concept to be taught, the students' characteristics, and the time available. In their study no significant difference was found in different teaching strategies and student achievement.

Today low achievement is blamed directly on the school, their teachers, and the instructional programs or methods being used. Achievement scores reveal only where a child is academically. I.Q. tests suggest a child's potential, not why he or she has not progressed further or more quickly. Personality instruments serve to explain student behavior but they provide little insight into how to help him achieve. It is possible however to help each child learn more efficiently by diagnosing the individual's learning style (Dunn and Dunn, 1978).

Just juggling the requirements of courses without attention to what needs to occur between teachers and students inside the classroom will not automatically produce better prepared students. Students not only need to feel confident that they can learn but also need to possess skills that they can use to facilitate their learning (Kilpatrick, 1985). Students who understand their learning styles and who exercise active control over their cognitive skills do better in school. They are better adjusted, have more positive attitudes toward learning and achieve at higher levels than their less skillful peers (Keefe, 1991).

As teachers continue to restructure the learning environment so as to accommodate various learning styles, evaluation must occur to determine the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process. Exploring and implementing alternative evaluation methods will provide the teacher with more complete and accurate information about the capabilities of their students. For example, student products, students working in cooperative groups, role-playing or simulated situations, questions on audiotapes or computers are other avenues through which we can test students rather than the traditional paper and pencil method (Reiff, 1992).

If a student does not learn the way we teach him, we must teach him the way he learns (Dunn and Dunn, 1978). As educators we must strive to continue to learn not only from research, but also from our students and each other. This continued education will certainly benefit our students as we try new ideas and new teaching strategies. As we implement new ideas we will address more learning styles and further facilitate the education of our students. We should not seek to have students, who are products of our teaching style, be clones of ourselves, but rather we should strive to teach our students how to build upon their strengths and become better educated individuals. By addressing students' learning styles and planning instruction accordingly we will meet more individuals' educational needs and will be more successful in our educational goals.


Barbe, W. B., & Swassing, R. H. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths. New York, NY: Zane-Bloser, Inc.

Caplan, D. (1981). Prospects for neurolinguistic theory. Cognition, 10(1 3), 59-64.

Dunn, R. (1979). Learning-A matter of style. Educational Leadership, 36(6), 430-432.

Dunn, R., & Dunn, K (1978, March). How to create hands-on materials. Instructor, pp. 134-141.

Dunn, R., & Dunn, K (1978). Teaching students through their individual learning styles. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company, Inc.

Eislzer, C. F. (1983). Perceptual preferences as an aspect of adolescent learning styles. Education, 103(3), 231-242.

Fenstermacher, G. D. (1983). Individual differences and the common curriculum. Chicago, L: National Society for the Study of Education.

Gregorc, A. F., & Ward, H. B. (1977). Implications for learning and teaching: A new definition for individual. NASSP Bulletin, 61, 20-26.

Keefe, J. W. (1991). Learning style: Cognitive and thinking skills. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Keefe, J. W. (1988). Profiling and utilizing learning style. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Keefe, J. W. (1987). Theory and practice. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Price, G., Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1977). A summary of research on learning style. New York, NY: American Educational Research Association.

Rector, R. E., & Henderson, K. B. (1970). The relative effectiveness of four strategies for teaching mathematical concepts. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 1, 69-75.

Reiff, J. C. (1992). Learning styles. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Shwartz, G. E., Davidson, R. J., & Maer, F. (1975). Right hemisphere lateralization for emotion in the human brain: Interactions with cognition. Science, 190(4211), 286-288.

Stronck, D. R. (1980). The educational implications of human individuality. American Biology Teacher, 42, 146-151.

Talmadge, G. K., & Shearer, J. W. (1969). Relationship among learning styles, instructional methods and the nature of leaming experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 57, 222-230.


One inch square Wheat Thins?

Materials: Box of Wheat Thins



Wheat Thins are advertised as being one inch square. However, the average wheat thin is one inch square. Divide the class into groups and have your students use a ruler to determine the size of one wheat thin. Record each groups' measures on the board. Have students average the measures and determine how close the average is to 1 square inch. Be sure to instruct students on the reasons why the measure is a square measure. You may want to have a class discussion on truth in advertising and how it relates to the crackers.

What is one square foot?

Materials: One box of Wheat Thins for each group

Floor Tile

The floor tiles in most classrooms are one square foot. Divide students into groups. Have your students assume that each cracker is one square inch and determine the area of the floor tile by covering the tile with crackers and counting the number of crackers on each tile. Ask if there is a quicker way to determine this area. Students should be able to determine the area by multiplying the length of each side of the tile.

Extension: Estimate the perimeter of the football field in terms of wheat thins.

What does the biggest area mean?

Materials: 12 Wheat Thins for each student

Have students to build a geometric figure that will encompass the most area using the crackers for the perimeter. Discuss their findings. This activity may also be done on a geoboard with a string 12 inches long. Students should find that the largest area occurs when they construct a square.

One perimeter, how many different areas?

Have students to use a 12 inch piece of string to construct the following shapes and have them to find the area of each shape. Square, Rectangle with one side 2 units long, Equilateral triangle, Right Isosceles Triangle, Circle Which shape has the greatest area? What makes area and perimeter different?

How do the area of a circle and the area of a square compare?

Materials: Grid paper, scissors, paper and pencil

Use grid paper to make a circle, a square and a rectangle of the same area. What is the smallest area possible? How do the areas of each compare?

Using average pace length to determine area

Materials: Yardstick, paper and pencil

Have students to determine their average pace length by walking 100 feet 10 times and averaging the number of paces it took them each time they walked. Use this average to calculate the area of a portion of land by "stepping off' the perimeter of the land and recording the lengths of each side. One suggestion is to determine if the band practice field will 'fit' on the student parking lot.

Animals and their Home Ranges

Have students research different animals and record the size of their home ranges. An animal's home range is the amount of space the animal needs to fulfill its requirements for food, breeding, and so forth. Have students make graphs comparing the size of the animal to the area of its home range. Students should then discuss what might happen to an animal if the size of its habitat is altered through a natural disaster such as fire or man's development of the land. Students should realize that the larger the animal, the larger the home range of the animal.

Presenting Surface Area

Materials: One inch grid paper

Assorted rectangular boxes.


Tape, Paper, Pencil

Divide your class into groups and give each group several sheets of grid paper and a set of the other materials. Use the one inch square grid paper to cover the boxes. Tell your students that they are not to let the squares overlap and that they need to be certain to cover all exposed surfaces (like gift wrapping the box). Have students to find the area of each side by counting the number of squares on each side. After recording this information have them find the total surface area of each box by adding the areas of the sides together. You may wish to ask students about finding a shortcut for doing this and they may derive the formula for the surface area of a box for you. Be sure that you are including an imaginary or real lid on your box.

Modeling the Room

Materials: Rulers

Grid Paper


Have student groups measure all of the objects in the room to determine their dimensions. They are to build a scale model of their object using the grid paper and a scale of the class's choosing. They will need to label their object so that others can identify it. Use each group's object and put them together to from a scale model of the room. This activity should reinforce the need for accurate measures and what a scale model represents. Discuss relative size of the objects. Invariably, someone will have represented one of the objects incorrectly.

Rectangular Solids

Materials: Grid paper


Patterns for solids

Have student groups build rectangular solids from grid paper. Let them choose which solid to model. Once they have built the models they need to find the surface area of the model.

Formulating the area of a triangle

Use grid paper and pencil to draw a parallelogram. Have students cut the parallelogram so that they have 2 equal triangles. Find the area of the original rectangle and the two triangles. Discuss the relationships between the areas. Students should derive that the area of each triangle is half that of the parallelogram.

Extension or beforehand: Have students draw a parallelogram on a sheet of grid paper and cut it out. Students should cut the parallelogram so that the pieces form a rectangle of the same area.

Geometric Lake Day

Provide students with a pool, swim rings, measuring devices, beech towels, balls, umbrellas, etc. They can provide edible solids of their choice, such as brownies and sodas. Students should complete the activity sheet.

Discovering Pi

Provide students with circular objects and a measuring device. Have students complete the chart provided on exploring circumference and diameter.

Discovering Ptolemy

Give students different quadrilaterals inscribed in circles and have them complete the Discovering Ptolemy activity sheet. It is more interesting to the students to draw their own quadrilaterals and to post the measures on a chart. Students usually need to work together to formally state the theorem.

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