Learning Styles and Academic Achievements

Learning Styles and Academic Achievements

            There have been many attempts made to enhance students’ academic achievements. It has always been the main concern of many dedicated teachers and parents that their students and children be as much successful as possible. In relation to this, many teachers are convinced that students need the positive attitude to succeed academically. Often, one’s learning style is identified to determine strengths for academic achievement. Dunn, Beaudry and Klavas (1989) assert that through voluminous studies, it has been indicated that both low and average achievers earn higher scores on standardized achievement and attitude tests when they are taught within the realm of their learning styles.

            For Felder and Henriques (1995), the criterion for classifying learners is their perceptual behavior. They make two categories: sensing and intuitive learners. ‘Sensing’ learners are concrete and methodical; they are good at memorizing facts and doing hands-on work and are more comfortable with following rules and standard procedures. On the other hand, ‘intuitive’ learners tend to be abstract and imaginative; they like innovation and dislike repetition. As to the ways in which learners prefer input information to be presented, they can be either visual or verbal learners. Visual learners are those who prefer to receive in the form of pictures, diagrams, films and demonstrations while verbal learners prefer words as a medium for information transfer. Moreover, with respect to the ways of knowledge can be processed, learners can be put into two categories, namely ‘active’ and ‘reflective’. An active learner, as suggested by the name, is someone who prefers to be actively involved in examining and employing knowledge with others. He does so in group discussions and interactions with others. Reflective learners tend to employ their introspection. Active learners benefit the most in dialogue, role-play and team work learning activities while reflective learners are more inclined to ponder on perceived information.

            Learning styles were found to affect learners’ learning behaviors. Learners having different learning style preferences would behave differently in the way they perceive, interact, and respond to the learning environment (Junko, 1998). Since learners differ in their preferences to certain learning styles, it will be important for teachers to examine the variations in their students on the features of their learning styles, because the information about learner’s preference can help teachers become more sensitive to the differences students bring to the classroom (Felder et al., 2005). Adjustments can then be made to accommodate the students’ varied needs. This study, therefore, aims at depicting the relationship of learners’ learning style preference and the overall academic achievement of a group of Malaysian students in a religious secondary school.

            The level of learning achieved by a learner is one of the most important factors which indicate the success of a learning environment. In order to ensure the effectiveness of teaching environments, it is important to take account of characteristics, abilities and experience of learners as individuals or as a group when beginning to plan a learning environment (Kemp et al., 1998).

            A twelve-item inventory of learning styles is administered to identify the learning styles in Kolb’s model. The scores obtained from these inventories indicate the coordinates related with organization (Active Experimentation-Reflective Observation) and perception (Abstract Conceptualization-Concrete Experience); and the interaction of these two points indicate the learning style. The learning styles on this system of coordinates are Accommodator, Diverger, Assimilator and Converger.

Figure 2.1: Learning styles in Kolb’s learning cycle

            Learning styles refer to a range of competing and contested theories that aim to account for differences in individuals’ learning. These theories propose that all people can be classified according to their ‘style‘ of learning, although the various theories present differing views on how the styles should be defined and categorized. A common concept is that individuals differ in how they teach (Willingham et al., 2015).

            The idea of individualized learning styles became popular in the 1970 and has greatly influenced education despite the criticism that the idea has received from some researchers. Proponents recommend that teachers assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student’s learning style. Although there is ample evidence that individuals express preferences for how they prefer to receive information, few studies have found any validity in using learning styles in education. Critics say there is no consistent evidence that identifying an individual student’s learning style, and teaching for specific learning styles, produces better student outcomes. There is evidence of empirical and pedagogical problems related to forcing learning tasks to “correspond to differences in a one-to-one fashion”. Well-designed studies contradict the widespread “meshing hypothesis” that a student will learn best if taught in a method deemed appropriate for the student’s learning style. They further show that teachers cannot assess the learning style of their students accurately (Alexia et al., 2018).

There are substantial criticisms of learning-styles approaches from scientists who have reviewed extensive bodies of research.

2.3 Different Learning Models

            David A. Kolb‘s model is based on his experiential learning model, as explained in his book Experiential Learning. Kolb’s model outlines two related approaches toward grasping experience: Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization, as well as two related approaches toward transforming experience: Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation. According to Kolb’s model, the ideal learning process engages all four of these modes in response to situational demands; they form a learning cycle from experience to observation to conceptualization to experimentation and back to experience. In order for learning to be effective, Kolb postulated, all four of these approaches must be incorporated. As individuals attempt to use all four approaches, they may tend to develop strengths in one experience-grasping approach and one experience-transforming approach, leading them to prefer one of the following four learning styles (Kolb, 1984).

  1. Accommodator = Concrete Experience + Active Experiment: strong in “hands-on” practical doing (e.g., physical therapists)
  1. Converger = Abstract Conceptualization + Active Experiment: strong in practical “hands-on” application of theories (e.g., engineers)
  2. Diverger = Concrete Experience + Reflective Observation: strong in imaginative ability and discussion (e.g., social workers)
  3. Assimilator = Abstract Conceptualization + Reflective Observation: strong in inductive reasoning and creation of theories (e.g., philosophers)

            Kolb’s model gave rise to the Learning Style Inventory, an assessment method used to determine an individual’s learning style. According to this model, individuals may exhibit a preference for one of the four styles-Accommodating, Converging, Diverging and assimilating-depending on their approach to learning in Kolb’s experiential learning model. Although Kolb’s model is widely accepted with substantial empirical support and has been revised over the years, a 2013 study pointed out that Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, among its other weaknesses, incorrectly dichotomizes individuals on the abstract/concrete and reflective/action dimensions of experiential learning (in much the same way as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator does in a different context), and proposed instead that these dimensions be treated as continuous rather than dichotomous/binary variables (Manolis et al.,  2013).

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford adapted Kolb’s experiential learning model. First, they renamed the stages in the learning cycle to accord with managerial experiences, having an experience, reviewing the experience, concluding from the experience, and planning the next steps. Second, they aligned these stages to four learning styles named (Honey et al., 2006).

1.      Activist

2.      Reflector

3.      Theorist

4.      Pragmatist

            These four learning styles are assumed to be acquired preferences that are adaptable, either at will or through changed circumstances, rather than being fixed personality characteristics. Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ) is a self-development tool and differs from Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory by inviting managers to complete a checklist of work-related behaviors without directly asking managers how they learn. Having completed the self-assessment, managers are encouraged to focus on strengthening underutilized styles in order to become better equipped to learn from a wide range of everyday experiences (Honey et al., 2006).          

            Neil Fleming‘s VARK model expanded upon earlier notions of sensory modalities such as the VAK model of Barbe and colleagues and the representational systems (VAKOG) in neuro-linguistic programming. The four sensory modalities in Fleming’s model are (Fleming, 2014).

  1. Visual learning
  2. Auditory learning
  3. Physical learning
  4. Social learning

            Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing (visual aids that represent ideas using methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, symbols, etc.). Subsequent neuroimaging research has suggested that visual learners convert words into images in the brain and vice versa, but some psychologists have argued that this “is not an instance of learning styles, rather, it is an instance of ability appearing as a style”. Likewise, Fleming claimed that auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.), and tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience-moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world, science projects, experiments, etc.). Students can use the model to identify their preferred learning style and, it is claimed, maximize their learning by focusing on the mode that benefits them the most. Fleming’s model also posits two types of multimodality (Fleming, 2014).

            Anthony Gregorc and Kathleen Butler organized a model describing different learning styles rooted in the way individuals acquire and process information differently. This model posits that an individual’s perceptual abilities are the foundation of his or her specific learning strengths, or learning styles.

            In this model, there are two perceptual qualities: concrete and abstract, and two ordering abilities: random and sequential. Concrete perceptions involve registering information through the five senses, while abstract perceptions involve the understanding of ideas, qualities, and concepts which cannot be seen. In regard to the two ordering abilities, sequential ordering involves the organization of information in a linear, logical way, and random ordering involves the organization of information in chunks and in no specific order. The model posits that both of the perceptual qualities and both of the ordering abilities are present in each individual, but some qualities and ordering abilities are more dominant within certain individuals.

            There are four combinations of perceptual qualities and ordering abilities based on dominance: concrete sequential, abstract random, abstract sequential, and concrete random. The model posits that individuals with different combinations learn in different ways-they have different strengths, different things make sense to them, different things are difficult for them, and they ask different questions throughout the learning process.

            The validity of Gregorc’s model has been questioned by Thomas Reio and Albert W is well following experimental trials. Gregorc argues that his critics have “scientifically-limited views” and that they wrongly repudiate the “mystical elements” of “the spirit” that can only be discerned by a “subtle human instrument”(Anderson, 2004).

            In the 1980s, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) formed a task force to study learning styles. The task force defined three broad categories of style-cognitive, affective, and physiological-and 31 variables, including the perceptual strengths and preferences from the VAK model of Barbe and colleagues, but also many other variables such as need for structure, types of motivation, time of day preferences, and so on. They defined a learning style as “a gestalt-not an amalgam of related characteristics but greater than any of its parts. It is a composite of internal and external operations based in neurobiology, personality, and human development and reflected in learner behavior.

  1. Cognitive styles are preferred ways of perception, organization and retention.
  2. Affective styles represent the motivational dimensions of the learning personality; each learner has a personal motivational approach.
  3. Physiological styles are bodily states or predispositions, including sex-related differences, health and nutrition, and reaction to physical surroundings, such as preferences for levels of light, sound, and temperature.

            According to the NASSP task force, styles are hypothetical constructs that help to explain the learning (and teaching) process. They posited that one can recognize the learning style of an individual student by observing his or her behavior. Learning has taken place only when one observes a relatively stable change in learner behavior resulting from what has been experienced (Keefe, 1985).

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