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What Learning Styles are There?

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Here is a summary of Keng-Soon Soo’s article “Theory and Research: Learning Styles, Motivation, and the CALL Classroom”, published in Call Environments: Research, Practice and Critical Issues (1999) edited by Egbert & Hanson-Smith (There is a newer 2007 edition of this text available)

Learning style refers to how students approach learning, not to how well they learn. (p. 290)

This is most interesting. I wonder whether consciously changing your learning style  – nothing is impossible for a willing heart – might result in better learning outcomes.  There is a lot of attitude and belief in what we do or do not do when we are to learn something, and that means that we are in a position to both facilitate and jeopardize our learning experience at will.

The concept of learning style has its origins in the beginning of modern education. Johann Pestalozzi, who pioneered the progressive instructional method in the XIXth century, and Maria Montessori, who initiated the Montessori school system in 1907, both believed that education should take learners’ differences into account.  (p. 290)

Learning styles can be discussed at two levels. There are cultural learning styles, which are the common preferences of an entire people, and individual learning styles, which are generally discussed in 4 domains: cognitive, affective, perceptual, and physiological.


… from the day of birth, individuals are socialized into doing things in the normal (acceptable) ways through the silent example and overt teaching of family and friends. (p. 292)

… Confucian societies tend to value rote learning … (p. 292)

Collaborative learning is predicated on a learning culture that values collectivism. In more individualistic societies, where education may contain strong elements of competition, collaborative learning can be problematic. (p. 293)

The bottom line is that there are unstated assumptions about how people should learn in every society, and people usually acquire their cultural learning styles before they start school. Since values tend to differ from society to society, so do cultural learning styles.  The way I see it, it also means that challenging your students’ cultural learning style is like asking them to reconsider their values, and may yield unexpected results. If the teaching methods and techniques you use promote values that are fundamentally different from those of your students, the latter are likely to suffer from “learning style shock” and perform worse than they would otherwise,  whilst you may run into all sorts of problems to do with classroom management or have difficulty working up a rapport with the students. The worst possible scenario could be for you to fail as a teacher in such a classroom despite the learners being bright and your knowing the subject matter well.  Imposing values is highly unlikely to work unless you have established your credibility beyond reasonable doubt.


The Cognitive Dimension

  • field dependent vs field independent
  • analytic vs global
  • impulsive vs reflective

Soo concludes that the analytic learner does relatively better if learning is individualized and rule based, whereas the global learner is likely to shine in the communicative classroom. (p.295)

This is useful information. I guess I will design a placement quiz (NB! Table 18-1 p. 294) for my students that will determine the ratio of analytic to global learners in the classroom. This way I will know whether they need more rules or more communicative practice:)

December update: I have finally designed and piloted the global vs analytic placement test. Four people have tried it, including myself. The results are puzzling in the sense that I seem to be the “most global” learner of all, my own score is 70:30.  It came as a surprise because I have always considered myself to be a bookworm and a rule-freak.  On second thought, there is nothing surprising about that for it is necessary to distinguish between language learning styles and learning styles in general. All the statements pertain to how you approach learning languages, and in my case there is a clear difference between what I do when I study English, German or Italian, for instance, and, say, ELT methodology:). The other people are my students or acquintances, and their results are 60:40, 50:50(2) and 45:55 respectively.  Now it is really interesting how I should interpret those scores. My initial hypothesis or supposition is that the higher the score, the more likely you are to benefit from the so-called communicative approach. Another possible way to interpret the scores is to say that the higher the global to analytic ratio, the better your chances of success in acquiring a foreign language by actually using it in authentic contexts other than classroom tasks. To put it differently, the tasks that the learner is most likely to benefit from do not have to be the ones that are found in conventional coursebooks, but should rather be more project-based and have “natural or real” purposes as opposed to linguistic ones, i.e. accuracy and fluency should come as side effects of doing such tasks.  In other words, the lower the score, the more scaffolding the learner needs on the road to fluency. Last but not least, unless you score is 100:0, it is not possible to say that you do not need any rules at all, which implies that explicit instruction – it may take different forms ranging from reading some rules or talking to an expert, e.g. a teacher – is a must in certain amounts however reluctant the learner might be, and the exact amount of scaffolding and support in percentage points is equal to the absolute value of the denominator in the ratio .  Anyone wants to do the test? Feel free to contact me.

The Affective Dimension

  • attention
  • emotion
  • valuing


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