More than three-fifths of a person's learning style is biologically imposed (Restak 1979, Thies 1979). While concentrating on new and difficult academic information, an individual's learning style preferences include
- Quiet or background noise
- Bright or low light
- Formal or casual seating
- Uninterrupted study or intermittent breaks
- Perceptual modes (auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic)
- No intake or intake (snacking, chewing, drinking, or smoking)
- Specific periods during the day
- Passivity or mobility
- Global or analytic processing styles
Even among family members, learning styles vary. Mothers and fathers tend to have diametrically opposite learning styles, children often reflect the partial style of one parent but not the other, siblings learn differently from each other, and offspring do not necessarily reflect either parent's style (Dunn and Griggs 1990, 1995; Milgram, Dunn, and Price 1993). Because of the differences between their styles, one sibling may perform well while another may perform inadequately or unevenly in traditional schools, which primarily respond to the styles of motivated, conforming, analytic learners. The siblings also relate differently to their parents.
Other elements develop as an outgrowth of students' experiences. Developmental elements of learning styles include
- A need for less or more structure
- Conformity versus nonconformity
- Sociological preferences for learning (Restak 1979, Thies 1979)
Preferences for learning styles change over time (Dunn and Griggs 1995). However, during a period in which an individual has strong style preferences, that person will achieve most easily when taught with strategies and resources that complement those preferences. Although many people can learn basic information through an incompatible style, even accomplished professionals learn most easily through their learning style strengths. The important thing to remember is that no single style is better or worse than any other (Dunn, Griggs, Olson, Gorman, and Beasley 1995). Everyone can learn; we just learn differently.
The Learning Styles of Gifted Students
Although all gifted students do not have the same learning style, they and their peers have learning styles that differ significantly from those of underachievers. Differences in style also have been reported between the learning disabled and the gifted; between the learning disabled and average achievers; among different types of special education students; and among secondary students in comprehensive high schools and their counterparts in vocational education and industrial arts (St. John's University's Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles 1996).
Adolescents gifted in a particular domain—athletics, dance, leadership, literature, mathematics, and music—revealed similar learning styles across nine cultures. The gifted in each intelligence area reported similar preferences for learning style—but those preferences were different from the preferences of other gifted groups and from the preferences of the nongifted (Milgram, Dunn, and Price 1993). The information that gifted adolescents in the same intelligence areas reveal almost identical learning styles across nine diverse cultures tends to corroborate Restak's (1979) and Thies' (1979) data that almost three-fifths of variables in the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Models (1992, 1993) are biological.
Although gifted students prefer kinesthetic (experiential and active) and tactile (hands-on) instruction, many are able to learn auditorially and visually (Dunn 1989; Milgram, Dunn, and Price 1993). Low achieving students who also prefer kinesthetic and tactile learning, however, can only master difficult information through those modalities. In addition, low achievers often have only one or no perceptual strength in contrast with the multiperceptual strengths of the gifted (Dunn 1988; Dunn, Beaudry, and Klavas 1989; Kyriacou and Dunn 1994; Milgram, Dunn, and Price 1993).
Gifted adolescents in nine cultures preferred to learn either by themselves or with an authoritative teacher. If those students represent gifted students worldwide, cooperative learning and small-group instructional strategies should not be imposed on them. Few gifted and talented students want to learn with classmates. Even in the primary grades, gifted first- and second-graders revealed higher achievement and attitude test scores when learning in accordance with their sociological preferences (Perrin 1984). In just one year, 13 percent of those gifted young children completed between two and six years of grade-level curriculum in both rote memory and problem-solving tasks primarily by teaching themselves or occasionally working with other gifted classmates.
Although some gifted adolescents learn well early in the morning, many more prefer late morning, afternoon, or evening for concentrating on challenging academic studies (Milgram, Dunn, and Price 1993). Research documents the influence of time-of-day energy patterns on achievement (Andrews 1990; Dunn 1989; Dunn, Dunn, Primavera, Sinatra, and Virostko 1987; Lemmon 1985; Stone 1992). Conventional school hours appear to be poorly timed—for the majority of gifted adolescents and low achievers the best time for learning is other than early morning. Conventional school hours are appropriate for a minority of K-12 learners—no single period during the day is preferred by more than 40 percent of students. Before high school, the percentage for that preference is even lower. (Dunn and Dunn 1992, 1993; Milgram, Dunn, and Price 1993).
Of the gifted and talented we tested for hemispheric processing style, 19 percent were analytic, 26 percent were global, and 55 percent were integrated processors who functioned in either style when interested in the curriculum. Although both global and analytic students can be gifted, both textbooks and teachers' styles tend to be analytic. Conversely, emphasis on a thematic approach to curriculum (Dunn and Dunn 1972) is likely to work for global students but will then transfer the handicap to analytic students. Thus, until teachers instruct each group of processors differently, or students learn to teach themselves, conventional schooling will continue to benefit some and inhibit others.
I implemented learning styles in my regular 11th grade English class. I used the identical curriculum in my traditionally taught accelerated 11th grade English class. My regular students outscored the accelerated students!
Denise Stephenson, Teacher, Thomasville, N.C.
The Learning Styles of Low Achievers
Seven learning style traits discriminate between high-risk students and dropouts, and students who perform well in school. Most low achievers and dropouts need
- Frequent opportunities for mobility
- Reasonable choices of how, with which resources, and with whom to learn
- A variety of instructional environments, materials, and sociological groupings rather than routines and patterns
- To learn during late morning, afternoon, or evening hours
- Informal seating (e.g., beanbag chairs and cushions)
- Soft illumination—bright or fluorescent light may contribute to hyperactivity
- Introduction to materials with tactile or visual resources, reinforced with visual or kinesthetic resources; or an introduction to materials with kinesthetic or visual resources, reinforced with visual or tactile resources
Underachievers tend to have poor auditory memory. If they learn visually, it usually is through pictures, drawings, graphs, symbols, comics, and cartoons rather than text. Although low achievers often want to do well in school, their inability to remember facts through lecture, discussion, or reading contributes to their low performance in traditional schools where introductory instruction is usually teachers talking and students listening or reading (Dunn 1988). Although low achievers learn differently from high achievers and the gifted, they also learn differently from each other.
How Does Culture Contribute to Achievement?
Research by Milgram, Dunn, and Price (1993) reveals that opportunity substantially influences an individual's development of specific talents. For example, if access to creative activities, information, or role models is not readily available, fewer adolescents will develop giftedness in that domain. Thus, in cultures that respect science, higher percentages of students gifted in science will develop. The same finding holds firm across other domains. Most U.S. communities support athletics financially, but rarely hesitate to eliminate programs in music, art, and drama when funds are scarce. In addition, few advanced science opportunities are available to elementary school and middle school students.
Children in grades 3—12 have gone from D's and F's to A's after using tactile and kinesthetic materials. Achievement scores keep rising. It's working, and we've seen improvement each year since 1988.
Sister Natalie Lafser, Director, St. Louis, Mo.
Why Emphasize Standardized Achievement Test Scores? When legislative groups, state education departments, boards of education, communities, and the media criticize the level of student literacy in the United States and demand increased accountability for standardized achievement test scores, we cannot continue to blame low achievement on everything except on how we teach. The significantly higher standardized achievement test scores of learning disabled and emotionally handicapped students in learning style schools suggest that this instructional approach may be the key for many poor achievers (Alberg, Cook, Fiore, Friend, Sano 1992; Andrews 1990; Brunner and Majewski 1990; Klavas 1993; Kyriacou and Dunn 1994, Quinn 1993, Stone 1992). After all, if students classified as special education cannot perform well on tests, how do we explain their improved test scores in learning style classrooms? Admittedly, many poor achievers do not function well under stress, but their stress appears sufficiently reduced after learning through their preferences to enable them to attain significantly higher scores on tests (Dunn, Griggs, Olson, Gorman, and Beasley 1995).
Better Ways to Assess Skills. Because students do have different learning styles and intelligences, when possible or appropriate they should be able to show how much they have learned by using their unique talents and interests. Thus, a musically gifted student should be allowed to explain a topic by singing; an artistic student should be able to draw or illustrate an explanation of a topic. These alternatives do not eliminate pencil-and-paper tests—they are additional ways for students to show how much they have learned.
One aspect of authentic assessment is a portfolio of accumulated projects and demonstrations of mastery. As an alternative to testing, portfolios are reasonable as long as educators and parents remember the following points:
- Underachievers who have been taught through their learning style strengths can and do demonstrate mastery on pencil and paper tests.
- Students need to learn to take standardized achievement tests or their chances for being accepted into institutions of higher learning and for receiving scholarships will be sharply reduced (Levy and Riordan 1995).
- The public will not believe that students who demonstrate content mastery through performance measures are as able as those who also make high scores on tests.
- Test-taking is a skill that all students need to and can master.
- Minority students and underachievers who perform least well on standardized achievement tests may suffer from being excused from taking them. These children will be viewed as incapable by some; eventually, they may perceive themselves as incapable. Fewer experiences taking tests will further diminish their ability to handle tests confidently. When children believe that they cannot perform well on tests, they do not.
Visitors to our learning style inclusion classes cannot tell the “special” students from the “regular” students.
Wanda Dean, Principal, Oxford, Miss.
Rather than eliminating testing, it seems sensible to require that teachers teach using learning styles and then give the students opportunities to demonstrate how well they learn. We should strive to transform all of our schools into learning style schools.
Authentic learning style schools are different from any other kind of school you have ever visited—and they don't cost a dollar more. Unlike traditional education, the open classrooms of the '60s and '70s, and the “brain-based” practices that some enthusiasts currently advocate, learning style schools acknowledge that children learn differently from each other. In learning style schools, teachers focus on teaching students how to (1) recognize and rely on their personal learning style strengths, (2) teach themselves and each other by using those strengths, and (3) learn the lesson by using the most appropriate resources and approaches.
Learning style schools offer a variety of instructional resources. Students may focus on identical information and skills while working in sections of the classroom that best meet their personal environmental, emotional, and physiological styles—and many will have made the materials they're using. Whole classes rarely engage in either teacher-directed instruction or cooperative learning groups. Instead, children learn on the basis of their individual sociological preferences—alone, with a classmate or two, in a small cooperative or competitive group, or with their teacher. Students may vary their choices, but are encouraged to use their strengths whenever the academic material is complex or difficult for them.
Practitioners in the United States report statistically higher standardized achievement test scores and grade point averages for students transferred from traditional classrooms to learning style classrooms at the elementary (Andrews 1990; Koshuta and Koshuta 1993; Lemmon 1985; Neely and Alm 1992, 1993; Quinn 1993; Stone 1992; Turner 1993), secondary (Brunner and Majewski 1990; Elliot 1991; Gadwa and Griggs 1985; Harp and Orsak 1990; Orsak 1990a, b; Perrin 1990; Quinn 1993), and college (Clark-Thayer 1987; Lenehan, Dunn, Ingham, Murray, and Signer 1994; Mickler and Zippert 1987; Nelson, Dunn, Griggs, Primavera, and Fitzpatrick 1993) levels.
Improved achievement is often apparent after only six weeks of learning styles instruction. After one year, teachers report that their students earn much higher standardized achievement and attitude test scores than before.
We had an increase of 18 points on the math portion of our students' SATs in the first year we implemented learning styles!
Larry Howie, Teacher, Chico, Calif.
How to Identify Learning Styles
To accurately identify students' learning styles, teachers must have a reliable and valid instrument because some characteristics are not discernable, even to the experienced educator (Beaty 1986; Dunn, Dunn, and Price 1977; Marcus 1977). In addition, teachers may misinterpret students' behaviors and misunderstand the symptoms. For example, it is difficult to determine whether a youngster's hyperactivity is a need for mobility, variety, informal seating, kinesthetic resources, intermittent breaks, nonconformity, or discipline.
Instruments for identifying learning styles should do more than identify one or two variables on a bipolar continuum. A comprehensive instrument enhances the teacher's ability to prescribe instructional alternatives and the student's chance for significant academic improvement (Griggs, Griggs, Dunn, and Ingham 1994). Learning styles are a multidimensional construct; many variables affect each other and produce unique patterns. Those patterns suggest how each person is likely to concentrate, process, internalize, and retain new and difficult information, and which reading or math teaching strategies are most likely to be effective with a particular student (Dunn, Dunn, and Perrin 1994).