Learning Styles, Mindsets, and Adaptive Strategies

Felder-Silverman Learning Styles InventoryDo learning styles promote learning? Are they helpful for learners at the various stages/levels of their development of understanding in their subject areas? Should learners use learning styles psychometric tests to determine how they should view their study habits and how they approach studying? In this article, I argue that far from being helpful, the fixed mindset that learning styles promotes acts to hinder learners’ cognitive and metacognitive development and can be counter-productive in the longer term. I describe how learning styles encourage learners to use the same study strategies regardless of context, as personal rules of thumb, and that this encourages learners to ossify their study habits rather than to allow them to develop and grow.

I argue that encouraging learners to think of their preferences as strategies that they adapt according to their current knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular domain/topic will put them on a growth trajectory where they see themselves on trajectories of learning and development, from novice learner to expert learner, as they learn to think and study in new ways.

What are learning styles?

The basic idea of learning styles is that different learners have intrinsic personality traits that predispose them to particular media, modes, and strategies for learning. The learning styles hypothesis claims that if the concepts and subject matter are presented according to a learner’s preferred media, modes, and strategies, learners will learn more effectively and efficiently; a concept that learning styles proponents call meshing. Much has been written and debated about the learning styles hypothesis and there have been at least two major meta-studies which outline the research evidence available for their validity and reliability (Hayes, 2005; Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008).

Rather than discuss the validity and reliability aspect, I propose that learning styles are not intrinsic personality traits but strategic adaptations for learning concepts and subject matter that learners use according to how experienced and knowledgeable they are in a particular domain. In this sense, the conventional assumptions of what learning styles are and how they work fall under the fundamental attribution error; a form of cognitive bias where we interpret someone’s actions as being intrinsic to them as a personality trait, and disregard the situation and context in which they are acting and responding to.

So, rather than being psychometric tests which diagnose our intrinsic personality traits, learning styles preferences can be better understood as indicators of our levels of cognitive development within particular domains of knowledge, i.e. where we are on the spectrum between novice and expert. They may be useful for adapting our learning strategies in appropriate ways. For example, rather than learners thinking of themselves as sequential or global thinkers, they should consider their current level of knowledge and understanding and which strategies will help them best, i.e. Novice learners should use a sequential strategy to learn the basic concepts with related concepts presented close together (in time and/or space) and with authentic examples (observational learning) and/or authentic experiences (experiential learning) which can be used by learners to see how they relate to personal subjective experience, while more experienced learners should take a more global approach and make more abstract generalisations in order to situate and connect the concepts they have already learned together in a coherent framework.

A Hypothetical Example: Novice vs. Expert Musicians

Let’s consider a hypothetical example scenario. When a novice musician is presented with the task of learning a new song, she will normally proceed to pick up her instrument and read the music notation on the page, playing the notes sequentially and listening to how they sound in terms of harmony, rhythm, and melody. A novice will need to play through the song a great number of times in order to develop their knowledge and understanding of it, hearing how the harmony, rhythm, and melody fit together and complement each other, and hearing any musical devices that create and release tension, i.e. what makes songs interesting and catchy, before the song “sticks” and she can perform it well without the aid of sheet music. A novice may or may not know how or why the song “works” and typically arrives at a superficial understanding of it, i.e. “It just sounds good.” This is a perfectly legitimate and appropriate strategy, considering the levels of development of her knowledge and experience of music and what she is capable of understanding.

In contrast, an expert musician will read over the whole song, usually without picking up her instrument. She will analyse any harmonic progressions, rhythmic patterns, divide and group the song into sections, e.g. verses and chorus’ or head and bridge, and will immediately draw upon her experience and knowledge to relate it to other similar songs, structures, and musical devices used to create tension and resolution. It takes considerably less time for an expert to learn to perform a song well than a novice because she is able to quickly and effortlessly situate the song in conceptual and contextual frameworks. While it may take a novice musician one or two weeks to learn a new song, an expert can do it in as little as half an hour.

Drawing from this example and according to Bransford et al (2000), we can say that experts differ from novices in that:

  • Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.
  • Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.
  • Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalised” on a set of circumstances.
  • Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.
  • Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.
  • Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations. (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, Donovan, & Pellegrino, 2000)

A Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

So we see that novice and expert musicians use very different strategies to learn new songs, according to and dependent on their knowledge and experience. A novice does not have the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to examine, deconstruct, and understand songs in the same way that an expert does, so she tends to use strategies that are more hands-on, experiential, experimental, and sequential. She tends to learn by rote, repetition, and memorisation and follow rules and procedures that she can understand, given the KSAs she has developed so far. With time, practice, experience, guidance, and reflection she will be able to develop her own coherent conceptual and contextual frameworks for learning and understanding songs. A well-guided novice understands that, with effort and perseverance, she will be able to learn new songs in different and more efficient ways and understand them more deeply. In effect, what we are describing is a “growth mindset,” i.e. that learning styles are actually strategic, adaptive strategies that are developmental and modifiable (Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997; Dweck, 2010; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999).

The Learning Styles Fixed Mindset

Now let us contrast this developmental, growth mindset view with what the various learning styles propose. In his review, (Hayes, 2005) identified 71 different schemas of learning styles but for the purposes of this article I am going to focus on one of the more popular schemas in use in higher education, the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles (Felder & Silverman, 1988; Felder & Spurlin, 2005), for which they provide a web-form questionnaire for learners to self-assess their own learning styles according to this schema (Soloman & Felder, 1991a) and for which they offer study strategies advice to learners (Soloman & Felder, 1991b).

Learners complete the Felder-Silverman psychometric style questionnaire in order to be automatically assessed and categorised into balanced (1 – 3), moderate (5 – 7), and strong (9 – 11) learning styles preferences on four scales from 11 – 1 – 11 like this:

Active 11–9–7–5–3–1|1–3–5–7–9–11 Reflective
Sensing 11–9–7–5–3–1|1–3–5–7–9–11 Intuitive
Visual 11–9–7–5–3–1|1–3–5–7–9–11 Verbal
Sequential 11–9–7–5–3–1|1–3–5–7–9–11 Global

Felder et al (1998; 2005) claim that these preferences are consistent for each learner across domains and disciplines. When learners complete the Inventory of Learning Styles questionnaire it automatically informs them that the strategies they declare their preferences for are learning styles that are intrinsic personality traits to which they should adapt their studying habits. They are then referred to a document recommending study strategies that would best accommodate their learning styles preferences. In this sense, the Felder-Silverman, as well as many other learning styles schemas, promote a “fixed mindset,” i.e. that learning styles are fixed personality traits and not developmental or modifiable (Chiu et al., 1997; Dweck, 2010; Hong et al., 1999).

A Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

What’s wrong with a fixed mindset? It is tempting for musicians and practitioners in any field to view themselves as intrinsically capable or talented. However, Dweck (2010) informs us that for the purposes of learning and development:

“Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is simply an inborn trait – they have a certain amount, and that’s that.” “…when students view intelligence as fixed, they tend to value looking smart above all else. They may sacrifice important opportunities to learn – even those that are important to their future academic success – if those opportunities require them to risk performing poorly or admitting deficiencies.” (Dweck, 2010)

So, far from helping learners to develop the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) through practice and perseverance, the fixed mindset, which I propose is at the foundation of learning styles, actively discourages learners who perceive themselves as less capable and talented; because their KSAs are not yet as well-developed as their peers; and discourages learners who perceive themselves as more capable and talented to not expose their shortcomings and instead encourages them to present a wall of (insecure) perfection to their peers. Have you ever noticed how some people feel intimidated and reticent when working with peers who they perceive to be more talented and capable than themselves?

Redefining learning styles in terms of a strategic, adaptive, growth mindset

In order to identify the differences between the fixed mindset promoted by learning styles and a strategic, adaptive growth mindset, let us take a closer look at the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles schema, although this could equally apply to many of the many other learning styles schemas. When presented with a learning activity or opportunity, rather than a learner recalling her learning styles diagnosis from the psychometric test (fixed mindset), I argue that it would be advantageous for her to ask herself about how much she already knows, what experience she has, and to think about where she stands on the novice – expert learner scale, and which strategies are likely to help her most (growth mindset):

Active vs. Reflective Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Active

vs.

Reflective

Active learners tend to retain and understand information best by doing something active with it – discussing or applying it or explaining it to others.

Reflective learners prefer to think about it quietly first.

“Let’s try it out and see how it works” is an active learner’s phrase.

“Let’s think it through first” is the reflective learner’s response.

Active learners tend to like group work more than reflective learners.

Reflective learners prefer working alone.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To gain basic, first-hand, experiential, implicit, procedural KSAs.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: To situate and connect already learned KSAs and relate them to each other.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Make up the shortfall in basic KSAs in some way. A good strategy is to get some hands-on experience and active engagement with it.

Describe and analyse the context/situation we find ourselves in and reflect on how our KSAs apply/relate to it.

Sensing vs. Intuitive Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Sensing

vs.

Intuitive

Sensing learners tend to like learning facts.

Intuitive learners often prefer discovering possibilities and relationships.

Sensors often like solving problems by well-established methods and dislike complications and surprises

Intuitors like innovation and dislike repetition.

Sensors are more likely than intuitors to resent being tested on material that has not been explicitly covered in class.

Sensors tend to be patient with details and good at memorizing facts and doing hands-on (laboratory) work. Intuitors may be better at grasping new concepts and are often more comfortable than sensors with abstractions and mathematical formulations.

Sensors tend to be more practical and careful than intuitors.

Intuitors tend to work faster and to be more innovative than sensors.

Sensors don’t like courses that have no apparent connection to the real world.

Intuitors don’t like “plug-and-chug” courses that involve a lot of memorization and routine calculations.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To learn the parts than make up the whole. To deepen understanding of KSAs to make them more explicit, i.e. make KSAs available to consciousness in order to develop more abstract and general hypotheses about them.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: Develop their conceptual frameworks further, locate gaps in KSAs, and situate new KSAs within their frameworks.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Learn the basics, follow linear procedures, memorise information and methods, etc. Hands-on experience helps to put abstract concepts into context and is useful for testing/exploring boundary conditions, i.e. when methods, procedures, etc. start to fail/become inappropriate.

More experienced learners in this field can think more abstractly, can explore bending the rules, testing boundary conditions (i.e. where/when they break down/fail), and finding new ways to apply the knowledge.

Visual vs. Verbal Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Visual

vs.

Verbal

Visual learners remember best what they see – pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations. Verbal learners get more out of words – written and spoken explanations.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To develop an awareness of “the big picture,” that there are frameworks they must develop an understanding of, with gaps/spaces in which to situate new KSAs.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: To deepen understanding and develop more abstract concepts that they can generalise and use in novel situations and other domains.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Are helped by having simplified, graphic overviews and illustrations of concepts and ideas; pictures, diagrams, flow charts, concept maps, time lines, narrative films, and demonstrations. They may need to see conceptual structures and frameworks in order to develop their understanding of them more fully.

Already have overviews and can map out the subject area. They are ready to go into greater detail and depth and reflect on the relationships and implications of the concepts.

Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Sequential

vs.

Global

Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in linear steps, with each step following logically from the previous one.

Global learners tend to learn in large jumps, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then suddenly “getting it.”

Sequential learners tend to follow logical stepwise paths in finding solutions.

Global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To situate, relate, and connect concepts to theories and in frameworks, i.e. “the big picture,” and develop a deeper understanding.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: To sufficiently develop and build their KSAs into more abstract concepts so that they can easily transfer them across domains.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Need structured, guided learning where they encounter related concepts close together (spatially and/or temporally) so as to emphasise their relationships/connections to each other. They need to understand some concepts before they can learn others in order to build a coherent picture of the subject/topic area.

Can connect the dots, have constructed larger, more complex, more abstract concepts and so can think more globally, taking the bigger picture, and the complex relationships between them into account. Much of their basic thinking has become automatic and barely registers in their consciousness (working memory). They are also more able to transfer those more abstract concepts into novel domains and adapt them accordingly.

Summary

I have proposed this alternative interpretation of learning styles, rethinking them not as fixed, psychometric attributes and personality traits, but as adaptive, strategic responses to the challenges that learners frequently face when acquiring and developing KSAs. By understanding learners’ preferences as indicators of their current levels of cognitive and metacognitive development, somewhere between novice and expert, we can help learners to develop learning strategies to situate themselves on trajectories of personal growth and to identify and prioritise the specific areas and aspects where they need to develop their KSAs further. In other words, to be balanced, self-aware, self-directed, strategic, adaptive, and well-rounded learners.

References

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., Donovan, M. S., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2nd ed.). The National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853/how-people-learn-brain-mind-experience-and-school-expanded-edition

Chiu, C., Hong, Y., & Dweck, C. S. (1997). Lay dispositionism and implicit theories of personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 19–30. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.73.1.19

Dweck, C. S. (2010). Even Geniuses Work Hard. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 16–20.

Felder, R. M., & Silverman, L. K. (1988). Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education. Engineering Education, 78(7), 674–81.

Felder, R. M., & Spurlin, J. (2005). Applications, Reliability and Validity of the Index of Learning Styles. International Journal of Engineering Education, 21(1), 103–112.

Hayes, D. (2005). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review. Journal of Further and Higher Education, (3), 289.

Hong, Y., Chiu, C., Dweck, C. S., Lin, D. M.-S., & Wan, W. (1999). Implicit theories, attributions, and coping: A meaning system approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 588–599. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.3.588

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9:3.

Soloman, B., & Felder, R. M. (1991a). Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire [Institution Website]. Retrieved August 4, 2015, from https://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html

Soloman, B., & Felder, R. M. (1991b). Learning Styles and Strategies. North Carolina State University. Retrieved from http://www.cityvision.edu/courses/coursefiles/402/STYLES_AND_STRATEGIES.pdf