Professional Development Module
on Learning Styles

By Vicky Lara, El Paso Community College

This self-paced module consists of a series of annotated websites that provide an overview of the key concepts underlying our understanding of learning styles. Web sites offering more practical than theoretical information were selected to aid the instructor in recognizing and handling the instructional challenges and opportunities presented by the variety of student learning styles in the classroom.

Key Concepts:

  • Learning Styles
  • Models Used to Describe Learning Styles
  • Strategies for Addressing Multiple Learning Styles

Section 1: Learning Styles
People perceive, analyze, reflect upon, visualize, internalize, and transform information in various ways. The individual cognitive approach most effective and comfortable for a given student is called his learning style. Although most styles are based on seeming dichotomies (left brain/right brain), the reality is that the terminology utilized by any dichotomy should be seen as the extreme on a continuum with students fitting at different points along the line. For example, seldom are students so left-brained that they cannot appreciate or function in some right-brained manner. In fact, a poignant classroom challenge is the instructor’s need to foster and encourage a variety of learning style capabilities in students in order to promote versatility and adaptability in their real-world, multi-style surroundings.

Most educational psychologists credit C. G. Jung with the seminal classifications (sensation and intuition) from which the variety of learning style models evolved. Other early theoretical contributors were John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Based on the theories of all three, a wide variety of systems were developed. All attempted to classify learning methods in well-organized systems with ample explanations and examples of each “type” of learner. These various theoretical constructs are called models or methods. The reader in the field will soon notice the similarities in many of the key classifications. In fact, in many cases, one system evolved from a previous one, with the new system attempting to expand or clarify a previous system’s weaknesses or limitations. According to Gypsy Denzine, Associate Dean in the College of Education, Northern Arizona University, approaches to the concept of learning styles typically share four core assumptions:

  • There are individual differences in learning.
  • An individual's style of learning is fairly stable across time.
  • An individual's style of learning is fairly stable across tasks/problems/situations.
  • We can effectively measure an individual's learning style.

Not surprisingly, there are also educational psychologists and cognitive scientists who reject some of these assumptions. In her article "The Existence of Learning Styles: Myth or Reality?" [] Denzine explains that theorists in the Human Information Processing (HIP) camp believe that learning style theorists "ignore the critical role that prior knowledge plays in a learning situation." See also "Different Strokes for Different Folks? A Critique of Learning Styles" by Steven Stahl, professor of reading education at the University of Georgia.

Given the potential for confusion and controversy, why bother with learning styles? Perhaps Richard Felder, Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University, explains it best:

When mismatches exist between learning styles of most students in a class and the teaching style of the professor, the students may become bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the courses, the curriculum, and themselves, and in some cases change to other curricula or drop out of school. Professors, confronted by low test grades, unresponsive or hostile classes, poor attendance and dropouts, know something is not working. They may become overly critical of their students (making things even worse) or begin to wonder if they are in the right profession. Most seriously, society loses potentially excellent professionals.

Section 2: Models Used to Describe Learning Styles

Terry O'Connor at Indiana State University describes how the development of individual learning styles reflects the development of "a personal point of view":

To understand learning style models, begin with one of the fundamental insights of 20th Century psychology: people rely on personally constructed filters to orient their relationships toward the world. These filters are responsive to a variety of factors: age, experience, internal psychodynamics, maturity, cognition, physiology, biochemistry, and so on. Since no one is capable of switching endlessly between all of these filters, it seems obvious that each individual has a unique approach he or she uses to perceive, understand, and plan his or her interactions. Information theory, for example, explains that the world is information rich and therefore people are selective in the information they perceive (& believe). Our personal way of selecting can be described as our style. In a very real sense, we create our own personal point of view.

O'Connor further explains [] that since there is such a wide variety of models used to characterize learning styles, it is helpful to divide those models into descriptive categories:

  • Instructional & Environmental Preferences (e.g., Dunn & Dunn's model)
  • Social Interaction Models
  • Information Processing Models (e.g., Kolb)
  • Personality Models (e.g., Myers Briggs)

Cognitive Profile Model
Developed by Dr. Lois Breur Krause, this model describes what we do with the information once we have it. How do we process it? What do we need to do to develop a real understanding of the new material? The model is based on Jung's theory of personality type in which personality is described using four pairs of characteristics that are opposite one another, such as introverted/extroverted. While the Myers Briggs personality type indicator is also based on Jung's work, Krause attempted to simplify the outcome with her model. Instead of 16 possible personality types, her inventory yields four--a manageable number for dealing with in a classroom setting. To review her research, visit:;rjsessionid=5b0741eed88dbb6b. You can also take the Cognitive Profile Inventory online at for $4.95.

Dunn & Dunn Model
This model takes into account how a person interacts with various internal and external stimuli across five categories: environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and psychological stimuli. To view a graphic of this grid, visit In order to use this model to provide direction and structure for effective teaching strategies, however, four additional factors that vary among groups and in individuals over time must be considered: global versus analytic processing styles, age, gender, and high- versus low-academic achievement. Read Sarah Church's article which goes into more detail about the Dunn & Dunn model of learning styles here:

Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model
Richard Felder, professor of chemical engineering, and Linda K. Silverman, an educational psychologist, developed a model of learning styles and a parallel model of teaching styles designed to be used with students in technical disciplines. "The idea is not to teach each student exclusively according to his or her preferences, but rather to strive for a balance of instructional methods.” The information, however, is applicable for all students in all disciplines. The Index of Learning Styles is an instrument used to assess preferences on four dimensions (active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global) of the Felder-Silverman learning style model. The ILS instrument was developed by Felder and Barbara A. Soloman of North Carolina State University. Both an on-line version and a pencil-and-paper version of the instrument may be accessed from this page.

Field Independent and Field Dependent Cognitive Styles
Originally proposed by Hermann Witkin, et. al. in 1962, this model postulates that "[the] field dependent rely on external cues, or visual framework, in the perception of the upright. Conversely, people who rely on internal cues, such as body orientation and gravitational pull are considered field independent." Visit for an introduction to the theoretical background. Greg Kearsley's "Theories into Practice" database defines cognitive style as "a personality dimension which influences attitudes, values, and social interaction." He continues, explaining that:

Field independence versus field dependence refers to a tendency to approach the environment in an analytical, as opposed to global, fashion. At a perceptual level, field independent personalities are able to distinguish figures as discrete from their backgrounds compared to field dependent individuals who experience events in an undifferentiated way. In addition, field dependent individuals have a greater social orientation relative to field independent personalities. Studies have identified a number connections between this cognitive style and learning (see Messick, 1978). For example, field independent individuals are likely to learn more effectively under conditions of instrinsic motivation (e.g., self-study) and are influenced less by social reinforcement.

Robert Wyss's article "Field Independent/Dependent Learning Styles and L2 Acquisition" (ELT Newsletter, June 2002, lists the principal characteristics of the two styles and offers a helpful checklist for helping students identify their cognitive style. While the checklist is designed for use with students learning a second language, it could be adapted for use in other academic disciplines.

Gardner's Multiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner theorizes that although our culture rewards primarily verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligence, there are at least five additional kinds of intelligence that are equally important: musical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal (e.g., insight, metacognition) and interpersonal (e.g., social skills).
See his paper "Multiple Intelligences After Twenty Years" which he presented April 21, 2003, to the American Educational Research Association. A broad overview of the theory of multiple intelligences can be found at The website based on David Lazear's work, provides checklists of characteristics describing each type of intelligence.

Carolyn Hopper's website at Middle Tennessee State University explains that:

Brain research confirms that both sides of the brain are involved in nearly every human activity, [but] we do know that the left side of the brain is the seat of language and processes in a logical and sequential order. The right side is more visual and processes intuitively, holistically, and randomly. Most people seem to have a dominant side. A key word is that our dominance is a preference, not an absolute. When learning is new, difficult, or stressful we PREFER to learn in a certain way. It seems that our brain goes on autopilot to the preferred side.

Take her quick Hemispheric Dominance Inventory at and then explore various modes of processing information:

  • Linear vs. Holistic
  • Sequential vs. Random
  • Symbolic vs. Concrete
  • Logical vs. Intuitive
  • Verbal vs. Nonverbal
  • Reality-based vs. Fantasy-oriented>

Some notes from Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1989) can be found at the "Left Brain, Right Brain" website: For other perspectives, read "Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology?" an excerpt from William Calvin's book of essays on the brain, The Throwing Madonna; and "Left Brain, Right Brain" by John McCrone (1999, The New Scientist), an article that explores the "likely reasons for the lateralisation of the human brain."

The Keirsey Temperament Sorter
According to David Keirsey ( The Keirsey Temperament Sorter has been in existence for over twenty years and follows the Myers-Briggs method of assessment closely—asking more indirect questions. The Keirsey Character Sorter is more closely related to the Keirsey Four Temperaments--asking more direct questions and using the technique of ranking. In addition, "both questionnaires can be fooled in giving the wrong assessments, given that many people are not very good at assessing themselves. The Character Sorter might have a slight bias towards assessing people's perceived desired traits as opposed to their actual behavior." The four temperaments are: Idealist, Rational, Artisan, and Guardian. Keirsey’s Sorter and the MBTI are deeply connected and have often been confused with each other. This site offers the clearest explanation of the differences between the two models:
A free version of the Temperament Sorter is available here:

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Style Model

Kolb's Learning Style Inventory (Kolb, D. A. 1984) is based on John Dewey's emphasis on the need for learning to be grounded in experience, Kurt Lewin's, work that stressed the importance of a person's being active in learning, and Jean Piaget's theory on intelligence as the result of the interaction of the person and the environment. Kolb's four stage theory uses a model with two dimensions. You can think of the first dimension, as shown in the model [see website], running horizontally and it is based on task. The left end of the dimension is doing the tasks (performing), while the right end is watching the task (observing). The second dimension runs vertically and is based upon our thought and emotional processes. The top of the dimension is feeling (responsive feelings—such as Henry David Thoreau), while the bottom of the dimension is thinking (controlled feelings—such as Dr. Spock of Star Trek fame). from Don Clark's outstanding training website:

Kolb describes four learner types:

  • Theorists (or Assimilator) like to learn using abstract conceptualization and reflective observation (lecture, papers, analogies).
  • Pragmatists (or Converger) like to learn using abstract conceptualization and active experimentation (laboratories, field work, observations).
  • Activists (or Accommodator) like to learn using concrete experience and active experimentation (simulations, case study, homework).>
  • Reflectors (or Diverger) like to learn using reflective observation and concrete experience (logs, journals, brainstorming).

For insight on what kind of learner you are, try this Learning Style Indicator:
A nice list of critiques of Kolb's model can be found at Smith, M. K. (2001) "David A. Kolb on experiential learning," The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.

McCarthy’s 4MAT System
This site allows either a superficial perusal or an in-depth study of both instruction and learning based on Bernice McCarthy's 4MAT System. The 4MAT model is constructed along two continua, perceiving and processing, and students' preferences along these continua determine their individual approach to learning. In broad terms, she classifies students preferred learning styles as imaginative, analytic, common sense, or dynamic.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Don Clark's website ( contains a nuts and bolts overview of the MBTI with its four continuums (Introverted/Extroverted; Intuition/Sensation; Thinking/Feeling; Judging/Perceiving) and its sixteen combinations (types) and compares the Myers-Briggs model to Jung's and Kolb's models. Brief descriptions of the 16 personality types can be found at A more thorough explanation of the MBTI is available at the Center for Applications of Personality Type website:

Perceptual Modality Preference
The VAK model focuses rather narrowly on three sensory receivers (Vision, Auditory, and Kinesthetic) to indicate the dominant learning style. You can start with an exploration of the VAK model at and then try the self-assessment tool, the Sensory Modality Preference Inventory at A similar learning styles model is VARK which consists of Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic modalities. The VARK questionnaire "How Do I Learn Best?" provides users with a profile of their preferences. In the article "Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection," the questionnaire's creators:
focus on the use of a modal preferences questionnaire as a catalyst to empower students to reflect on their own sensory preferences and modify their study methods accordingly. The authors discuss the development and use of the questionnaire, strategies for students to use in modifying their learning behavior, responses of students and faculty to the technique, and directions for further investigation of modal preferences.

Next, visit The Institute for Learning Styles Research website which expands and updates the VAK model:

Perceptual learning styles are the means by which learners extract information from their surroundings through the use of their five senses. Individuals have different "pathways" that are specific to them. When information enters that "pathway" the information is retained in short term memory. Repeated exposure and use promote retention in long term memory. The seven perceptual modes (pathways) included in this theory are:

  • Print - refers to seeing printed or written words;
  • Aural - refers to listening;
  • Interactive - refers to verbalization;
  • Visual - refers to seeing visual depictions such as pictures and graphs;
  • Haptic - refers to the sense of touch or grasp;
  • Kinesthetic - refers to whole body movement; and
  • Olfactory - refers to sense of smell and taste.

Section 3: Strategies for Addressing Multiple Learning Styles

If you only have time to read one article on learning styles, make it this one! "Student Learning Styles and Their Implications for Teaching," a paper by Susan Montgomery and Linda Groat for the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, compares the Myers-Briggs, Kolb, and Felder-Silverman learning styles models and examines the Grasha Riechmann model which is based on students' responses to actual classroom activities rather than personality or cognitive traits. Teaching methods associated with each cluster of teaching and learning styles are summarized in a convenient table.

The web brief "Learning Styles vs. Teaching Styles" from Southeastern Oklahoma State University's Center for Instructional Development and Technology offers this bit of wisdom:

Current research, though sketchy and preliminary, strongly suggests that college students are generally active, sensing, visual, sequential learners; as opposed to reflective, intuitive, verbal, global learners (see above). Roughly translated, most college students receive instruction by the traditional lecture method, while their learning styles are incompatible with that delivery mode. In short, there’s a disconnect between teaching style and learning style. It’s like teaching the blind with pictures and teaching the deaf with the spoken word.

This is followed by a table demonstrating the mismatch between the lecture mode of presentation and most student learning styles.

The Learning Disabilities Resource Community has developed a free, ten-week course “designed to raise learners’ awareness of the cognitive and metacognitive aspects of thinking and learning.” While the course is designed for students to reflect on their own thinking, it offers several modules that could be helpful to you as an instructor--including a module on learning styles. You can visit the site as a guest or establish a free account.

Felder, R., and Henriques, E. (1995). Learning and teaching styles in foreign and second language education. Foreign Language Annals, 28(1), 21-31. Although this article focuses on language, its detailed, practical suggestions are valuable for all areas.

Felder, R., (1996) Matters of style. ASEE Prism, 6(4), 18-23. Felder explores how four learning style models (Felder-Silverman, Kolb, Myers-Briggs and the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument) might be applied in the classroom:

An objective of education should thus be to help students build their skills in both their preferred and less preferred modes of learning. Learning style models that categorize these modes provide good frameworks for designing instruction with the desired breadth. The goal is to make sure that the learning needs of students in each model category are met at least part of the time. This is referred to as "teaching around the cycle."

Another helpful Felder article, "Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education," is available at Written with science instructors in mind, it promotes a multistyle teaching approach through the adoption of the "systematic use of a small number of additional teaching methods."

"New Students, New Learning Styles" by Charles Schroeder provides fascinating information from the TRAILS (Tracking Retention and Academic Integration by Learning Styles) research project, a longitudinal, eight-year study designed to provide educators data on how student characteristics such as Myers-Briggs type, ACT/SAT score, high school grade point average, demographic and other factors related to choice of major, academic "aptitude," academic performance in specific curricular areas, and attrition. Schroeder then suggests ways to bridge the gap between faculty and student learning styles.

Jennifer Niskanen's 4Mat webpage [] explains the strengths of the four 4MAT learning types in detail and offers a detailed curriculum development model with examples:

The four learning styles are integrated into a cyclical approach which begins by asking the students to participate in WHY activities. This provides concrete motivation in an innovative way to create interaction and discussion on what is felt, and seen. The process then continues by having the students enter into WHAT activities. These provide for reflective observation - watching and thinking - in order to think through the concepts and formulate them in an analytical way. The next stage is the abstract conceptualization stage, answering HOW. By thinking, giving facts, and trying by doing, students can integrate common sense with underlying reasons and, with hands-on activities, move closer to personalized knowledge which can be useful later in life. This leads to the fourth stage, the active experimentation stage, in which students sense concrete reality. In a process of self-discovery, they answer the question IF and basically teach themselves and others. Here, the students adapt and share what they have learned.

Among the premises of the 4MAT system [] for describing learning styles are the roles that teachers need to play in order to motivate students to learn:

  • Type One Learners are primarily interested in personal meaning. Teachers need to Create a Reason.
  • Type Two Learners are primarily interested in the facts as they lead to conceptual understanding. Teachers need to Give Them Facts that deepen understanding.
  • Type Three Learners are primarily interested in how things work. Teachers need to Let Them Try It.
  • Type Four Learners are primarily interested in self discovery. Teachers need to Let Them Teach It to Themselves and Others.

McKeachie, W.J. (1995) Learning styles can become learning strategies. The National Teaching and Learning Forum 4 (6). McKeachie writes:

It is important for both teachers and students to realize that learners always encounter many situations that are not adapted to their own preferences. What we teachers need to do is to help students develop the skills and strategies needed for learning effectively from teachers who do not match the students' preferred learning "style."

Harvey Brightman at Georgia State University has developed a very helpful website on teaching students having different learning styles, as assessed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Along with practical strategies for teaching each type of student, he reminds us to be aware that according to studies by the Center for Applied Psychological Type:

  • Most undergraduates are extraverts. The majority of university faculty are introverts
  • Most undergraduates are sensing as opposed to intuitive. The majority of university faculty are intuitive.
  • 64% of all males have a preference for thinking over feeling, while only about 34% of all females have a preference for thinking.
  • The majority of university faculty have a preference for thinking.
  • The majority of undergraduate students are judging as opposed to perceiving, as are the majority of university faculty.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's website offers a comparison attributes of Field Independent and Field Dependent cognitive styles (Adapted from Ramirez and Castaneda, 1974). The tables include overall characteristics, student relationship with peers, student personal relationship with teachers, student instructional relationship with teachers, and characteristics of curriculum that promote learning for each cognitive style.

"Teaching Around the Cycle” is one way of describing instruction that accommodates multiple learning styles in an attempt to motivate and engage all students and to encourage them to expand their skills and abilities as widely as possible. Lisa Lim's article, "Going Cycling with Learning Styles" diagrams how a learner might start at the style within Kolb's cycle that he or she is most comfortable with and progress through the rest of the cycle. She offers helpful advice for students who need to develop their capacity to learn in other modes--questions they can ask themselves as they cycle through the stages, as well as concrete suggestions for developing each style.

Fleming, N.D; (1995), I'm different; not dumb. Modes of presentation (VARK) in the tertiary classroom, in Zelmer, A., (ed.) Research and Development in Higher Education, HERDSA, 308 - 313. For insight on techniques for reaching students having various sensory mode learning preferences, see Fleming's article. An excerpt appears below.

The most common mode for information exchange in our society is speech and this arrives to the learner's ear and is therefore coded as aural (A) by the questionnaire. For students with an aural preference an attachment to the questionnaire provides a set of strategies for 'learning by ear'.

The results for other respondents may reveal a preference for accessing information from printed words. These people are coded read/writers (R) or "R and W" because they use reading and writing as their first preferences for taking in information.

The third group are not well served by present day methods of teaching in a university. They are the visuals (V). This does not mean that they are restricted merely to picture information or enhancements using colour and layout. They like information to arrive in the form of graphs, charts, and flow diagrams. Sometimes they will draw maps of their learning sequences or create patterns of information. They are sensitive to different or changing spatial arrangements and can work easily with symbols.

The last group in the four part typology is the group who like to experience their learning by using all their senses, including touch, hearing, smell, taste and sight. This group is regularly described in the literature as kinesthetics (K). They want concrete, multi-sensory experiences in their learning. Although learning by doing matches their needs they can easily learn conceptual and abstract material provided it arrives with suitable analogies, real life examples, or metaphors. They learn theory through its application.

"Cultural Learning Styles" by Al Heredia explores the research that has been done regarding learning styles among Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Native American students and the advantages and disadvantages of using culture as a means of understanding learning styles and their impact on the education of minority students.
Diaz, D. P., & Cartnal, R. B. (1999). Students' learning styles in two classes: Online distance learning and equivalent on-campus. College Teaching 47(4), 130-135.

This study compared the student learning styles of two online health education classes with an equivalent on-campus class The Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Style Scales (GRSLSS) was administered to determine student social learning preferences in six learning style categories. Students who enrolled in the distance education class were significantly more Independent learners than students in the equivalent on-campus class. Students enrolled in the equivalent class were significantly more Dependent learners than the distance group.

The article "Online Versus Traditionally-delivered Instruction: A Descriptive Study of Learner Characteristics in a Community College Setting" describes the research of Alana M. Halsne and Louis A. Gatta. They concluded that the online learners were predominately visual learners and the traditional learners at this community college in suburban Chicago were primarily auditory or kinesthetic learners.


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