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Teaching for the Success of all Learning Styles: Five Principles for Promoting Greater Teacher Effectiveness and Higher Student Achievement for all Students

By John Shindler

California State University, Los Angeles

Partial Text: Full Version with Footnotes available with PLSI orders.

Introduction

One of the biggest challenges that teachers face is to find ways to succeed with all of their students, not just those with whom they have a natural affinity.  Too often we accept that we simply cannot reach all students, and to approach some students as unsolvable puzzles - less able or less inclined. Even the most talented and well-trained teacher can find many students difficult to work with. Often these problems are rooted in substantive emotional and/or behavior issues, but more often our difficulty understanding or promoting the success of particular students is a result of fundamental incongruities in cognitive preferences and learning styles.

Research into teacher and student differences suggests that when teachers do nothing other than what they are prone to do, similar-typed students do better in their classes, enjoy the experience more, and are viewed more favorably by the teacher. Conversely, students who are less similar to the teacher by type are less successful, report liking the teacher and the class less, and even receive lower grades on average.  However, when teachers take steps to understand and mitigate issues related to incongruence, these effects are minimized.

What is the solution?

Given the fact that any class of students will be diverse in their learning styles and cognitive orientations, it is important to find solutions that will benefit both the teacher and all of his or her students.  Presented with this reality, some teachers respond with denial and/or indifference. They choose to ignore the issue and approach all students from their uniformly narrow set of attitudes and practices.  Without a great deal of luck, this approach is usually a lose-lose proposition in the end - unhappy students and a frustrated teacher.  Many teachers upon becoming aware of the reality of the incongruence of their teaching style and their students’ learning styles set out to change their personalities to adapt to the styles of their students. This is a well-intended solution, but in the end it is overly taxing and unhealthy for the teacher, and a lose-win solution.  Still other teachers, having learned of their students’ learning styles, set out to design an individualized program of instruction for each student. Again this is a noble effort, but the cost in time and effort makes this impractical for teachers with even modest class sizes.  A growing number of teachers are adopting an approach incorporating “multiple intelligence (MI) theory.” The results are usually improved teaching performance and a classroom that meets the needs of more learners. However, MI theory is limited in that it is not particularly useful in diagnosing student needs, helping make sense of differences, or providing insight or direction for those attempting to build relationships with those of incongruent types.

To achieve an approach to teacher-student incongruence that could truly be considered win-win, it must be systemic but practical, and be an asset to the teacher at the same time it promoted student growth and achievement.  Ideally, diversity would be approached as a benefit, rather than a liability. Moreover, a truly successful approach would allow the members of the classroom community to be themselves, succeed to their potential and value the gifts of the other members of the community.

5 ingredients seem to be critical to creating a win-win approach to difference. First, the teacher needs to have an awareness of who they are, what they value and their natural “default preferences”.  Second, the approach needs to provide the teacher a systematic means to understanding the learning needs and cognitive style preferences of each of the students in the class, as well as helping the students function collectively and appreciate one another’s gifts. Third, the teacher must have well established pedagogical tools that are effective across learning styles. Fourth, the approach would need to provide the teacher an understanding of both sides of each learning dimension and offer strategies to meet the needs of students who work out of opposing preferences. Finally, the system should illuminate the conditions in which different types of students work best so that the teacher can create opportunities for each student to work to their particular strengths.  These ingredients could be considered to be hierarchical in nature, each element building upon the last, as depicted in Figure 1.

 

 

Figure 1: Five Principles for Succeeding with Student Learning Style Diversity

Principle 1: Know Yourself and Your Teaching Style/Type Tendencies

On first inspection, it may seem to be of little value to undertake a self-examination of our values related to teaching.  Most of us believe that we know ourselves pretty well, and that what we most desire are better ideas or more resources.  But, the greatest hurdles we as teachers face when attempting to understand why some of our students are not comfortable, not learning, or not on their side, in most cases, are related to our limiting assumptions.  Too often, we do not have a sufficiently broad perspective to make sense of each of our students’ needs, and as a result, we see those needs homogenously and miss out on their diversity.

Practices explained in depth in article

Principle 2: Gain an understanding of each of your students’ learning styles and needs, and promote a community of learners respectful of one another’s strengths and differences.

As you become more familiar with the four dimensions of cognitive preference, you will find a greater ability to see those preferences in your students.  It is not critical to formally survey your students, but often giving an inventory can be enlightening to both teacher and student.  For the teacher, the results of an inventory can provide a degree of certainty that an educated estimate cannot.  For the student, the inventory offers an introduction to the idea of organic learning style differences, and provides a concrete method for initiating the process of personal type awareness. For many students there is a great liberation to understanding features that make them unique, and for some why they consistently think and feel differently from other students. The Paragon Learning Style Inventory (PLSI) student version and the Murphy-Meisgeir Type Indicator (MMTI) were both developed for young people, ages 8 and up. 

Practices explained in depth in article

Principle 3: Use teaching methodologies and strategies that promote the maximum degree of success for students of all types/styles.

The simplest way to ensure a group of students with diverse learning styles succeeds is to incorporate pedagogical practices that promote cross-type success, and avoid practices that are ineffective regardless of type.  The following 6 practices are proven to lead to high levels of achievement, and provide an excellent start in creating a classroom where more students win and fewer students lose.

Practices explained in depth in article

Principle 4: Be mindful and respectful of the needs of students on the other side of each learning style dimension.

As we become more knowledgeable of our own preferences, it is common to discover that it has been easier to teach in ways that has worked better for the students on our side of each of the four dimensional fences. 

Practices explained in depth in article

Principle 5: Provide opportunities for students to work in their strengths areas for some part of the overall learning experience.

All students need to spend some part of each lesson or day working to their strengths. Each of the 4 academic types (i.e., IS,IN,ES,EN) has different strengths, preferred modes, and activities in which they will feel most comfortable. Table 2 briefly outlines the student profiles and some of the needs of each of the 4 types.

Table 2: Learning Profiles of each of the 4 Academic Types – IS, IN, ES, EN

 

Extroverts (E)

Introverts (I)

Sensates (S)

ES's  Action oriented realists  (@40%)

Let me work with my hands and create something practical. Some people may call me a “kinesthetic” learner, but I would rather call myself a “doer.” I like to be part of a team and see practical results from my/our work.  I have a strong need to contribute and be recognized. Don’t just explain how to do something to me, at least show me, and better yet, let me try it out. I learn from doing and then reflecting on what I have done. If you want me to understand an abstraction let me discover it inductively, or I can have a difficult time integrating it into a big picture understanding. Written directions can be really helpful to me. If you expect me to continually sit and listen to a lecture and then do well on a test later, I will likely disappoint you much of the time.

 

IS's  Thoughtful realists  (@25%)

Let me work independently on tasks that are clearly spelled out. Let me work with facts and information and I will be able to use my power of insightful realism to come to sound well thought-out conclusions. Give me a chance to be careful and thoughtful. I will be your most dependable and steady student if you give me work where the directions are clear and the desired outcome is understood beforehand.  Give me recognition for my care and persistence since those are my strengths and I may not draw as much attention to myself as some of the other students.  When you give vague careless directions or just expect me to “be creative” with no guidelines, I will likely feel some uneasiness and maybe even some resentment.

 

Intuitives (N)

EN's  Action oriented innovators  (@25%)

Let me work in situations where I can use my communications skills in my learning.  If I am working in a group where there are chances to be creative, I can get really motivated. I am a much better student when I am “into the task” as opposed to when I am “not into the task.”  I like to be inspired and see the purpose behind the work. I have an expressive energy that comes out when I am comfortable, and it helps me draw out my creativity and make connections across content. Talking, discussing, role-playing, debating are natural ways for me to tap that energy source.  Peer tutoring a subject that I am good at is one of my favorite things to do. Projects where I can solve problems and draw energy from working with others and overcoming challenges are also areas where I feel very confident. When there are too many details, routines, lectures or the same old thing all the time, I may turn my creative energies into behavior that you may not like.

 

IN's  Thoughtful innovators  (@10%)

Let me work in situations where I can come up with my own ideas whenever possible. I don’t have as much trouble as some of the other students in being creative.  I am often surprised when I see that I sometimes see deeper realities that other students miss. I like to come up with stories, draw pictures, or think of new ways of doing something. Some people call me a “visual learner” but I just feel more comfortable studying something for a while and understanding how it works before I try to do it or talk about it. I will be the last to volunteer usually, but I will work to master it long after the other students have moved on to something else. I need to be able make connections with the current subject and the previous subjects, so let me know the purpose behind what we are doing before you tell me what to do.  If you ask me to do work that is pointless, inconsistent, or irrelevant then you will probably see me become at least a bit cynical and/or irreverent.

 

 

Conclusion

Introducing the lens of cognitive and learning styles provides insight into pathways to success for more students more of the time.  Yet it cannot be approached as an additive strategy.  If we do not undertake a fundamental analysis of how we teach, any revelations that come to us, or our students, as a result of taking the PLSI, will likely fade into an “interesting” yet distant memory.  We need to make an effort to reform the way we think about teaching, beginning with a process of self-reflection.  As we learn more about our own tendencies, and how they have limited us in the past, and come to understand the needs of our students, especially those who are different from us, we naturally discover more tools to meet the challenges of teaching.  Along with the many other important lenses with which we view the diversity of our students’ needs and behavior, a systematic approach to learning styles provides a roadmap to a more complete and sound understanding of who our students are, and to helping us teach and act more consciously, deliberately and effectively.

 

 

::Dr. John Shindler's Web::Dr. Harrison Yang's Web:: Western Alliance for the Study of School Climate::

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Last Update: October 25, 2004