Learning Styles and Autonomy

(This post is part of the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival.)

The concept of learning styles is quite contentious. Or at least it was. Today, learning styles pretty much sit at mythical levels. There is just no empirical evidence that they exist. Neuroscientists have ruled out learning styles as a possibility. So, I was a little surprised to find Cynthia Carr’s 2013 article, “Enhancing EAP Students’ Autonomy by Accommodating Various Learning Styles in the Second Language Writing Classroom”. This is a recently published article in INTESOL (the Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Journal. Although it is a small journal, it is nonetheless peer-reviewed and professional.

A quick search on Google Scholar confirms that, despite them being “debunked”, research on learning styles is alive and well. Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and educational researchers – those who deal with less tangible aspects of the brain – still find value in learning styles. Either they didn’t get the memo from the neuroscientists, or there is some other reason learning styles continue to be researched. One reason is because learning styles are similar to the soul. You can’t prove there is a soul – not by any scientific measure. Yet, most people still believe it is there; most people feel it there. The same is true about learning styles. I definitely feel my learning style, and I use it to my advantage.

Still, what research there is regarding the identification of learning styles tends to be impractical. This is because, beyond the traditional VAK (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) styles, over twenty different learning styles have been identified. If there are that many styles, then how could it be possible to tailor instruction to all these learning types? As far as styles-based instruction goes, until there are classes like “Advanced Composition for Global, Field-Dependent, Tactile Learners”, the only thing that is possible is to use a variety of teaching and learning strategies to reach all learners – which means to essentially continue to do what all good teachers already probably do. In other words, continue to use a variety of teaching techniques and use a variety of activity types.

Despite these arguments, Carr’s article has plenty of merit. It not only reaffirms good teaching practice (i.e. teaching in a way that appeals to a variety of students) but offers an interesting discussion that looks at the intersection of EAP (English for academic purposes) writing, learning styles, and learner autonomy.

Autonomy

According to Carr, “Autonomous learners are those who have acquired learning strategies, a metacognitive awareness of those strategies, and a positive attitude about learning so that they can use the strategies as appropriate, with confidence, independent of a teacher” (pp. 45-46). Autonomy is seen as a harnessing of one’s learning styles or strategies that suit their learning styles. First, learners must become aware of their styles, and then understand how to use them to learn better inside and outside of the classroom. This has several implications for the writing classroom. For instance, teachers can design more effective instruction that appeals to a variety of learning styles.

Learning Styles

Carr explain that learning styles can be influenced by two main factors: “big cultural influences” and “small cultural influences”. Big cultural influences include the learners’ culture and the broad characteristics ascribed to it, for example, whether it is a collectivist or individualist culture. This may be useful for understanding attitudes towards group work and peer feedback. Small cultural influences include their English language training, their society’s educational culture, their living situation, and the atmosphere of the classroom. She also recommends encouraging style stretching – getting students used to different styles, which will prepare them for a range of teaching styles they will likely encounter during their educational careers (p. 47).

Among the various types of learning styles that exist, Carr identifies two different learning style dichotomies that are relevant to autonomy and second language writing. She argues that they are most relevant to writing because they are most related to the different stages of the writing process. The dichotomies are:

Sensing vs Intuitive

  • Sensors are careful workers who prefer facts and rules.
  • Intuitors are quick workers who are less rule-bound. Because of their quick work, they may make many mistakes.
  • To circumvent intuitive learners’ perceived carelessness, instructors can explain that “the structures of writing being learned in the class are like the theme of a piece of music; variations can come only after the theme is played” (p. 49).
  • Intuitive learners would prefer a range of topics to write about.
  • Sensing learners may prefer detailed, exact assignment guidelines.
  • Sensing learners may need more time to examine and apply language features being taught.
  • Most language instructors are intuitive and therefore may cover material too quickly for their learners.

Deductive vs Inductive

  • Inductive learners look at models and derive rules from them.
  • Deductive learners start with rules and then apply them.
  • Teachers should obviously vary the presentation of language structures.
  • Inductive learners may be better suited for authentic materials.
  • Inductive learners may benefit from careful use of model paragraphs.

Conclusion

Carr concludes that activities designed with learning styles in mind gives the student more power over how they learn. She has provided enough examples to give instructors ideas on how to adapt their own teaching. She also states that students need to be made aware of their own styles so that they can not only build autonomy but be prepared for a wide variety of teaching styles they will encounter.

By the end of the article, the question remains though: how do we make students aware of their styles? Which styles? And then, how do we show them how to harness their styles to build true learner autonomy? I provide some ideas from my own experiences below.

Building Autonomy

First, it’s important to make students aware of their styles. You can administer a formal learning styles survey, or hold a simple class discussion. Typically, I do the latter. I like to ask students the methods they already use for studying and the types of activities they prefer. These can give you a big clue about how they like to learn. Students who study by reading grammar books and rote-memorizing vocabulary words obviously like to learn in a more visual/verbal way. Is this the most effective way to learn? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should only provide visual/verbal techniques. Stretching the students preferences is important, and may show them a new way of learning they may like. Students may not realize that using vocabulary and learning it in context is more effective than decontextualized list learning.

Furthermore, just as we serve as models (whether we like it or not) of both language use and language learning, so too should we serve as models of autonomy. We can explain to students how we like to learn (especially if we have tried to learn their language) and subsequently offer tips to our students. For example, I am a visual learner. I can hear a word many times, but not remember it. But, if I see it once, it’s not likely I will forget it. For me, this is as true in English as it is in foreign languages. Therefore, I am a heavy user of flashcards. Quizlet is the best flashcard app I have found. One if its best features is a tool which gives you one side of the flashcard and you must type the correct word. This serves as great reinforcement for new words. At the beginning of the semester, I demonstrate Quizlet to students and show them important and cool features. I then make flashcards throughout the semester for them, with the intention of increasing their autonomous learning of vocabulary. Quizlet also has features for more aural and kinesthetic learners too, so as far as learning styles go, its win-win.

I am also a deductive learner. I lived in Korea for two years and picked up almost nothing. I bought a grammar book and studied for a month and my skills grew literally exponentially. I crave rules (and exceptions) and the ability to apply these rules. Therefore, I prefer to study grammar rather than immerse myself in situations I am not linguistically prepared for. Students often balk at grammar, but when I explain this to them, they seem to understand its importance. However, I know inductive learning is also very important and therefore offer activities that move between the two dichotomies. I also offer extra resources (grammar websites, authentic websites) that can appeal to both or either learning style and can aid in autonomous learning.

In the end, whether learning styles exist in the brain, the mind, the soul or somewhere else, it is hard to claim we can’t feel them. Everyone has learning preferences. Good teachers teach use a variety of methods that meet a variety of styles, preferences, and even moods. The challenge is to make students not only aware of their styles but harness their styles to build stronger autonomous learners.

References

Carr, C. L. (2013). Enhancing EAP Students’ Autonomy by Acommodating Various Learning Styles in the Second Language Writing Classroom.INTESOL Journal10(1).