Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


What is a learning style and how can it be identified?

Prepared by Lisa Bellon, OISE/UT & Astra Goodhue, OISE/UT

A.      Introduction

Understanding learning styles is important to both the teacher and student so that they both receive an optimum experience from the learning process. A teacher can adapt their methods to best suit the needs of the learner; and the learner can become more self-aware to best learn under a variety of experiences and circumstances. In answering our question, we first define what a learning style is, then discuss the dimensions of categorizing a learning style, and finally highlight several different learning styles identifiers that are used in mainstream adult education.

B.  “What is a Learning Style?” In Search of Definitions

According to Booth and Brooks (1995) in their Adult Learning Strategies Toolkit, they define a learning style as:

“…a compilation of patterns of behaviour that appear consistently in the learning process of an individual from the initial stimulation to the final recognizable product of learning. Simple stated, it is how we process out information and work with the outcome.” (p. 3)

Dunn and Griggs (2000) offer us another definition:

“Learning style addresses the biological uniqueness and developmental changes that make one person learn differently from another. Individuals do change in the way they learn…Similarly, developmental aspects relate to how we learn but, more predictable, follow a recognizable pattern.” (p. 136)

More concisely, a learning style is a preferred method of obtaining information and acquiring knowledge from the learner’s environment that best meets the needs of the learner.

C.      Dimensions of a Learning Style

When determining a learning style, it is important to consider both the internal and external factors impacting the learner. Each learner brings a unique set of internal elements which contribute to the effectiveness of their learning. Internal factors that impact the learner include personality types, emotional and cognitive processes, and previous learning experiences.

In addition to these internal factors, external factors also play a key role in the learning process. These include the physical environment in which the student is placed and physical elements that he/she is exposed to such as lighting, sound, comfort of setting, mode of delivery of information and curriculum design.

Internal and external factors fall into three general categories in the learning styles literature: perceptual modalities, information processing, and personality patterns.

Perceptual modalities include those aspects of learning that are physiological in nature (i.e. auditory, visual kinesthetic, tactile). Keefe defines these physiological styles as “biologically-based modes of response that are founded on accustomed reaction to the physical environment, sex-related differences, and personal nutrition and health.” (Keefe, 1987, p.13). Understanding our perceptual style will help us to seek information arranged in the way that we process most directly.

Information processing is the cognitive component of learning or how one acquires knowledge. This acquisition of knowledge involves how the learner perceives, organizes, stores and recalls information. These processes are accomplished in a preferred and consistent manner. 

The third general dimension of learning styles relates to personality factors. Personality factors involve the affective components of the learner that includes their motivation, values, emotional preferences and decision-making styles.

It is important for both learners and educators to consider the impact of each of these dimensions in order to optimize learning. These dimensions also need to be considered when determining or evaluating learning style measurement tools.

D.  Learning Style Identifiers

There are many different types of tests and indicators used to identify learning style preferences for learners. (The examples with an asterisk will be discussed in more detail below.) A sample of learning style identifiers from James and Blank (1993) includes the following broken down by their dimensions:

Perceptual Modality

Barbe-Milone Modality Checklist

Multi Modal Paired Associates Learning Test – Revised (MMPALT II)

Swassing-Barbe Modality Index

Information Processing

Grasha-Riechmann’s Student Learning Style Scales

Gregoric’s Style Delineator

Hemispheric Mode Indicator

Herrmann’s Brain Dominance Inventory

Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory*

Schmeck’s Inventory of Learning Processes

Witkin’s Group Embedded Figures Test

Personality Factors

Canfield’s Learning Styles Inventory

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences*

Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire

Keirsey Temperament Sorter

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator*

Silver and Hanson’s Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Model for Learning Preference Inventory; Learning Style Inventory; and Teaching Style Inventory

Sternberg’s Thinking Styles Questionnaire

Combination Instruments

Center for Innovative Teaching Experiences (CITE) Learning Styles Instrument

Dunn, Dunn, and Price’s Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS)*

Hill’s Cognitive Style Mapping

National Association for Secondary School Principals’ Learning Style Profile

E.  Four of the Most Common Identifiers

From the above list, several Learning Style Identifiers show up more frequently in the literature regarding learning styles and adult education. We have briefly outlined four of them below and their key concepts. All have many book and websites that provide more detail, if you are interested. The four we have selected are: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI); The Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model and PEPS; Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model; and Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

i.    Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was developed by Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Cook Briggs (a mother and daughter team) in the early 1940’s. This personality type indicator is based on the human personality theory of Carl G. Jung. It is the most widely used instrument for personality type differences that has large implications for learning styles.

There are six different kinds of self-report forms used (depending on the purpose) in administering the MBTI. The most widely used is Form G, which is a 126 item self-reporting questionnaire, which takes approximately 30-45 minutes to complete. The questions are dichotomous in nature representing the respondents’ preferences on the following four dimensions:

Extraversion (E)   OR   Introversion (I)

Sensing (S)   OR   Intuition (N)

Thinking (T)   OR   Feeling (F)

Judging (J)   OR   Perceiving (P)

These preferences result in sixteen learning styles, or types. A type is a combination of these four preferences:  ISTJ, ISTP, ISFJ, ISFP, INFJ, INFP, INTJ, INTP, ENTP, ENTJ, ESTP, ESTJ, ESFP, ESFJ, ENFP, ENFJ.

The following brief description of the four major dimensions will help to highlight the relevance of the MBTI in identifying learning style preferences or patterns.

Extraversion versus Introversion examines what factors tend to energize or motivate people (to learn). Extraverts are action oriented and tend to gain their energy from people and things. Introverts gain their energy from their inner world of ideas and concepts. They tend to be reflective thinkers before taking action.

Sensing versus Intuition examines our preferred ways of perceiving information. People who prefer Sensing focus more on details and facts and rely on the five senses of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Those who prefer Intuition seek out patterns and relationships in the facts they have gathered and tend to look at the “big picture”.

Thinking versus Feeling is the dimension that reveals how we prefer to make decisions. Thinkers tend to base decisions on analysis, logic and principle with an impersonal approach. Those who prefer feeling tend to focus on personal or social values and needs.

Judging versus Perceiving looks at our orientations toward the outer world. People who prefer judging tend to be decisive and like closure on tasks. Those who prefer Sensing tend to be more spontaneous and like to seek more data before taking action.

Although the descriptions above are very brief, it is evident how learning is impacted by each of these dimensions. Understanding our preferences along these dimensions will help us to create more effective learning strategies for ourselves by maximizing our potential in these areas.

ii.      The Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model and PEPS

This model was first conceived in 1967 by Dr. Rita Dunn and further developed by both her and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Dunn. The Dunns feel that each learner has a unique style of learning with individual strengths and weaknesses.

There are 5 main categories and 21 elements in considering a learning style when using their model. From Dunn and Griggs (2000), these would consist of the following:

1.      Environmental (Sound, Light, Temperature, Design)

2.      Emotional (Motivation, Persistence, Responsibility, Structure)

3.      Sociological (Self, Pair, Peers, Team, Adult, Varied)

4.      Physiological (Perceptual, Intake, Time, Mobility)

5.      Psychological (Global/Analytic, Hemisphericity, Impulsive/Reflective)

Due to the complexity of this learning-style model, each learner should be assessed to determine the best way to match teaching style to learner preference. This can be done by using the Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS) created by Dunn, Dunn and Price. This is a survey that consists of 100 questions on a Likert scale (Hein and Budny, 1999).

Students will receive high, medium or low scales in the 5 key categories of the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model. These scores are neither good nor bad – they are unique to each individual. It is up to the learner to have awareness from these scores to create and modify their learning environment to best meet their needs. For example, if one scored high on the sound element, studying with soft music playing in the background would increase their long-term memory retention and comprehension of the subject matter for the learner. For a learner who scored low on the sound element, this would have the opposite effect.

The Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model is a comprehensive and extensive model that incorporates many internal and external factors in the learner’s environment to create an optimal learning experience.

iii.    Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model was developed by David Kolb (1984) and is based on the works of John Dewey that learning and development is grounded in experience. Kolb promotes that knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.

Kolb outlines a continuous process of learning that requires learners to resolve conflicts between two modes of adapting to the world: concreteness and abstraction; and action and reflection. Learning results from a combination of perceiving information (from abstract to concrete) and through processing information (transforming experience from action to reflection). Kolb outlines a four step learning model (outlined below) where learners tend to predominately prefer one combination of perceiving and processing information. Kolb argues that all four abilities are required for effective learning to take place.

According to Kolb, the learning cycle involves four processes that must be present for learning to occur. These processes are:

  1. Concrete Experience: Feeling/Sensing; being involved in a new experience
  2. Reflective Observation: Watching; developing observations about own experience
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: Thinking; creating theories to explain observations
  4. Active Experimentation: Doing; using theories to solve problems, make decision

The four learning styles that evolve from these ways of adapting to the world are:

  1. Diverger: combines preferences for experiencing and reflecting
  2. Assimilator: combines preferences for reflecting and thinking
  3. Converger: combines preferences for thinking and doing
  4. Accommodator: combines preferences for doing and experiencing

iv.    Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner developed his Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983 while at Harvard University. Gardner defines intelligence as, “the ability to solve problems or to create products that are valued within one or more cultural settings” (Gardner, 1999, p.33).

His theory simply states that the traditional IQ testing is too limiting for the general population and that there are really seven different intelligences to test human learning and potential. The seven that he identified are:

  1. Linguistic (ability to use words and language)
  2. Logical-mathematical (ability to use numbers, reason and logic)
  3. Spatial (ability to work with pictures and the visual)
  4. Musical (ability to produce and appreciate music)
  5. Intrapersonal (ability to have self-reflection and to be self-aware)
  6. Interpersonal (ability to interact with others, relate and be social)
  7. Bodily-Kinesthetic (ability to be physical with your body and with handling objects)

Our society and our educational system highly value the first two intelligences – Linguistic and Logical-mathematical – over the other five. This is potentially damaging to the psyche of those with a natural intelligence in such areas as the visual arts, music or the body movement of dancers and athletes.

Everyone blends these intelligences to have their own unique intelligence. As adult learners, being aware of your own particular intelligences can be self-affirming, especially if it is not one of the two dominant intelligences.

These intelligences also should be amoral – they are neither good nor bad and should not be used to categorize or group people in a way that becomes alienating or derogatory.

In his new book, “Intelligence Reframed”, Gardner explores the possibility of two new types of intelligences which are: naturalist intelligence and spiritualist/existential intelligence. Further research into these new intelligences is still being investigated.

F.     Conclusion

This paper has been a short summary of what a learning style is and what measurements are available to discover it. Four predominant learning style identifiers were reviewed and given a very brief overview. This by no means covers the wealth of information available to fully describe these resources (please see the resource list below). The outcomes of learning style identifiers should be considered as only a piece of information in understanding learning processes. These scales are a tool to help increase self-awareness and to discover different forms of learning to optimize one’s learning potential and outcomes. They are not tools to be used to either pigeonhole people into a group or to categorize people in a judgmental or diminutive way.

G.    Additional Internet Resources

Adult Learning Styles. Retrieved September 30, 2002 from www.utoledo.edu/colleges/education/par/Adults.html

Association for Psychological Type. Retrieved November 15, 2002 from www.aptcentral.org/aptmbtiw.htm

Drs. Rita and Ken Dunn’s Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles. Retrieved November 19, 2002 from http://www.learningstyles.net/

Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Model. Retrieved November 19, 2002 from http://www.geocities.com/~educationplace/Model.html

The Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI3). Retrieved November 17, 2002 from www.hayresourcesdirect.haygroup.com/Products/learning/lsius.htm

Learning Styles. Retrieved November 15, 2002 from www.learnativity.com

Learning Styles. Retrieved November 15, 2002 from www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/history/kolb.html

Multiple Intelligences. Retrieved November 18, 2002 from http://www.ldpride.net/learningstyles.MI.htm

Multiple Intelligences: Dr. Armstrong’s Perspective. Retrieved November 18, 2002 from http://www.thomasarmstrong.com/multiple_intelligences.htm

Pedagogy: Learning Styles: Preferences.  Retrieved November 15, 2002 from www.cyg.net/~jblackmo/diglib/styl-d.html

Student Learning and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Retrieved November 15, 2002 from www.gsu.edu/~dschjb/wwwmbti.html

H.    References

Booth, S. and C. Brooks (eds.) (1995). Adult Learning Strategies: An Instructor’s Toolkit by Ontario Adult Educators. The Ontario Ministry of Skills Development.

Dunn, R. and S.A. Griggs (eds.) (2000). Practical Approaches to Using Learning Styles in Higher Education. Bergin & Garvey, Connecticut.

Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. Basic Books, New York.

Hein, T.L. and D.D. Budny (1999). Teaching to Students’ Learning Styles: Approaches That Work [Electronic version]. 29th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, 12c1-7-13. Retrieved November 15, 2002 from http://fie.engrng.pitt.edu/fie99/papers/1208.pdf .

James, W.B. and W.E. Blank (1993). Review and Critique of Available Learning-Style Instruments for Adults. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. (59), pp.47-57.

Keefe, J. W. (1987). Learning Style Theory and Practice. National Association of Secondary School Principals, Reston, Va.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Smith, R. M. (1982). Learning How to Learn: Applied Theory for Adults. Cambridge, New York.

Home Page     Biography    Courses   Quotes by Adult Educators    Q&As    Links    Search

History of Education: Selected Moments     Lifelong Citizenship Learning Project      Reviews of Freire's Books

Website © 1998-2003 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on January 30, 2003.