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Learning styles: An example of some research towards meeting resource based learning needs

Peter J. Smith
Gordon Technical College

This paper describes an investigation carried out during 1986, using TAFE students and University students as subjects. The paper describes the investigation and some of the results. Although the investigation was not focussed only on external students, the investigative method is interesting because of its simple and useful application in resource based education.

This paper is based on research conducted through a 1986 Victorian TAFE Board Research Grant. The original research, by P. Smith and C. Lindner, is entitled "Learning style preferences of Technical and Further Education students, and delivery methods in selected teaching programmes. (With some selected University student comparisons.)".

This paper is an adaptation of part of a very large research project we carried out during 1986. The original report is in four large volumes and, clearly, cannot be reproduced as a Conference paper. In summary, though, the investigation was designed to provide data on:

The paper is of interest in its method; and in the findings that different groups of students have different preferences, and that these preferences can be useful in designing learning programs.

Learning styles were tested using the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory. Student groups tested were chosen to give a spread of programs from the Apprenticeship to the Certificate level, and from the personal services programs to the technology programs. Off campus students were also tested. Additionally, a sample of University students were also tested to allow some reference back to previous research conducted with University and College students at the baccalaureate level.

Teaching delivery methods were measured by interview with program teaching staff. A set of alternative teaching delivery methods were developed, and a number of curriculum objectives were chosen from each program. Program teaching staff were then interviewed and asked to gauge the amount of time each delivery method is used in teaching each curriculum objective.

Teacher perception of student learning preferences were also gauged during interviews with program teaching staff. Using the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory scales, staff were asked to assess the relative preference their students would have for each scale.

The Canfield data on learning styles was statistically analysed by:

Delivery method data and teacher perception data are compared by Program with CLSI. Matches and mismatches are pictorially demonstrated using histograms.

There is a wealth of literature on learning styles, and it is not my intention to revisit that here. There was a large literature review in the report. But, some general cautionary remarks on learning styles are pertinent.

Learning styles current status

It is clear that different individuals have different learning styles, and it is clear that different groups of learners have different general characteristics. The research over the past two decades quite clearly shows these assertions to be true, and confirms what educators have really known for a very much longer time than that.

What is not so clear from the research, and from the literature, is how much practical use the concept of learning style actually is in planning education systems, in planning curriculum, and in developing appropriate teaching strategies. It is unclear how reliable and static any individual's learning style is; it is unclear how situation or content specific any learning strategy is; and it is not clear how we should necessarily translate knowledge of learning style into educational practice (see White, 1983).

Perhaps the state of the learning styles debate is best summed up by the observations of two leading educators:

  1. Keefe (1979) wrote:

    "Learning style diagnosis. . .gives the most powerful leverage yet available to educators to analyze, motivate, and assist students in is the foundation of a truly modern approach to education" (p 132).

  2. Gagne, in Tyler (1967) observed:

    "Many speculations have been made regarding the existence of differences of 'learning styles', 'learning approaches' and 'learning strategies' among individual learners. Such differences are so evidently and heartily wished for that one almost believes they exist. Yet the fact of the matter seems to be that almost none are verified realities" (p 37).

It is with these two opposing quotations in mind that the findings of the current investigation should be viewed.


1. Test Selection

To examine the learning styles of students, the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory (1980) was chosen as the test instrument. This test was chosen since it has been used in a number of previous studies of post secondary students at Community College and University level (eg. Brainard and Ommen, 1977; Alsagoff, 1985); the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory (CLSI) has high reliability and validity values; and the CLSI tests 21 learning style dimensions across a broad range of possibilities.

The scales of the CLSI in summary are:

I. Conditions
The first eight scores reflect concerns for the dynamics of the situation in which learning occurs. They cover eight score areas.
P.Peer: Working in student teams; good relations with other students; having student friends; etc.
O.Organisation: Course work logically and clearly organised; meaningful assignments and sequence of activities.
G.Goal Setting: Setting one's own objectives; using feedback to modify goals or procedures; making one's own decisions on objectives.
C.Competition: Desiring comparison with others; needing to know how one is doing in relation to others.
N.Instructor: Knowing the instructor personally; having a mutual understanding; liking one another.
D.Detail: Specific information on assignments, requirements, rules, etc.
I.Independence: Working alone and independently; determining one's own study plan; doing things for oneself.
A.Authority: Desiring classroom discipline and maintenance of order; having informed and knowledgeable instructors.

II Content
Major areas of interest.
N.Numeric: Working with numbers and logic; computing; solving mathematical problems, etc.
Q.Qualitative: Working with words or language; writing, editing, talking.
I.Inanimate: Working with things; building, repairing, designing, operating.
P.People: Working with people; interviewing, counselling, selling, helping.

III Mode
General modality through which learning is preferred.
L. Listening: Hearing information; lectures, tapes, speeches, etc.
R.Reading: Examining the written word; reading texts, pamphlets, etc.
I.Iconic: Viewing illustrations, movies, slides, pictures, graphs, etc.
D.Direct Experience: Handling or performing; shop, laboratory, field trips, practice exercises, etc.

IV Expectation
The level of performance anticipated.
A.An outstanding or superior level.
B.An above average or good level.
C.An average or satisfactory level.
D.A below average or unsatisfactory level.
Expectancy Score: The student's predicted level of performance.

For greater detail of the CLSI Scales, see pages 21 to 40 of the Manual (Canfield, 1980)

2. Student Test Groups

2.1 Programs

Student groups were targeted for specific data collection on the basis of several variables.

First, and most important, a selection of TAFE programs was identified to give a broad range of curriculum demand, student 'type', vocational objective, and delivery methods. Chosen were the following programs:

TOP Foundation Year Art
Plumbing Apprenticeship
Sheetmetal Apprenticeship
Certificate of Applied Social Science (Child Care)
Certificate of Business Studies
Certificate of Office and Secretarial Studies
Hairdressing Apprenticeship
Electrical Mechanic Apprenticeship
Certificate of Technology (Electronics)
Among the Certificate of Business Studies students, the study has not discriminated between streams.

In addition to the above programs selected from TAFE, a number of University students were also tested. The reason for this testing lies in the fact that the majority of previous research into learning styles at the post secondary level has been done with University students. The testing of a number of such students in the present study would serve to act as a base for comparison with previous research findings, and would indicate any major differences between TAFE students and University Students.

At the University level, a first year undergraduate subject in Introductory Psychology was chosen. Students in that subject are spread across a number of baccalaureate programs; students are enrolled in all available study modes (full time, part time, off campus), and student numbers in the subject are large enough to form a robust sample.

2.2 Study mode

The investigation was designed to elicit data from students enrolled full time, part time, off campus, and in apprenticeships.

On campus students were administered the CLSI by a research assistant who went to each class, after making an arrangement with the instructor.

The CLSI test and answer sheet, plus instructions, were sent to all off campus students enrolled with the TAFE College chosen for study. No discrimination between programs was made in the selection of off campus students to test, since, to do that, would have resulted in too few data points in a number of sample cells. Instead, the test was sent to all students, but their program was recorded on the answer sheet to allow statistical discrimination to be made where possible. Clearly, this technique resulted in CLSI answer sheets being returned from many off campus students who were not enrolled in the programs listed under 2.1. Because mode of study was viewed by the investigators as such an important variable, this data was retained in the study, but coded as 'other' in the program listing.

At the University level, as stated in 2.1 above, all modes of study were tested by the administration of the CLSI to students in the first year psychology subject.

2.3 Personal student data

Other variables recorded in the study were personal student data such as age, sex and number of years enrolled in the program. Additionally, data was gathered on the language background of students. Specifically, students were asked to provide data on whether English was their first language; whether English was second language spoken since childhood; whether English was a second language, learnt as an adult, but spoken very well; or whether English was a language only just being learned.

3. Curriculum and delivery modes

For the TAFE programs selected for investigation, the curriculum documents were examined and curriculum objectives listed. Teachers in each program were then interviewed to elicit data on the delivery methods used to achieve each curriculum objectives, in the on campus modes of study. The delivery methods given to teachers as a closed set of alternatives were:

These alternatives represent the sorts of learning style preferences tested by the CLSI scales, plus the sorts of delivery methods used in TAFE courses.

Teachers were asked to gauge the percentage of time a student would typically spend with each alternative in achieving each curriculum objective. Teachers were advised by the interviewer that the sum of their gauged percentages may exceed 100 percent since more than one method may be used by a student at any time. However, the sum should not be less than 100 percent.


Using mainly the ANOVA test and sometimes, where appropriate, Pearson's product moment, we analysed the data for the following independent variables, with the associated heavily summarised result:

Level of programGenerally speaking, the results showed that TAFE Certificate students and University students have similar learning styles. Apprentices, on the other hand, are quite different. This result has significant implications for cross sectoral integration. The main differences between students are within TAFE, not between TAFE and University.
Level of EnglishNo learning style differences were found between people of differing levels of English competence.
SexFemales were generally, less competitive, more inclined to qualitative rather than numeric content, more people oriented, and had lower expectations of their performance.
AgeGenerally speaking, the older students are, the more they prefer well organised curricular and classes, more traditional teaching methods and the more they expect to perform well.
Years in programThis variable doesn't seem very important, although student expectations of there own performance tends to increase. That finding is, though, confounded with the finding for age, and we have not teased out the data yet to avoid the confounding.
ProgramGenerally speaking, students seem to have learning styles reasonably well suited to their program. Those in people oriented courses tend to have more interest in that area, while those in technical areas tend to be included to that sort of subject matter. That can give us confidence in students' ability to choose well, and in careers advising. An interesting finding, with too little data to make it reliable, was that female/girls in non traditional trade areas possess the same sorts of learning styles as the males, but with a vengeance. They tend to be further out on the CLSI scales than do their male counterparts.
InstitutionMost of the differences here, between the groups in general, are consistent with the choice of program. There were less students of technical programs in the University sample, and more in the Humanities and social sciences. However, TAFE students had higher expectations of their own performance, a greater liking for independence in curriculum choice, and placed greater importance on peer learning.

Delivery styles

What we did next was to measure what academic staff in the TAFE programs perceived to be the learning styles of their students. We then placed this measurement on a histogram adjacent to the CLSI scale score. I will show you some overheads of this in a minute.

The next thing we did was to look at delivery methods in conjunction with learning styles. To do that, we used the set of delivery method alternatives noted in the 'Method' section of this paper.

From the histograms of the C.O.T. (Electronics), as an example, the following sorts of conclusions can be drawn:

(a) ConditionsA number of mismatches between the two measures on each scale are worthy of comment. The Competition scale was ranked lowest by students on the CLSI, but staff perceive this to be of moderately high importance to the students. Similarly, Peer affiliation is of less importance to students than staff perceive it to be.

On the other hand, students attach greater importance to both Goal setting and knowing the Instructor than staff expect them to.

(b) ContentGood congruence is shown between the two measures on each scale of this category.
(c) ModeSeveral very important mismatches occur among the scales of this category.

First, the Reading scale is least preferred by the students, as shown by the CLSI scores. At the same time it is the most heavily used delivery mode; and staff perceive it to be of relatively high preference to students.

Second, although Direct Experience is a preferred learning mode to students, and is seen as such by staff, it is not a preferred delivery mode. Staff perceptions of student preference differ from the actual student preference on the Listening scale, with staff ranking the scale low and students high. The delivery mode measure is consistent with the student preference.

(d) ExpectationsStudent expectation of their own performance, as measured in the CLSI Expectations category, is reasonable and realistic. Staff, on the other hand, perceive that their students expect to achieve less than the students expect.

In conclusion, this particular research paradigm would be particularly useful in resource based learning generally, and in distance education. To analyse the sorts of materials being developed for off campus use and their congruency with student learning needs would appear to be a very useful thing to do. I believe that our research indicates that it is not a very difficult thing to do, and I would advocate more of it.


Brainard, S. R. and Ommen, J. L. (1977). Men, Women, and Learning Styles. Community College Frontiers, 5(3), 32-36.

Canfield, A. (1980). Learning Styles Inventory Manual. Humanics Media, Ann Arbor.

Gagne, R. M., Tyler, R. W. and Scrien, M. (1967). Perspectives of Curriculum Education. American Educational Research Assoc. Monograph Series on Curriculum Evaluation. Rand McNally and Co., Chicago.

Keefe, J. (1979). School Applications of the Learning Style Concept: Student Learning Styles. NASSP, Reston, 123-132.

White, C. S. (1983). Learning styles end reading instruction. The Reading Teacher, 36(8), 842-845.

Please cite as: Smith, P. J. (1988). Learning styles: An example of some research towards meeting resource based learning needs. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 83-89. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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