JDC Spring-2003 v5 - Juried Articles - Implementing Learning Styles in the Design Classroom

Issue 5
Spring 2003

Implementing Learning Styles Into The Design Classroom

Stephanie A. Watson, Ed.D.
University of Minnesota


Research shows that student motivation and performance improves when instruction is adapted to student learning preferences and styles. Educators have a responsibility to understand the diversity of their students and to present information in a variety of ways in order to accommodate all learners' preferences. Felder and Silverman ( 1988 ) have synthesized findings from a number of studies to formulate a learning style model with dimensions that should be particularly relevant to design education. The model dimensions are briefly summarized and instructional methods are then proposed that should reach students who span the spectrum of learning styles.


For many years, the study of student learning was separate from the study of teaching. Good teaching practices were assumed to be universals that did not depend on individual differences among students or on teaching students to think and learn. Recent developments in educational and cognitive psychology have changed our views of the teaching-learning process. We now have conceptual and practical information about the ways that students learn and how instructors can use this information to inform their teaching practices. Teaching-learning scholars have shown that it is the interaction of good instructional practices with students' strategic learning styles and skills that result in positive learning outcomes (McKeachie, 1999 ). To provide optimum learning experiences for design students, consideration must be given to individual differences among learners. By addressing students' learning styles and planning instruction accordingly, design educators will meet more individual's educational needs and will be more successful in their own educational goals.

Learning style can be defined, classified, and identified in many different ways (Claxton & Murrell, 1987 ; Dixon, 1985 ; Entwistle, 1981 ; Tharp, 1989 ). Generally, they are overall patterns that provide direction to learning and teaching (Cornett, 1983 ). Learning style can also be described as a set of factors, behaviors, and attitudes that facilitate learning for an individual in a given situation (Reiff, 1992 ). There is no right way to learn, but there are certain styles that are more appropriate for a given situation. Thus, when an individual learns, the style may be unique to the task or it may duplicate a previous experience (Entwistle, 1981 ).

If professors teach exclusively in a manner that favors their students' less preferred learning style modes, the students' discomfort level may be great enough to interfere with their learning. On the other hand, if professors teach exclusively in their students' preferred modes, students may not develop the mental dexterity they need to reach their potential for achievement in school and as professionals. Teaching strategies that encompass varied learning styles in the design classroom will allow students to learn through their preferred individual styles and be challenged to learn through their less preferred styles.

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 modes provide good frameworks for developing instruction with the desired breadth. The goal is to be certain that the learning needs of students in each style are met at least part of the time. This is referred to as "teaching around the cycle" (Felder, 1993 ).

Dimensions of Learning Style

Felder and Silverman ( 1988 ) have synthesized findings from a number of studies to formulate a learning style model with dimensions that should be particularly relevant to design education. The model dimensions are briefly summarized and instructional methods are then proposed that should reach students who span the spectrum of learning styles.

A student's learning style may be defined in part by the answers to five questions:

  1. What type of information does the student preferentially perceive: sensory ---sights, sounds, physical sensations, or intuitive ---memories, ideas, insights?
  2. Through which modality is sensory information most effectively perceived: visual ---pictures, diagrams, graphs, demonstrations, or verbal ---sounds, written and spoken words and formulas?
  3. With which organization of information is the student most comfortable: inductive ---facts and observations are given, underlying principles are inferred, or deductive --principles are given, consequences and applications are deduced?
  4. How does the student prefer to process information: actively ---through engagement in physical activity or discussion, or reflectively ---through introspection?
  5. How does the student progress toward understanding: sequentially ---in a logical progression of small incremental steps, or globally ---in large jumps, holisticly?

The learning style dimensions of this model (sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, inductive/deductive, active/reflective, and sequential/global) are on a continua and not either/or categories. A student's preference on a given dimension may be strong, moderate, or almost nonexistent, may change with time, and may vary from one subject or learning environment to another (Felder, 1993 ). Knowledge about each of the dimensions and how students learn is important for design educators.

Sensing and Intuitive Perception

The sensing and intuitive dimension suggests how people take in information and ways that they become aware of things, people, events, or ideas. It has the biggest impact on how people learn. Sensing learners rely heavily on their five senses to take in information. They are observant about the specifics of what is going on around them and are especially attuned to practical realities, and therefore they are practical and realistic. They focus on details and may ignore the big picture. They tend to be literal in their words and would rather "do" than think (Myers & McCaulley, 1986 ).

Intuitive learners seek out patterns and relationships among the facts they have gathered. They trust their hunches and intuition and look for the "big" picture. Their focus is on conceptual information. Since they see the big picture, they often ignore the details. They strive to grasp patterns and are attuned to seeing new possibilities. Their focus is on the future. They would rather "think" than do.

Sensors tend to be practical; intuitors tend to be imaginative. Sensors like facts and observations; intuitors prefer concepts and interpretations. A student who complains about courses having nothing to do with the real world is almost certainly a sensor. Sensing learners learn best when given facts and procedures. Sensors like to solve problems using well-established procedures, don't mind detail work, and don't like unexpected twists or complications; intuitors like variety in their work, don't mind complexity, and get bored with too much detail and repetition. Sensors are careful but may be slow; intuitors are quick but may be careless (Felder, 1993 ).

Visual and Verbal Input

Visual learners get more information from visual images (pictures, diagrams, graphs, demonstrations) than from verbal material (written and spoken words), and vice versa for verbal learners . In a lecture situation, if something is simply said and not shown to visual learners, there is a good chance they will not retain it.

Most people and presumably most design students are visual learners, while the information presented in almost every lecture course is overwhelmingly verbal---written words and formulas in texts and on the chalkboard, spoken words in lectures, with only an occasional picture or demonstration breaking the pattern. Professors should not be surprised when many of their students cannot reproduce information that was presented to them not long before; it may have been expressed but it was never heard (Barbe & Milone, 1981 ).

Inductive and Deductive Organization

Inductive learners prefer to learn a body of material by seeing specific cases first (observations, experimental results, numerical examples) and working up to governing principles and theories by inference; deductive learners prefer to begin with general principles and to deduce consequences and applications. Since deduction tends to be more concise and orderly than induction, students who prefer a highly structured presentation are likely to prefer a deductive approach while those who prefer less structure are more likely to favor induction (Felder, 1993 ).

Research shows that of these two approaches to education, induction promotes deeper learning and longer retention of information and gives students greater confidence in their problem-solving abilities (McKeachie, 1980 ).

Active and Reflective Processing

Active learners tend to learn while doing something active---trying things out, bouncing ideas off others; reflective learners do much more of their processing introspectively, thinking things through before trying them out (Kolb, 1984). Active learners work well in groups; reflective learners prefer to work alone or in pairs. Unfortunately, most lectures classes do very little for either group; the active learners never get to do anything and the reflective learners never have time to reflect. Instead, both groups are kept busy trying to keep up with a constant barrage of verbage, or else they are lulled into inattention by their enforced passivity.

The research is quite clear on the question of active and reflective versus passive learning. In a number of studies comparing instructor-centered classes (lecture/demonstration) with student-centered classes (problem-solving/discussion), lectures were found to be marginally more effective when students were tested on short-term recall of facts but active classroom environments were superior when the criteria involved comprehension, long-term recall, general problem solving ability, and subsequent interest in the subject (Felder, 1996 ).

Sequential and Global Understanding

Sequential learners absorb information and acquire understanding of material in small connected chunks; global learners take in information in seemingly unconnected fragments and achieve understanding in large holistic leaps. Sequential learners can solve problems with incomplete understanding of the material and their solutions are generally orderly and easy to follow, but they may lack a grasp of the big picture---the broad context of a body of knowledge and its interrelationships with other subjects and disciplines. Global learners work in a more all-or-nothing fashion and may appear slow and do poorly on homework and tests until they grasp the total picture, but once they have it they can often see connections to other subjects that escape sequential learners (Pask, 1986 ).

Students whose learning styles fall in any of the given categories have the potential to be excellent designers. Instructors need to balance their instructional plan by selecting strategies and resources that cater to a variety of styles. This means moving beyond only those with which the instructor is comfortable to include the range of activities that meets the learning needs of others. Specifically, this means planning every instructional episode (presuming there are learners with varying styles) to include a variety of instructional strategies. For example, suppose an interior design educator is introducing the design process. The educator may begin by describing the components that make up the process (intuitive, sequential) and explaining why these components are important and how the design process is used in design practice (sensing, global). Next, he/she demonstrates through scenarios how the design process works (inductive). A discussion follows on how these components are used, and how they may be modified (verbal). Students are then given a scenario and work individually or in small groups (active, reflective). The instructor moves around to help individuals as they request or appear to desire assistance. Finally, the instructor provides written materials that summarize the content of the lecture (visual). This type of varied presentation is likely to be effective because it builds on the principles of how students learn and the ways in which students learn best.

Using Learning Styles to Teach

The following are some strategies to ensure that your design courses present information that appeals to a range of learning styles.

  • Provide class time for students to think about the material being presented (reflective) and for active student participation (active) .
    Occasionally pause during a lecture to allow time for thinking and formulating questions. Assign "one-minute papers or sketches" near the end of a lecture period, having students write or draw on index cards the lecture's most important points and the single most pressing unanswered question. Assign brief group problem-solving exercises in class that require students to work in groups of three or four.

  • Encourage study groups or mandate cooperation on homework (every style category) .
    Research studies (Light, 1990 ) show that students who participate in cooperative learning experiences tend to earn better grades, display more enthusiasm for their chosen field, and improve their chances for graduation in that field relative to their counterparts in more traditional competitive class settings. This strategy works especially well for studio assignments. Teams could do a design program together then individually develop solutions. Of course, a team project that both defines and solves the problem would work well here too.

  • Incorporate computerized instruction (visual, verbal) .
    Presentation software, like Powerpoint can readily add visuals to script and engage both right and left brained thinkers during a lecture. These same presentations may provide stand-alone tutorials for students who want to go through the material in a self-paced way. Consider bringing in up-to-date information from the Internet and have students talk through the process of transferring this information.

  • Individualize instruction (every style category) .
    This may mean allowing learners to select from among various activities in which they can participate or to select their own projects, assignment topics, or assignment format. While it is not always possible to completely individualize instruction, there are many opportunities to allow personal choice in the instructional process. When given a choice, learners are likely to select an option that matches their particular learning style. The challenge here is being certain that all options carry a similar workload.

  • Peer Feedback (active) .
    Students tend to learn best when they have a chance to submit an early version of their work, get detailed feedback and criticism, and then hand in a final version for a grade. Any course requirement may go through a peer feedback group before it is formally submitted to the instructor. In a meta-analysis of educational procedures, Walberg ( 1984 ) identified feedback as the most powerful predictor of learning. Students need continuous feedback about the adequacy of their performances which may be best provided by classmates.
    In design studios, develop a project critique session that allows peers to formally critique one another's work, then exchange the criticism. Students receive the critique well from peers and get an in-depth understanding of a peer's project.

  • Include "before" and "after" questions for videos and/or speakers (every style category) .
    Whenever a video or guest speaker is used in a class, incorporate the following:

Before the Video or Speaker
A. Present three or four questions that help students organize in advance what they know about the topic and set expectations as to what the video or speaker will cover.

B. List several questions that need to be answered or several things students should observe while they watch the video or listen to the speaker.

After the Video or Speaker
A. Present three or four questions that will help students review and organize what they observed and learned.

B. Combine students into groups and have the groups share answers.


A learning style model is useful if balancing instruction on each of the model dimensions meets the learning needs of essentially all students in a class. Which model educators choose is almost immaterial, since the instructional approaches that teach around the cycle for each of the models are essentially identical. Whether educators are designing a course or curriculum; writing a textbook; developing instructional software; forming cooperative learning teams;or helping students develop interpersonal, leadership, and communication skills, they will benefit from using learning styles model as the basis of their efforts.

It is also important for students to know and understand their preferred learning style. Research has shown that learning style intervention programs have produced students with higher grade point averages and better student retention. During orientation programs or seminars early in their programs, students could be assessed for their preferred learning style and offered counseling on how to adapt their learning style to various teaching styles they are destined to encounter in college classrooms. As a result, students will gain confidence in their learning strengths and develop various strategies for handling challenging situations that arise. Students will begin to see how they learn most effectively and efficiently, allowing them to be better able to take responsibility for their own learning.

Understanding the diversity of learning styles also helps students to participate fully and effectively in group learning activities. Instructors can group students in diverse teams to take advantage of different learning styles or encourage students to choose team members with styles different than their own. Understanding that fellow students approach projects from different dimensions or perspectives will help them appreciate the strengths of others and the value of teamwork.

Knowledge of learning styles is an important job skill for all design educators. Because learning style affects the success of students in specific kinds of learning situations, instructors need to be sensitive to learning style differences. Workshops on recognizing student learning styles could be offered to instructors where they can gain knowledge about learning styles by having their own learning style assessed. As Dunn and Dunn ( 1978 ) suggested, instructors tend to teach the way they learn, therefore, special attention should be given to how their learning style may affect their teaching and the students' learning. Finally, instructors should be cognizant of research developments concerning learning style since many questions remain unanswered.


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