JITE v35n2 - Aligning Student Learning Styles with Instructor Teaching Styles

Volume 35, Number 2
Winter 1998

Aligning Student Learning Styles with Instructor Teaching Styles

Jerry C. Spoon
Griffin Technical Institute
John W. Schell
The University of Georgia

Post-secondary technical institutes, community colleges, and other post-secondary institutions are often called on to train and educate students for careers in technical areas. These careers often require student mastery of both academic and vocational skills. This is especially true today as occupations require more cognitive skills ( Rojewski, Schell, Reybold, & Evanciew, 1995 ). The need to integrate advanced cognitive skill development with traditional occupational and academic (basic) skills reflects a growing maturity within the profession and recognizes that successful workers must be capable of solving problems and making decisions in highly complex and ill-structured environments ( D'Ignazio, 1990 ). Recent cognitive research also suggests that individuals often acquire knowledge in different ways depending on the context in which the information is learned and utilized ( Schell & Rojewski, 1995 ). This research is related to findings grounded in situated learning theory ( Lave & Wenger, 1991 ) and cognitive apprenticeship teaching ( Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989 ). Situated learning theory assumes that learning (a) is essentially a social phenomenon, (b) is situated in a particular context, and (c) rests on learners' prior knowledge. The theory also assumes that transfer of acquired knowledge is limited to applications in similar situations. Cognitive apprenticeship teaching requires vocational teachers to have an understanding of the learning styles of students and a resourceful command of instructional strategies. It is "…unreasonable to assume that one instructional technique (e.g., direct explanation and scaffolded instruction) can be used with equal effectiveness for all kinds of tasks, all kinds of texts, and for all kinds of students" ( Paris & Winograd, 1990, p. 42 ).

In this research, the investigators examined the nature of the learning experience when congruence and incongruence between the learning style of the student and the teaching style of the teacher are evidenced. Research participants were students in adult basic education that was preparatory for, or concurrent with, vocational skill classes. The results of this research have several implications for the education of vocational teachers. The first implication has to do with educating teachers on the importance of developing and using multiple teaching styles depending on the learning styles of students. A second implication is that multiple techniques for adopting instructional practice to learners' particular stages of development, age ( Daughenbaugh, 1985 ), and gender ( McCarthy, 1985 ) are required. Another implication for vocational teacher education is that additional levels of academic and vocational achievement may be possible when learning and teaching styles are in congruence. In this study, teaching style refers to a person's pervasive instructional qualities that persist even though situational conditions may change. Most of the traits associated with teaching and learning styles are not necessarily instinctual. Rather, teaching and learning styles develop over time, tend to change slowly, and reflect other characteristics of the person. Teaching style is a label associated with various identifiable sets of classroom teaching behaviors, which are consistent even though the content that is being taught may change ( Conti & Welborn, 1986 ). Learning style, on the other hand, refers to the characteristic ways in which individuals collect, organize, and transform data into useful information ( Cross, 1976 ; Kolb, 1984 ). Many researchers believe that learning styles influence the choice of such things as the settings in which people wish to learn, the kinds of things they wish to learn, and how they will approach learning situations ( Conti & Welborn, 1986 ).

A growing body of research addresses the question of how congruence of teaching and learning styles affects student outcomes and satisfaction with different aspects of the educational process ( Kolb, 1984 ; O'Neil, 1990 ; Renzulli & Smith, 1984 ; Welborn, 1986) . If this information is correct, additional supportive findings should be of great interest to vocational teacher educators.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of student learning styles and teacher teaching styles on the achievement of basic skills. The target population consisted of adults who were enrolled in post- secondary classes in order to upgrade their academic and vocational skills. Specifically, the research objectives were:

  1. To describe the perceived learning styles of students and the perceived teaching styles of teachers in adult basic skills classes.
  2. To determine the influence of selected demographic variables including age, ethnicity, and gender on learning style and their interactions.
  3. To describe levels of congruence and incongruence between learning and teaching styles of student participants.
  4. To compare levels of achievement among participants who experienced instruction that was congruent and incongruent with their perceived learning styles.



The population for this research consisted of adult basic skills students and teachers in a public, coeducational, two-year technical institution located in North Central Georgia. The school is one of a statewide network of 33 post-secondary technical institutes operating under the auspices of the Georgia Board of Technical and Adult Education. Six counties with a total combined population of approximately 164,000 have been designated as the technical institute's primary service area. Additionally, two metropolitan counties with a combined population of approximately 240,793 were well represented in the student population. The current student enrollment at the technical institute is approximately 2,037.

Table 1
Number and Percent of the Population in the Adult
Basic Skills Classes by Age, Ethnicity, and Gender

Total N Total %

16-24 37 19.60
25-34 56 29.50
35-44 52 27.50
45+ 44 23.40
African-American 49.70
Caucasian 50.30
Female 62.90
Male 37.10


For purposes of this study, the entire population of adult basic skills teachers (N = 12) and all adult basic skills (i.e., GED) students (N = 189) entering the technical institute during the Fall 1995 and Winter 1996 quarters were included in the study. The adult basic skills student population was comprised of 119 females and 70 males. The mean age for the student population was 34.75 years (range = 16 to 67) with a standard deviation of 12.22. The adult basic skills teacher population consisted of nine females and three males. The mean age for the teacher population was 49.09 (range = 37 to 59) with a standard deviation of 6.47. The demographic characteristics of the student sample are presented in Table 1 .


Permission to use the Principles of Adult Learning Scale (PALS) was granted by the instrument developer, Dr. Gary Conti at the University of Montana. The PALS instrument was designed to measure several constructs in the cognitive and affective domains including (a) identification and assessment of elements involved in teaching style, and (b) evaluation of the effect that such traits have on student learning. The PALS instrument was devised by Conti ( 1979, 1983, 1985 ) to measure the extent to which practitioners support the collaborative mode of teaching- learning. The PALS was initially published in 1979 and is based upon the body of adult literature which supports the collaborative teaching- learning mode ( Conti, 1979 ). The PALS instrument is a 44-item, self- reported summative rating scale that utilizes a modified Likert scale. Respondents are asked to indicate the frequency with which they practice actions described in the items. Possible scores range from zero to 220. The mean score on PALS is 146.00 with a standard deviation of 20.00 ( Conti & Welborn, 1986 ). A high score on PALS indicates a preference for a learner- centered approach to teaching, while a low score indicates a preference for a teacher-centered approach. Scores near the mean indicate a preference for a mixed approach to teaching which draws elements from both the learner-centered and the teacher-centered approach ( Conti, 1985 ). The total score on PALS gives an indication of the teacher's overall preference for teaching behavior in an adult education setting. Further, scores on PALS have been positively correlated with actual classroom behaviors of teachers. An analysis of 778 cases indicated that the descriptive statistics (mean and standard deviation) on the PALS are stable.

Establishing PALS' validity, reliability and norms. The construct validity of the items on the PALS was established by a panel of adult educators and was later verified by factor analysis. Criterion validity was established by comparing PALS scores to the Flanders Interaction Analysis Categories (FIAC), which also measures the construct of initiating responsive behaviors in the classroom. Correlations of r = .85 on the Teacher Response Ratio, r = .79 on the Teacher Question Ratio, and r = .82 on the Pupil Initiation Ratio confirmed the congruence between PALS and FIAC ( Conti, 1978, 1979 ). Content validity of the PALS was established by field-tests with adult basic education practitioners in full time public school programs in Illinois. The test-retest method established a reliability coefficient of .92 ( Conti, 1978; 1979 ). Follow-up analysis of variance with a broader sampling from the adult education community demonstrated PALS' consistency with a variety of program areas within the field of adult education (e.g., English as a Second Language, Adult Basic Education, and General Education Development) ( Conti, 1982 ). The PALS instrument has been tested for social desirability of items and for clarity of item interpretation ( Conti, 1978, 1979 ).

In order to measure learning styles, Conti indicated that questions on the instrument could be restated to change the perspective of the question from the teacher to the student. For example, the first question on the PALS instrument states, "I allow students to participate in developing the criteria for evaluating their performance in class." Conti suggested that the question be reworded to read, "I prefer a teacher who allows me to develop the standards for evaluating my learning." Every question on the PALS instrument was similarly reworded. The test-retest method was used to establish the reliability of the modified PALS instrument. The data indicated a reliability coefficient of .90. Internal consistency as measured by Cronbach's alpha was .89. Construct validity of the reworded instrument was established by a two-round review panel of 12 adult basic skills teachers. The Flesch Kincaid readability statistics indicated the revised instrument was at grade level seven.

Tests of Adult Basic Education. Achievement data were gathered using the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) as both a pretest and posttest measure. The TABE is a nationally-normed test of adult basic education developed by CTB/McGraw-Hill (1990). The TABE, which was normed with adult basic education students, is designed to assess reading, mathematics, and language skills for adults. Students can be tested on either one or all three subject areas. Each section is scored separately; however, a composite score is available. In this research study, composite scores were used as the indicator of overall academic achievement. Level D of the TABE was used with form five for the pretest and alternative form six for the posttest.

Research Design

A causal-comparative design was used to investigate whether differences between groups had resulted in an observed difference on the dependent variable ( McMillian & Schumacher, 1989 ). The two categorical independent variables were perceived learning style and teaching style (as measured by PALS). Learning style, operationally defined for this study, is any one of the six learning styles identified by PALS. Similarly, teaching style was defined as any one of the six teaching styles identified by PALS. Teaching styles are identifiable sets of classroom behaviors that tend to be consistent across differences in content taught and tends to reflect teachers' educational philosophy ( Fischer & Fischer, 1979 ). Other categorical independent variables included student age, gender, and ethnic origin. Student achievement, as measured by the TABE, was the dependent variable.

Table 2
Number, Percent of Population, Mean, and Standard Deviation Scores of Adult Basic Skills Students by Learning Style

Style Score
Total N Total % M SD

<125 HTC 64 38.86 118.37 4.21
126-135 ITC 35 18.71 130.94 2.50
136-146 MTC 50 26.40 139.90 3.15
147-156 MLC 8 4.20 171.25 2.48
157-166 ILC 10 5.23 160.90 1.92
>167 HLC 22 11.60 150.40 2.87

Note: Using Conti's model as a guide, scores were grouped in one-half standard deviations from the mean.

Table 3
Number, Percent of Population, Mean, and Standard Deviation Scores of Adult Basic Skills Teachers by Teaching Style

Style Score
Total N Total % M SD

<125 HTC 3 25.00 110.33 4.11
126-135 ITC 1 8.30 132.00 0.00
136-146 MTC 2 16.70 141.50 1.50
147-156 MLC 3 25.00 150.67 2.63
157-166 ILC 2 16.70 158.50 1.50
> 167 HLC 1 8.30 179.00 0.00

Note: Using Conti's model as a guide, scores were grouped in one-half standard deviations from the mean.

Data Collection

The PALS instrument was administered to students in each of the adult basic skills classes after the various instructors had been contacted to identify a convenient class date and time for testing. At the time of instrument administration, all participants were asked to complete a demographic survey and sign a consent form to allow the use of their scores for research purposes. Instructor data were collected by meeting with all teachers in the adult basic skills program. Additionally, teachers were asked to complete a demographic survey and sign a consent form.

Table 4
Three-way Analysis of Variance for Interaction of Age, Gender, and Ethnicity on Learning Style

Source df F

Gender (G) 1 .13
Ethnic (E) 3 1.79
Age (A) 5 4.76*
G x E 1 0.18
G x A 4 2.48
E x A 4 0.30
S x E x A 4 2.08
S within-group
172 (179.22)

Note: Values enclosed in parentheses represent mean square errors.
S = subjects.
*p < .05.

Achievement data were collected using the TABE as both a pretest and posttest. At the beginning of the Fall 1995 quarter, all students in the adult basic skills classes were given the TABE pretest to determine their skill proficiency level in math, reading, and English. After the skill levels of the adult basic skills students were determined, the students were assigned to the appropriate remedial classes. The adult basic skills students received ten weeks of remedial instruction (one quarter). At the end of Fall 1995 quarter, the students were given the TABE posttest as a measure of academic gain. This process was repeated in the Winter 1996 quarter.


Description of Teaching and Learning Styles The first objective of this study was to describe the learning styles of the adult basic skills students in the adult education program. To achieve this objective, learning style mean scores were calculated for each of the six learning styles that were identified using PALS. The six styles include high learner-centered (HLC), intermediate learner-centered (ILC), moderate learner-centered (MLC), high teacher-centered, (HTC), intermediate teacher-centered (ITC), and moderate teacher-centered (MTC). As can be seen in Table 2 , over three-fourths of the students preferred a teacher-centered style.

The 12 instructors who participated in this study averaged 6.63 years of teaching experience and ranged in age from 37 to 59 years (M = 49.09). Nine of the faculty members were female. The teaching style of 12 instructors was also measured with the PALS. The mean score for the teachers was 141.17, which indicates a moderate preference for a teacher- centered approach (See Table 3 ).

Collaborative teaching is widely accepted in the literature as the most appropriate learning mode for adults. The data from this study appear to contradict that view (i.e., student and teacher preference for teacher- centered approach).

Influence of Demographic Variables

The second objective of the study was to determine the influence of selected demographic variables including age, ethnicity, and gender on learning style. A 2 x 2 x 4 analysis of variance (ANOVA) was utilized (i.e., gender x ethnicity, gender x age, ethnicity x age, and gender x ethnicity x age). An ANOVA is appropriate for studies having two or more independent variables ( McMillian & Schumacher, 1989 ). Ethnicity consisted of two levels (i.e., African-American and Caucasian) while age contained four levels (i.e., 16-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45+). The dependent variable was learning style as calculated from the scores on the learning style instruments. A statistically significant difference was detected for the age main effect. Results of the ANOVA are summarized in Table 4 .

Table 5
Congruent and Incongruent Mean and Standard Deviation for the Sum of Posttest Scores by Student Learning Style

Learning Styles n Congruent
SD n Incongruent

HTC 21 19.12 4.29 44 20.28 7.56
ITC 7 17.31 4.58 28 20.43 8.80
MTC 9 19.94 6.88 41 21.24 6.85
HLC 2 12.95 2.05 6 20.35 8.37
ILC 4 21.25 5.16 6 15.83 3.55
MLC 8 19.86 4.37 13 23.13 8.12

Note: M = Posttest Achievement Scores

Tukey's post-hoc analysis of the data indicated that the statistical significance was among the 25- 34 year-old subjects (M = 138.52) when compared to the 16-24 year olds (M = 130.05), 35-44 year olds (M = 131.17), and 45+ (M = 131.59) in terms of learning style.

Degree of Congruence/Incongruence

The third research objective was to describe levels of congruence and incongruence of learning and teaching styles of student participants. These data were examined with a one-way ANOVA to test the groups for initial equivalence on their pretest scores. The findings indicated no significant difference among the groups' mean scores on the pretest. Therefore, the six groups were equivalent on academic achievement at the beginning of the study.

At the beginning of the study, the teaching style inventory and the learning style inventory were given to the teachers and students involved in the study. As stated earlier, these participants were drawn from existing classes. The researchers established the congruent/incongruent groups according to the teaching/learning style inventory scores. These groups were created only for statistical comparisons. No literal classes were formed based on these scores. For the purpose of day-to-day instruction, each class remained a mixture of students and teachers who were both congruent and incongruent with each other. This statistical group process was repeated for two quarters.

The incongruent group contained a total of 138 students, compared to 51 congruent students. Within the incongruent groups, the females (n = 91, 65.94%) outnumbered the males (n = 47, 34.06%). Similar patterns in terms of age and ethnicity predominated the incongruent groups. The 35- 44 incongruent age group represented 30.16% of the incongruent population. The largest incongruent ethnic group was African-American representing 52.90% of the incongruent population.

Within the congruent groups, the largest age group was 25-34 years old, representing 41.20% of the congruent population. The largest congruent group was Caucasian, representing 58.80% of the congruent population. The number of congruent females in the study was 28 representing 54.90% of the congruent population while the number of congruent males in the study was 23 representing 45.10% of the congruent population.

Chi-square analysis was conducted to identify statistically significant differences, if any, between congruent and incongruent groups on age, ethnicity, and gender. Chi-square values were calculated on the frequency distributions of congruent and incongruent groups on age, ethnicity, and gender. No statistically significant difference was noted between the congruent and incongruent groups in terms of age X2 (3, N = 189) = 5.75, p < .05. No statistically significant differences were found for ethnicity X2 (1, N = 189) = 2.05, p < .05. Additionally, no statistically significant differences were noted for gender X2 (1, N = 189) = 1.95, p < .05. Interaction of Teaching Style and Learning Style with Achievement The fourth objective focused on comparing levels of academic achievement of participants who experienced instruction congruent and incongruent with their perceived learning styles. Table 5 describes the mean and standard deviation scores for the congruent and incongruent students on the posttest scores.

A 2 x 6 ANOVA was utilized to analyze the interaction of learning style and teaching style congruence/incongruence with academic achievement. Independent variables included perceived learning styles identified by PALS (six levels) and perceived teaching styles identified by PALS limited to two levels (congruent and incongruent). The dependent variable was academic achievement, as measured by the TABE. For purposes of this analysis, students were grouped according to their most preferred learning style in each of the six categories. Further, students were identified who were congruent and incongruent with the teaching style of the instructor. No statistically significant differences were noted in terms of the interaction of teaching style and learning style on student achievement. It is interesting to note, however, that the achievement scores were generally higher across the incongruent category for five of the six style preferences.

Conclusions and Implications for Practice and the Education of Teachers

This study was designed to answer questions about the relationships of learning styles, teaching styles, and academic achievement among adult basic skills students.

Importance of Age and Maturity

The statistically significant differences between groups appear to verify the literature supporting learning style as influenced by demographic variables. In this case, a statistically significant difference was noted in terms of the interaction of age with learning style. While learning style has been defined as a consistent pattern of behavior, for this population it appears to change with age and experience. This finding is consistent with the research of Daughenbaugh ( 1985 ) and McCarthy ( 1985 ), where student preference for learning and teaching styles were found to be related to both age group and gender. Further, Dorsey, and Pierson ( 1984 ) found that age influenced learning styles, especially in adults who were facing career obsolescence.

While caution should be used in attempting to generalize from these data, this finding suggests that some additional consideration should be given to assisting current and future vocational teachers in their preparation to work with America's aging population. As industry continues to downsize and reconstitute its workforce, many non- traditional students will be returning to adult and vocational training programs for continuing career assistance. It is possible that teachers wishing to match their teaching style to the learning style of students may find the learning style somewhat more transient than previously anticipated. This factor should be considered as teacher education programs are reformed.

Learner's Educational Purpose Makes a Difference

The results of this study fail to support previous research on learning and teaching styles in which increased academic achievement was noted when learning and teaching styles were congruent. At first glance, these findings appear to be at odds with other researchers who found that learning and teaching styles congruence impacted positively on academic achievement ( Cafferty, 1980 ; Welborn, 1986 ) and with our own finding with regard to research objective one. However, when the results of this study are examined in the context of research by Conti ( 1989 ), the findings make sense.

Initially, Conti ( 1985 ) indicated that adults learn best in collaborative learning situations. In a later study, Conti ( 1989 ) postulated that adult basic skills students enrolled in GED classes represented a special case and often learn best in a teacher-centered environment, while adult developmental students learn best in learner-centered environments. Further, Conti ( 1989 ) suggested that the influence of teaching style differed according to the type of classes taken by the student. The teacher- centered approach was the most effective for students who were preparing to take the GED test, while the learner-centered approach was the most effective for developmental students. Thus, it can be argued that teaching style effectiveness should be related to other factors, such as the educational purpose of the learner. While teaching style and learning style congruence have been shown to impact academic achievement, in certain situations, educational purpose may be more important than learning style and teaching style congruence.

In this population, motivation may have been enough to override any impact of congruency between teaching style and learning style. Almost all participants in this population indicated their purpose for being in class was GED preparation; therefore, the results of this study tend to support the findings of Conti's later work ( 1989 ). The characteristics of the adult learner may provide a more likely explanation for the results of this study. According to Cross ( 1982 ), self-directed learning is deliberate learning in which the person's primary attention is directed toward specific educational goals. In short, a student's reason for participating in a particular educational program may be sufficient to override the importance of congruence.

The reader is reminded that these findings are possible artifacts of the design of this study. The research population consisted of an intact group of students at a specific technical institute. The thoughtful reader should not generalize these results to a broader population. Regardless of the limitations of the purposive sampling techniques employed in this study, these results do suggest potentially fruitful findings that should be the subject of further research.

Implications for Teaching

The lack of significant differences between the congruent and incongruent groups on academic achievement does not support some of the other research conducted in this area. One plausible explanation for the disparate findings is that adult learners may be more flexible in their learning styles and able to adapt more readily to different teaching styles. Adults have had years of experience in learning in different school settings and may be more tolerant of differences in teaching methodologies. Further, adults may have learned how to learn in accordance with the different styles of teaching.

Although the literature suggests that adults often learn best when collaborative teaching and learning methodologies are used, situational factors may influence the degree to which the collaborative mode can be advantageously applied. Of the adult basic skills students examined in this research, 79% were teacher-centered learners. When considering Conti's ( 1989 ) findings regarding the importance of educational purpose, learners may become more teacher-centered due to their external motivation to complete an educational goal. These preliminary findings suggest that the concept of learning style is possibly more transient than is often portrayed in the current literature.

Important implications for the education of vocational teachers will arise should subsequent research support these preliminary findings. The design of effective learning/teaching strategies may require more than simply identifying and matching of the preferred learning style of students with the teaching styles of instructors. Situational factors such as the nature of the curriculum, the students' purpose for attending classes, the type of educational agency delivering the programs, the maturity and other characteristics of the students are among the factors that should also be taken into consideration in designing effective educational strategies.


Spoon is Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Research Services at Griffin Technical Institute, Griffin, Georgia.

Schell is Associate Professor, Department of Occupational Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.


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Reference Citation: Spoon, J.C., & Schell, J. W. Aligning student learning styles with instructor teaching styles. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 35(2), 41-56.