Tailoring Assessment to Student Learning Styles
A Model for Diverse Populations
By James Anderson

From the March 2001 AAHE Bulletin


Scenario One: At a regional community college, a non-traditional adult student has experienced discomfort in most of her classes. While she listens to the rapid responses of her classmates- traditional 18- to 22-year-olds — she has difficulty with the abstract nature of the course content and the examples the other students use. The non-traditional student also has anxieties about her readiness for college. How can the instructor better meet her needs?

Scenario Two: At a Midwestern university, "technology in the classroom" has become the new mantra. Decisions about hardware and software do not follow a consistent pattern. High-performance and well-skilled students exhibit learning preferences that match the instructional styles of the university's highly analytical faculty. Average and less-skilled students are not yet at the level of analytical excellence that would facilitate their success. Their technology needs are different, and they prefer a different mode of classroom instruction, both with and without technology. What can be done for them?

Scenario Three: At many institutions, faculty call for a "better" student to be admitted, one who can perform better, write better, think better, is more motivated, etc. Even when their institution's mission is to admit a broad range of students, such faculty still describe "quality" in terms of high-end, well-skilled students with whom the faculty are comfortable. At other institutions with the same mission, same type of student, and same approach to quality, however, their faculty promote success among all incoming students. At these institutions, faculty are student-centered in terms of their teaching. What does this really mean?

Scenario Four: The new director of disability services suggests to the vice president for academic affairs that the institution change the focus of its faculty-development initiatives on accommodating students whose disability interferes with their ability to process information (via lecture, text, etc.). The director's argument is that altering teaching style would best serve the needs of such students. But faculty counter that they already offer extended testing time for students who are disabled. Is the director demanding too much?

All these scenarios point to the need for us to understand learning styles, relate them to diverse needs, and design appropriate assessments for them.

What are learning styles? "Learning style" refers to the preferred manner in which an individual or group assimilates, organizes, and uses information to make sense of the world, including a classroom or job environment.

Learning styles can be characterized by how we prefer to learn, specifically our preferences for:

  • The type of information we receive (sensory vs. intuitive);
  • How we perceive information (visual vs. verbal);
  • How we organize information (inductive vs. deductive);
  • How we process information (actively vs. reflectively); and
  • How we understand information (sequentially vs. globally).

There are many dimensions of learning styles, including:

  • Reflective vs. Impulsive
  • Non-affective vs. Affective
  • Elaborative vs. Shallow (repetitive) processing
  • Scanning (visual) vs. Focusing
  • Field-independent vs. Field-sensitive
  • Analytical vs. Relational
  • Independent vs. Dependent
  • Participant vs. Avoidant

Learning Styles as Continuums
I may have given the impression that learning styles fall into bipolar distributions — either students are visual learners or they're not, affective learners or they're not. In reality, learning styles are on continuums. We all have a learning style on each continuum, just in different places along the line. And there are instruments that allow us to identify where students are on these continuums.

Which learning styles are most effective? We have determined from research that students who are reflective, non-affective, elaborative-processing, scanning, field-independent, analytical learners are highly successful in both two-year and four-year colleges. They are our dream students. If they also come with a 1450 SAT and several Advanced Placement courses, their instructor can walk in every day and say anything, and they're going to get it. But in the real world, we want all our students to succeed, not just those primed for success.

An Evolving Discussion
The discussion of learning styles has not moved with the same impetus that many other discussions in higher education have. The discussion of learning communities, for example, has moved from a conceptual model to an implementation model; and discussions of teaching have moved to discussions of the scholarship of teaching. We have moved at warp speed in developing models for classroom assessment; but, again, we have not followed suit in developing assessment models that accommodate learning styles.

Why has the evolution of our ideas about learning styles moved at such a slow pace? I offer four reasons.

The first is that our conceptual models of learning styles have become locked into the places where they originated as research topics: cognitive psychology, visual perception, etc. Because they are locked in as research topics, they have not yet been applied significantly to teaching and learning at a practical, performance-based student level.

The second reason that our conceptual models of learning styles have not evolved is because we haven't connected them to classroom performance, writing, thinking, student success indicators, retention models, and so on. These connections do show up in the literature, but they're not an integral part of our dialogue.

The third reason is because many campuses are not yet student-centered. If a campus is lax in merely thinking about what good teaching is, and if it lacks a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, why would it want to examine student learning preferences, learning strategies, and learning styles?

The final reason I offer (and mine is not an exhaustive list) is because to discuss learning styles in earnest is ultimately to discuss differential performance of certain groups and the relationship between traditional teaching styles and the learning styles of diverse populations. Now we've moved from a research discussion to a political discussion. And if faculty don't want to address student-centered teaching, why would they want to address the politics of teaching and its connection to different groups?

Advancing the Conversation on the Needs of Diverse Learners
We all accept the notion that when we teach or engage in any type of academic support, not all our students have the same needs. All students have diverse needs that we want to meet. We want them to be better thinkers, better writers, better problem solvers, and so on.

Then there are particular groups of students who have unique needs that we also want to meet. Consider a returning adult who is less skilled, raising a family and working full-time. If, because of poor advising, this student gets a full load of tough courses with abstract course content, he has a 100 percent chance of getting a D or F in almost every one of those courses.

So why haven't we looked out for the unique needs of certain diverse learners? One reason that diversity is not considered in many campus discussions of teaching, learning, assessment, scholarship, and research is that we ignore its natural fit with these endeavors. To see how easily diversity can be incorporated into discussions of learning style, recall how visual learners learn best: by drawing on personal, social, and cultural experiences to make the learning experience more holistic. By noting this, we have introduced diversity into the conversation on learning styles.

Cultural Differences in Learning Styles
When I began to study learning styles, the first thing I discovered was that there was no literature on group differences, with the exception of some work on differences in such things as visual perception, field independence, and field sensitivity. There were also some comparisons of Eurocentric groups with other groups — for example, Scottish children with Zambian children — but nothing connected to classroom performance, higher-order skills, etc.

But today we know a lot more. Do certain racial, ethnic, or cultural groups lean more toward some ends of the continuums than others do? Yes. Differences in learning styles are so pronounced that we can make clear distinctions among cultural groups, racial groups, gender groups, age groups, and so on. Students from certain groups tend to be disproportionately relational, affective learners. In the late 1980s, I leaned toward thinking there was something called a "Black Learning Style" or "Women's Learning Style."

But I've changed since then. If I could select two factors that probably have the most impact on students' learning styles and group differences, it would be class and prior educational experiences, be they in the family or in school. If you map the learning styles of whites in Appalachia and blacks in Mississippi, they'll look exactly alike. If you map the learning styles of students of color at Reed College in Oregon and at Harvard, again they'll map in similar ways . . . that is, bright, analytical students, regardless of race, will show up that way.

Some researchers are beginning to focus on a broader approach that identifies other dimensions of learning styles. Madge Willis, in her February 1989 article "Learning Styles of African American Children: A Review of the Literature and Interventions" in the Journal of Black Psychology, for example, talks about learning styles of African-American children:

  • Social/Affective: They tend to be people-oriented and emphasize the affective domain. Social interaction is crucial, and social learning is common.
  • Harmonious: They tend to respect and encourage the interdependence and harmonic/communal aspects of people and environment. They seek knowledge for practical, utilitarian, and relevant purposes. They seek synthesis and holistic approaches to experiences.
  • Expressive Creativity: They tend to be creative, adaptive, variable, novel, stylistic, and intuitive. They prefer simultaneous stimulation of multiple senses and oral expression.
  • Non-Verbal: Non-verbal communication (intonation, body language, movement, and rhythm) are vital to helping these students learn.

Should We Encourage Students to Change Their Learning Style?
Students come to us with learning styles developed over many years, rooted in their culture, family background, and prior educational experiences. Do we want to go as far as I've suggested in studying group differences in learning styles? In doing so, are we suggesting that some groups are deficient in learning style? Of course not. We don't make evaluative judgments about learning styles; we affirm learning styles as a reflection of a student's heritage.

But should we nonetheless encourage some students to modify their learning style? Yes, because we live in the real world. The students who will be most successful in college move from the affective toward the analytical side. I look at the performance of affective students in tough courses, especially when they are dragging their affect into the classroom when it doesn't need to be there — i.e., they can express their affect anywhere else, but in that classroom they need to be very focused.

It is not necessarily difficult to modify one's learning style. Most of us can move up and down these continuums, and we know exactly when we should do so. When we're in a restaurant with friends, for example, there's no need to have a highly analytical discussion about the caloric breakdown of everything that's on our plate or about the class differences among the people sitting around us. But if you're giving a conference presentation, you're going to move toward the analytical end of the continuum because you're addressing high-end, well-heeled learners.

We all have the jobs we have because we're good at this higher education thing. If there's one thing we can share with students to help them learn, it's how to move up and down these continuums.

What about students who are highly analytical and devoid of affect? Don't they need to move to the affective side? Yes, they do at some point in life, but not necessarily while they're getting through college courses.

The Importance of Framing Questions
What are the implications of all this for each of us? If you want to develop an assessment model that addresses the needs of diverse populations, the most important thing that you can do is frame the questions that you want answered. What do you want to know? Why?

Here are some examples of framing questions to ask yourself:

  • Do we seek only to identify students' attitudinal dispositions toward learning, without connecting them to teaching?
  • Do we only want to know how students feel about learning and their learning preferences?
  • Does our faculty have an understanding of general learning styles? (If we're at an open-admissions institution, how can they not have an understanding, since every day in every class there is such a wide range of learners sitting in front of them across different dimensions, skill levels, learning styles, learning preferences, and motivational levels?)
  • Who impacts faculty perceptions of student learning styles?
  • Do we want to assess our students' learning styles? Whose responsibility is it to do
  • this and get the information to faculty so they understand their students' needs?
  • If we do collect such information, so what? What do we want to do with it?
  • For those whom we identify as being most at risk for success, based on valid,
  • objective information, what does it mean? What are we doing about it?
  • How can we move less successful students incrementally through a process that allows them to become more successful? How do we move students from being affective to being more analytical?
  • Should we adapt instructional styles to accommodate learning styles? What does that mean for faculty development? What does that mean for classroom assessment?
  • What cognitive, affective, and cultural assets do diverse students bring to learning environments, and how do these assets facilitate or inhibit their performance? How can we tap into those assets?
  • How do all aspects of diversity fit into assessing performance?
  • To what degree do we want to assign students to sections according to styles and then match them up with certain instructors? Why should students who are less-skilled and affective learners be placed with a highly analytical instructor?
  • Should we use information about learning styles to help students decide what to emphasize or de-emphasize in their studies? Students who take an entire semester online and who are highly verbal and less visual in learning preference may experience difficulty. Can a student who's a highly affective, relational learner succeed at a Research I institution, where most of the faculty she encounters in mathematics, science, and technical areas will teach in an analytical manner?
  • Should the relationship of learning style research to educational outcomes affect what we do with faculty development?
  • What new assessment methods are needed?
  • Where's the next frontier to help us accurately evaluate and portray learning styles as they are impacted by diversity?

Once we've considered these kinds of questions, we can begin to think about reasons for not only doing more learning style assessment but also incorporating diversity. We may want to give students a learning styles-preference survey simply to give self-assessment feedback to students, so they can see themselves, maybe for the first time ever, as a learner.

We can go from there to doing cohort comparisons, looking at clusters of behaviors that we see in groups. For example: What clusters of behaviors are associated with success or failure in beginning science or math courses? What clusters of behaviors are associated with success or failure across what groups in engineering?

Next Steps
We are slowly moving from a generic model of learning style to a more comprehensive model that incorporates the diverse needs of all students and the unique needs of diverse groups, including their learning styles.

There is currently no effective assessment of learning styles and diversity that will enlighten us in significant ways about student performance, student success, student learning, etc. I'm working on an instrument that has been pilot-tested for reliability and validity at five institutions, and we will soon be pilot-testing it at five more. We're trying to develop an instrument that profiles generic learning styles and also correlates that information with other critical dimensions, such as student-student interaction and student-instructor interaction.

Given limited resources, what steps can institutions take to better address the needs of diverse learners? Begin by developing a strong teaching initiative around a more general area and then incorporate attention to diverse learning styles into it. At North Carolina State, a group called the Hewlett Fellows focuses on inquiry-guided teaching and promoting active learning. Faculty are very enthused about it. But if we had first tried to develop a learning style initiative focusing on effective teaching, I predict it wouldn't have been as successful.

Another possibility is to create cooperative clusters or learning communities, provided that they are designed to accommodate diverse groups. Diversity is not as present as it should be in learning community research. There's an inherent assumption that learning communities automatically account for diversity, but that's not true. For example, if you set up voluntary curricular learning communities, diverse students will not necessarily sign up. They do not see the inherent value of clustering across courses.

Cooperative clusters show promise, however. Sheila Tobias has studied cooperative clusters associated with the success of women in science and mathematics. (See her books Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don't and They're Not Dumb. They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier, both published by Research Corporation, Tucson, Arizona.) Uri Treisman has done the same with underrepresented students and students of color, especially in mathematics. (See his article "Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College" in the November 1992 College Mathematics Journal.)

But cooperative learning models don't attract everyone. A student who is introverted and less-skilled and doesn't understand the culture of college is not going to be assertive in cooperative learning approaches. That student will not participate actively in learning communities, and that student will be silent in chat rooms.

It's a challenge to address the needs of diverse learners, because it's so difficult to reallocate resources from things that aren't really significant and don't yield outcomes of consequence. But we should do faculty development on this subject, and we should have something for students coming into our institutions who historically have been identified as having the most problems. If we don't do that, why keep bringing them in? They'll just continue having problems. These are two areas in which we should all invest resources.

James Anderson is vice provost and dean of undergraduate affairs at North Carolina State University. Contact him at james_anderson@ncsu.edu.

This article comes from the new AAHE book Assessment to Promote Deep Learning, edited by Linda Suskie, former director of AAHE's Assessment Forum. The book is a compilation of the major presentations from AAHE's 1999 and 2000 Assessment Conferences.

This article is excerpted from James Anderson's session "Developing a Learning-Style/Teaching-Style Assessment Model for Diverse Populations," presented at the 2000 AAHE Assessment Conference.

Assessment to Promote Deep Learning is available for $12 for members ($14 for nonmembers), plus shipping, through AAHE's online publication catalog, or order by phone, 202/293-6440, x780.

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