Nina's Notes

for Effective Teaching and Meaningful Learning

Cognitive Styles

Learning styles have been a popular area of research for past 20 years. Many researchers still agree with the basics, and most of the categorizings are quite similar. Here is one approach to learning styles, made by Felder and Silverman (1993). This study, in my opinion, is more like defining a cognitive style, and thus much broader than just an explanation of learning styles. However, understanding the way cognitive style defines and rules one's learning is important for a teacher to understand and recognize, because it makes teaching so much easier when you know the basics behind the different learning strategies and strategy guides, and can easily choose between the appropriate and unsuitable ones.


Felder and Silverman defined cognitive learning styles having variation on 4 different dimensions:


Ø       active / reflective

Ø       logical / intuitive

Ø       visual / verbal

Ø       sequential /global


 All four dimensions of the styles do belong to our personalities, but the preference for one category over the other may be strong, moderate, or mild. This is how they explain the traits:


Dimension 1, being active sometimes and reflective other times. A good balance of the two is desirable. If you always act before reflecting you can jump into things prematurely and get into trouble, while if you spend too much time reflecting you may never get anything done.


Dimension 2, logical and intuitive learners. To be effective as a learner and problem solver, you need to be able to function both ways. If you overemphasize intuition, you may miss important details; if you overemphasize being sensible, you may rely too much on memorization and familiar methods and not concentrate enough on understanding and innovative thinking.


Dimension 3, visual  vs. verbal. Visual learners remember best what they see - pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations. Verbal learners get more out of words - written and spoken explanations. Everyone learns more when information is presented both visually and verbally (Nina's note: and using other sensomotor channels, too, even though the study did not cover them).


Dimension 4, Sequential vs. global. (In other studies this pair has been referred as Serialistic vs. Holistic, describing the tendency of focusing either to detail or the entities, but the idea is the same.) Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in linear steps, with each step following logically from the previous one and finding solutions. Global learners tend to learn in large jumps, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then suddenly "getting it." Global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it. Sequential learners may not fully understand the material but they can nevertheless do something with it (like solve the homework problems or pass the test) since the pieces they have absorbed are logically connected. Strongly global learners who lack good sequential thinking abilities, on the other hand, may have serious difficulties until they have the big picture. Even after they have it, they may be fuzzy about the details of the subject, while sequential learners may know a lot about specific aspects of a subject but may have trouble relating them to different aspects of the same subject or to different subjects.


I bet every teachers recognizes students from the previously described dimensions of traits, and can intuively and/or logically categorize them according to their preferred traits - which would make great sense in grouping students for a specific learning task, either by having the "similar" students together, or to have them mixed in order to guarantee a  homogenous result. (In workshops I usually suggest many different concrete examples about this, according to the needs of the group.)