Applying Student Learning Styles in Tutoring

As a professional tutor for mathematics students in need of personalized help, an important part of my interaction with my clients is to identify their individual learning styles and to provide instruction that recognizes and builds upon student strengths.

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An understanding of the basic concepts behind learning styles is therefore of primary importance to me and to other tutors, and will be the focus of a short series of articles regarding the application of learning styles in tutoring instructional settings.

Initial Definitions of Learning Styles
Even a quick review of books, papers, and reports of formal studies on learning will indicate that the concept of learning styles is a varied and hotly contested one.

Some argue that learning styles do not exist and others suggest that understanding learning styles and tailoring instructional activities and materials to match them produces much more effective learning experiences for students.

I must admit that I belong to the latter school of thought and have tried to identify the learning styles of my students and have tried to identify materials and activities to match them. I will move forward with a short and straight forward definition of learning styles.

For an individual student, his ‘learning style’ will be understood to be any collection of characteristics or attributes that help to identify materials and activities that are effective in helping that student demonstrate mastery of selected instructional goals.

In other words, if materials and the activities that use them can be associated with descriptors that help to identify the more effective activities for a student, then those descriptors constitute a learning ‘style’ or ‘profile’.

An excellent learning style component is ‘reading level’. As an example, the Lexile Reading Scale assigns a numerical value to a body of text (book or paper, etc.) that is determined by two major factors:

(1) Number of words in an average sentence
(2) Average length of words found in the sentence

A Lexile score is assigned to a student to suggest the difficulty level of materials that he reads effectively. If the Lexile score assigned to a new textbook is too much higher that the student’s score, then it is likely that he will have difficulty using the textbook. In this sense, reading level as measured by a Lexile score can be a component of a learning style.

We note that while the Lexile score for a published textbook remains constant, a student’s Lexile score will change over time and reflect experience and increasing reading skills on his part.

The basic idea behind identifying and applying learning styles will be to provide the most effective learning experiences we can for our clients.

For the sake of these discussions, the term ‘effective’ will suggest both the rapid development of skill mastery by the student and a very slow loss of mastery level over time. These two elements will be termed ‘power’ and ‘retention’.

Learning Styles as Ranges and Not Groups
The final concept that will be introduced with this first article is that the components of learning styles will be understood to be ranges of values and not isolated groups into which a student can be conveniently placed. A recent study of a popular test for determining learning styles is a good place to begin.

A recent study entitled In-Depth Analysis of the Felder-Silverman Learning Style Dimensions (Graf, Viola, Leo, and Kinshuk 2007), evaluated the statistical significance of elements of the test to determine how effectively the test identified factors that determine learning style.

The Felder-Silverman test presents a number of choices to an individual. Based upon the number and strength of the choices, an analysis is performed to estimate the learning style of an individual on a series of scales called ‘dimensions’.

The Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model (FSLSM) produces a measurement of each of four basic dimensions.

1. Active vs. Reflective
2. Sensing vs. Intuitive
3. Visual vs. Verbal
4. Sequential vs. Global

A particular student is assigned a position on each of the four dimensional scales above, and it is understood that elements of all eight attributes are always present.

For the purpose of this series of articles, we will review the identification of a student’s position on each of the four dimensions above and how that information can be used to construct matching materials and learning activities to meet individual student learning requirements.

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