Learning Styles and Preferences


The concept of “learning styles” derives from the observation that individuals have characteristic and preferred ways of gathering, interpreting, organizing, recalling and thinking about information (Davis, 2009). The term “learning style” has been used in many ways to indicate the ways in which people learn. The terms “learning style,” “learning preference,” and “learning strategy” are used and sometimes interchanged. Some authors make a distinction between the terms and some do not.

There are many learning style models, many of which overlap or focus on different aspects of the learning process. Several examples are listed below with links to find additional information about each model or else to access an online survey users can use to determine their own learning style.

Here are examples of learning styles indicators and online resources where more can be learned about them. Some surveys are free and available online and some are proprietary.

The key value of learning style models and inventories is that they increase student and teacher awareness about the differences between learners and may then be used to improve the learning process. They can help a teacher understand why a particular student may not be learning successfully and may suggest ways to help the student learn and demonstrate learning successfully in a different manner.

Learning Styles and Native Students

Research, based on a variety of theoretical frameworks and using a variety of methodologies and instruments, suggests that among American Indian and Alaska Native students, there is some tendency toward (a) a global, or holistic, style of organizing information, (b) a visual style of mentally representing information in thinking, (c) a preference for a more reflective style in processing information, and (d) a preference for a collaborative approach to task completion (Hilberg and Tharp, 2002).

While native learners tend to have similar styles as others who grew up in a similar situation or are from a particular tribe, studies also show that students vary greatly in their learning styles within their cultural group. The conditions in which a person had their early learning experiences also strongly affect learning style or preferences. Native students, for example, who grew up on a reservation tend to have a different learning style from those who grew up in mainstream culture (Pewewerty, 2002).

Learning styles are individualistic and students may even have different preferred styles in different situations. It is important not to stereotype students through the use of learning styles (Swisher, 1991). There is not universal agreement about the efficacy of learning style approaches. Teachers can use the information as a guide to increase awareness about their own and students’ preferred learning styles.

Strategies and Tools

The following are some of the ways that teachers can incorporate use of and knowledge about learning styles into teaching:

Learn more about one or two learning style models including ways to implement learning styles in your teaching.

Ask your students to complete one of the online learning style inventories and share with them information about the strengths and strategies they may find useful. Many of the different learning style inventories provide suggested strategies for learning (for example, the Index of Learning Style Questionnaire has online documents for interpreting and working with the survey results)

Observe your students and talk to them about their preferred learning styles and situations. Notice if they have a tendency toward certain ways of learning. Help your students to understand and develop other learning styles. Encourage them to value other learning styles.

Understand your own learning style and teaching style. Many instructors use the teaching style that they were taught. Mainstream education is often more abstract than concrete and teachers may use more abstract teaching approaches even if they have a naturally more concrete approach to learning.

Vary your teaching methods so that students with different learning styles can use their preferred style and also practice their non-preferred style.

Give assessments that draw on different learning and thinking styles.


Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hilberg, R. S., & Tharp, R. G. (2002). Theoretical perspectives, research findings and classroom implications of the learning styles of Native American and Alaska Native students. ERIC Digest EDO-RC-02-3, ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, Charleston, WV: AEL.

Pewewardy, C. (2002). Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice. Journal of American Indian Education, Volume 41 Number 3, 22-56.

Swisher, K. G. (1991). American Indian/Alaska Native learning styles: Research and practice. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 335 175).

Toolkit material submitted by Ted Williams – Sept. 2009


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