Learning Styles

Learning-style theory begins with Carl Jung (1927), who noted major differences in the way people perceived (sensation versus intuition), the way they made decisions (logical thinking versus imaginative feelings), and how active or reflective they were while interacting (extroversion versus introversion). Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs (1977), who created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and founded the Association of Psychological Type, applied Jung’s work and influenced a generation of researchers trying to understand specific differences in human learning. Key researchers in this area include Anthony Gregorc (1985), Kathleen Butler (1984), Bernice McCarthy (1982), and Harvey Silver and J. Robert Hanson (1995). Although learning-style theorists interpret the personality in various ways, nearly all models have two things in common:

  • A focus on process. Learning-style models tend to concern themselves with the process of learning: how individuals absorb information, think about information, and evaluate the results.
  • An emphasis on personality. Learning-style theorists generally believe that learning is the result of a personal, individualized act of thought and feeling.

Most learning-style theorists have settled on four basic styles. Our own model, for instance, describes the following four styles:

  1. The Mastery style learner absorbs information concretely; processes information sequentially, in a step-by-step manner; and judges the value of learning in terms of its clarity and practicality.
  2. The Understanding style learner focuses more on ideas and abstractions; learns through a process of questioning, reasoning, and testing; and evaluates learning by standards of logic and the use of evidence.
  3. The Self-Expressive style learner looks for images implied in learning; uses feelings and emotions to construct new ideas and products; and judges the learning process according to its originality, aesthetics, and capacity to surprise or delight.
  4. The Interpersonal style learner, like the Mastery learner, focuses on concrete, palpable information; prefers to learn socially; and judges learning in terms of its potential use in helping others.

Learning styles are not fixed throughout life, but develop as a person learns and grows. Our approximate breakdown of the percentages of people with strengths in each style is as follows: Mastery, 35 percent; Understanding, 18 percent; Self-Expressive, 12 percent; and Interpersonal, 35 percent (Silver and Strong 1997).

Most learning-style advocates would agree that all individuals develop and practice a mixture of styles as they live and learn. Most people’s styles flex and adapt to various contexts, though to differing degrees. In fact, most people seek a sense of wholeness by practicing all four styles to some degree. Educators should help students discover their unique profiles, as well as a balance of styles.

Harvey Silver, Richard Strong, and Matthew Perini; “Educational Leadership”