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Diaz and Ryan B. Cartnal Cuesta Community College
Bibliographical reference: Diaz, D. P., & Cartnal, R. B. (1999). Students' learning styles in two classes: Online distance learning and equivalent on-campus. College Teaching 47(4), 130-135.
Abstract Educators have, for many years, noticed that some students prefer certain methods of learning more than others. These traits, referred to as learning styles, form a student's unique learning preference and aid teachers in the planning of small-group and individualized instruction. If optimal student learning is dependent on learning styles, and these styles vary between distance and equivalent on-campus students, then faculty should be aware of these differences and alter their preparation and instructional methods accordingly. The purpose of this study was to compare the student learning styles of two online health education classes (N = 68) with an equivalent on-campus class (N = 40). The Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Style Scales (GRSLSS) was administered to determine student social learning preferences in six learning style categories. Students who enrolled in the distance education class were significantly more Independent learners than students in the equivalent on-campus class (p < .01). Students enrolled in the equivalent class were significantly more Dependent learners than the distance group (p < .01). Correlational analysis revealed that on-campus students displayed collaborative tendencies that were positively related to their needs to be competitive and to be good class citizens. Thus, on-campus students appeared to favor collaborative styles to the extent that it helped them to obtain the rewards of the class. In contrast, online students were willing and able to embrace collaborative teaching styles if the instructor made it clear that this was expected, and gave them form and guidance for meeting this expectation. Online students appeared to be driven more by intrinsic motives and clearly not by the reward structure of the class. Faculty who are putting a traditional course online, should consider administering a student learning style inventory to both their distance and traditional students. Knowledge of student learning preferences can aid faculty in class preparation, designing class delivery methods, choosing appropriate technologies, and developing sensitivity to differing student learning preferences within the distance education environment.
Introduction The idea that people learn differently is venerable and probably had its origin with the ancient Greeks (Wratcher, Morrison, Riley & Scheirton, 1997). Educators have, for many years, noticed that some students prefer certain methods of learning more than others. These dispositions, referred to as learning styles, form a student's unique learning preference and aid teachers in the planning of small-group and individualized instruction (Kemp, Morrison & Ross, 1998, p. 40). Grasha (1996), has defined learning styles as, "personal qualities that influence a student's ability to acquire information, to interact with peers and the teacher, and otherwise participate in learning experiences" (p. 41). Blackmore (1996) suggested that one of the first things educators can do to aid the learning process is to simply be aware that there are diverse learning styles in the student population: There are probably as many ways to "teach" as there are to learn. Perhaps the most important thing is to be aware that people do not all see the world in the same way. They may have very different preferences than you for how, when, where and how often to learn. While many instructors are aware that different learning styles exist, the application of this knowledge is often inconsequential. Some faculty simply opt to utilize a wide variety of teaching activities, hoping that they will cover most student learning preferences along the way. This method, though expedient, may not be the most effective or systematic way to address student learning preferences in the classroom. Many instructors think that the same teaching methods that are effective in their traditional classes will also work in distance learning settings. The underlying assumption is that students who enroll into distance education classes will have the same learning preferences as students enrolled in traditional classes. Also, faculty are assuming that teaching styles, and accompanying classroom processes, are like a "master key" and thus appropriate for any setting. There is not an overabundance of research in the area of learning styles and distance education. Most of the studies focus on the discovery of relationships between learning styles and specific student achievement outcomes: drop rate, completion rate, attitudes about learning, and predictors of high risk. One of the most popular learning style inventories and one that is often used in distance
People with the lowest scores in student achievement in the distance learning course had a more social and conceptual learning style. The CLSI demonstrated merit for use in distance learning studies since it attempted to measure student preferences in environmental conditions such as student's need for affiliation with other students and instructor. in our opinion. and these styles vary between distance and equivalent on-campus students. Both distance and on-campus groups were taught simultaneously by the same instructor. 1986). This is providing that sufficient sensitivity has been given to student learning styles in the first place. and cost (p. and does not specifically take into account social preference issues that represent the key distinction between the distance and traditional classrooms. If there are differences in learning styles between groups of students. If optimal student learning is dependent on learning styles. but is less helpful in terms of teaching students about weaker or unused learning preferences. Kolb's LSI measures student learning style preference in two bipolar dimensions. holds important strategic information for anyone interested in student success. since distance learning courses often lead to social isolation. they wanted to know "why" certain things happened in conceptual or theoretical terms. That is. then faculty must use learning style information to aid their planning and preparation for delivery of distance education activities. thinking. Students in the distance learning class who possessed a more independent and conceptual learning style. Gee administered the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory (CLSI) (Canfield. Knowledge of student learning preferences can provide a bridge to course success in a distance education mode. Gee (1990) studied the impact of learning style variables in a live teleconference distance education class. The purpose of the study was to examine the influence of student learning style preference. received identical course content.. is primarily a cognitive learning preference instrument. and resources fit the ways in which their students learn and maximize the learning potential of each student" (p. This learning style "stereotyping" may be convenient for statistical analysis. 1980). administration difficulties. the CLSI as well as Kolb's LSI. 22). and attitudes about learning. then faculty should be aware of these differences and alter their preparation and instructional methods accordingly. they should also consider assessing the learning styles of the students who enroll. If there are no differences in learning styles. had the highest average scores in all of the student achievement areas. validity and reliability issues. learners develop a preference for either concrete experiences when learning or a preference for engaging in abstract or conceptual analyses when acquiring skills and knowledge. Three important factors to consider when selecting a learning style instrument include: considering the intended use of the data to be collected. selecting the most appropriate instrument (James and Gardner. People with higher scores on concrete experience tend to exhibit a greater sensitivity to feelings. into the distance setting with similar success. i. which has been widely used. Other concerns include considering the underlying concepts and design of the instrument. An example of this can be seen in Gee (1990). Students with both a social and applied learning style performed much better in the on-campus class. students with less needs for the concrete experience aspects of learning may be expected to be better suited to the distance format. 1995). the Kolb LSI. Sarasin (1998) noted that instructors should be willing to change their teaching strategies and techniques based on an appreciation of the variety of student learning styles. Successful telecourse students also preferred to look for abstract concepts to help explain the concrete experiences associated with their learning. Successful students had lower scores on their preferences for concrete experiences than did the non-successful students. Dille and Mezack concluded that students who needed concrete experience and were not able to think abstractly were more high-risk students in a telecourse. It seems appropriate that an inventory used in a distance education setting should address the impact of different social dynamics on the learning preferences of the students. materials. The relatively small sample of 26 students suggested that additional work is needed to further explore this relationship. then it is likely that faculty can transfer the same types of teaching/learning activities that have been successful for them in the traditional environment. 2). and that sufficient thought has been given to how these methods will be transferred to the distance education environment using current communications technologies. Selecting a Learning Style Instrument As educators consider transplanting their traditional courses into distance learning settings. on student achievement in the following areas: course content. James and Gardner (1995) described Kolb's LSI as a cognitive learning style mode. create a narrow range of applicability for learning styles by limiting learning preferences to one or two dimensions.learning research is the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI) (Kolb. Cognitive processes include storage and retrieval of information in the brain and represent the learner's ways of perceiving. Over time. and thus would be expected to require more interactions with peers and the teacher. and both groups met weekly.. reflective observation (Dille & Mezack. This more abstract approach clearly favored success in the telecourse. in an on-campus or distance education remote classroom. no matter which way it is answered. 1991. "[Teachers] should try to ensure that their methods. it is important to carefully select an instrument according to the unique requirements of the distance learning context. i. In any case. p. course completion rates. The outcomes of the Gee study suggested that successful distance education students favored an independent learning environment while successful on-campus students showed a preference for working with others.e. They also may emphasize interests in turning theory into practice. Further. and require greater reliance on independent learning skills. . problem-solving and remembering (p. Thus. One of the distinguishing features of most distance education classes is the absence of face-to-face social interaction between students and teacher. These differing social dynamics represent one of the main differences between distance learning and equivalent on-campus environments. finding an instrument and matching it to the intended use and.e. An important question is raised by such research: "Are there differences in learning styles between students who enroll into a distance education class and their equivalent on-campus counterparts?" This question. However. With a variety of learning style instruments in use. who employed the Canfield Learning Styles Inventory (CLSI). Dille and Mezack (1991) used Kolb's LSI to identify predictors of high risk among community college telecourse students. or they may prefer to engage in reflective thinking about their experiences. the first step in using learning style information to aid instruction in a distance education setting is to first determine student learning styles. 20). 27). and the student's need for independence or structure. active experimentation. finally.
Ideally. Participant learners are interested in class activities and discussion. and are eager to do as much class work as possible. Collaborative learners acquire information by sharing and by cooperating with teacher and peers. They are keenly aware of. used the same textbook. 5. the GRSLSS is a relevant scale to use in a distance setting since it focuses on how students interact with the instructor.Of the different learning style instruments. Not only will students expect an education that is at equal in quality as that provided by traditional offerings. the GRSLSS promotes understanding of learning styles in a broad context. Problem and Purpose Student performance may be related to learning preferences. and Dowdall (1991) also have suggested that particular teaching styles might encourage students to adopt certain learning styles. the authors distributed the GRSLSS and reviewed the instructions for completion of the inventory. Third. Inventories were reviewed by the researchers for compliance with directions and for accuracy of scoring. There have been few studies on the relationship of learning styles to student success in a distance learning environment. 1982. The GRSLSS (Hruska-Riechmann & Grasha. Research Methods The population for the current study included health education students in a medium-sized (8. The styles described by the GRSLSS refer to a blend of characteristics that apply to all students (Grasha. Second. that distance education will meet expectations for a quality education.000-9. Next. however most people gravitate toward one or two of the learning style preferences. and equivalent on-campus. and none that the author is aware of have used the GRSLSS. student success in distance learning classes may ultimately depend on understanding the learning style characteristics of the students who enroll. The purpose of this study was to compare the student learning styles of online. Fourth. Thus the scales address one of the key distinguishing features of a distance class. health education classes using the GRSLSS. designed to meet their individual needs. 1996. 1996) was chosen as the tool for determining student learning styles in the present study based on criteria suggested by James and Gardner (1995). 1982). the Grasha-Reichmann Student Learning Style Scales (GRSLSS) seems ideal for assessing student learning preferences in a college-level distance learning setting. self-paced instruction. and would prefer to work alone on course projects than with other students. The comparison class was selected from four equivalent on-campus sections of health education (N = 40) taught by the lead author. They are typically uninterested and are sometimes overwhelmed by class activities. Competitive students learn in order to perform better than their peers do and to receive recognition for their academic accomplishments. The assignment load for the distance class students consisted almost entirely of internet-based. 127). The distance education sample included students in two sections of health education offered in an online format (N = 68). The GRSLSS was administered in a group setting during the second week of classes. and provides a rationale for pursuing personal growth and development in the underused learning style areas. 4. The distance class made heavy use of a class web site and used a list serve and e-mail for communication/discussion with other students and the instructor. and with learning in general. Learning preferences are likely to change as one encounters new life and educational experiences. and have a desire to meet. Independent students prefer independent study. Grasha. 3. Three main differences between on-campus and online groups were the delivery mode for the lectures. Since more online courses will invariably be offered in the future. 1. As a result. the faculty and the students. This type of understanding prevents learning style stereotyping. other students. the GRSLSS is one of the few instruments designed specifically to be used with senior high school and college/university students (Hruska-Riechmann & Grasha. p. to a greater or lesser extent. Each person possesses some of each of the learning styles. covered the same lecture material. Grasha (1996). A brief discussion of each learning style is included below. First. They prefer lectures with small group discussions and group projects. As a result. Research Outcomes . Students may also self-select into or away from distance learning classes based on their learning preferences. The distance classes reviewed multimedia slides (Power Point presentations converted to HTML) and lecture notes online while the equivalent classes heard instructor lectures and participated in face-to-face discussion. the mode of teacher/student and student/student communication. independent assignments while the equivalent class completed some online assignments but participated most frequently in classroom discussion assignments and other non-internet assignments. Students possess all of six learning styles. the relative absence of social interaction between instructor/student and student/student. Avoidant learners are not enthused about attending class or acquiring class content. one would have a balance of all the learning styles. the "General Class Form" was used (the version used when the inventory is administered at the beginning rather than the end of the course) to assess the initial learning styles of the students. The online distance students were taught according to the same course outline. spanning six categories. All 108 participants first reviewed the student cover letter that explained the nature of the research and provided opportunity for informed consent. Additional information on this issue is provided in the Grasha and Yangarber (1999) article in this section.000 enrollment) community college on the central coast of California. teacher expectations. The inventory was self-scored by the student and raw scores were obtained for each of the learning style categories. 2. and took the same tests as the equivalent on-campus students. and the mode for the assignments. Dependent learners look to the teacher and to peers as a source of structure and guidance and prefer an authority figure to tell them what to do. they will expect a student-centered learning environment. or styles as learners. the GRSLSS promotes an optimal teaching/learning environment by helping faculty design courses and develop sensitivity to student/learner needs. 6. some assurance must be provided to the institution.
It may be that the distance education format appealed to students with independent learning styles. independent learning activities that allowed students to choose from a menu of online "cyber assignments" based on their personal interests and the relevance of the assignments to their own life situations. That is. The low level of independence displayed by on-campus students was not related to any other aspects of their styles as learners. This approach has practical significance given that instructors often complain of too little "class time" to devote to learning objectives. Dependent. students who were more Collaborative in their learning styles also were more Dependent and Participatory in their approach to learning. The broad range of GRSLSS scores in the present study demonstrated the diversity of learning preferences of both groups and illustrates the dynamic nature of distance student characteristics as noted by Thompson. An instructor using the present data could plan learning opportunities that would emphasize the learning preferences of each of the commonly preferred learning styles (i. Students in the equivalent on-campus class were significantly more Dependent learners than the distance group. people who were more Independent in their learning styles also tended to be less Collaborative and Dependent. Thus. The lead author utilized selfpaced. and fewer dependent learning opportunities. and the Collaborative and Dependent learning styles. a positive correlation between the Competitive and Participant styles of learning also was observed. self-paced instruction would self-select into an online class.The present study compared social learning styles between distance education and equivalent on-campus classes using the GRSLSS. thus matching teaching strategies with learning styles. It is not surprising that students who prefer independent. significant positive correlations were found between the Collaborative learning style and the Competitive and Participant styles. Students chose their own assignments and completed the assignments by the deadlines posted online at the class web site. Finally. and a statistical analysis using a t-test revealed that they were not statistically significant.e. instructors can more efficiently allocate course instructional time to various learning activity types. on-campus students who were collaborative also tended to be competitive and participatory in the classroom. Students who tended to compete also were "good classroom citizens" and were more willing to do what the teacher wanted them to do. Independent. Relatively larger differences in the average scores between the two classrooms occurred for the Independent and the Dependent learning styles. . Collaborative. and that instructors should design learning activities to capitalize on this diversity (p. 9). the independence displayed by online learners was not tied to needs for external structure and guidance from their teacher (dependence). This was done by calculating the correlation coefficients associated with the combinations of the six learning styles. the online students can be described as "strongly independent. a t. Thus. In other words. Self-direction and independence was facilitated in the online course by offering students flexible options to shape their learning environment. That is." in that they match the stereotype of the independent learner in terms of autonomy and the ability to be self-directed. 140). The distance students more strongly favored independent learning styles. A statistical test (i. Collaborative. Since the dynamic nature of the distance population precludes a "typical" student profile (Thompson. independence was clearly a weaker learning preference for traditional class students. Compared to those students enrolled in the traditional classroom.e. As a result of these significant differences. In the equivalent on-campus group.01). Correlational analysis within the online group showed a negative relationship between the Independent learning style. Discussion Gibson (1998) has challenged distance education instructors to "know the learner" (p. it is not difficult to understand why dependent learners might view the isolation and need for self-reliance in a distance education environment with some apprehension. the students in the distance learning class had higher scores on the Independent learning style scale and lower scores on the Dependent learning style scale. Not only were online students more independent than the on-campus students. to +1 and that the degree to which it deviates from zero in either direction reflects the strength of the relationship between the two variables. instructional strategies in the distance class should emphasize relatively more independent. In reading this table the reader is reminded that a correlation coefficient varies from -1. and Participant learning styles were relatively small. The asterisks associated with some of the values indicate that the size of the correlation was statistically significant and thus not due to chance.test ) was used to determine if the differences in the scores between the Independent and Dependent learning styles were due to chance. Armed with learning style data. p. 0. The outcomes of this analysis are shown in Table 1 for the distance learning and traditional classroom groups. the associations among different combinations of styles were examined. She noted that distance learners are a heterogeneous group.. In order to examine the patterns in the relationships among the learning styles within each class. or for a need to collaborate with their classmates. instructors should continually assess student learner characteristics. but their independent learning preferences were displayed in a way that was negatively related to how dependent and collaborative they were. 141). The average or mean scores of the distance learning class and the equivalent health education class on each of the six categories of the GRSLSS are shown in Figure 1. That is. Of particular interest were the significant differences between the groups in the Independent and Dependent categories. The variations in average scores between the two classrooms on the Avoidant. A second important relationship (positive correlation) was found between the Collaborative learning style and the Dependent and Participant learning styles. 1998. This interpretation would agree with Gee (1990) who noted that successful telecourse students favored an independent learning style. and Participant).. This also agrees with James and Gardner (1995) who suggested that distance education students who favored reliance on independent learning skills would be more suited to a distance format. The variations in average scores between the two styles were found to be statistically significant and thus were not likely due to chance (p < . and that independent learning preferences are well suited to the relative isolation of the distance learning environment. Competitive. Since Dependent learners prefer structure and guidance in the learning setting.
This correlation demonstrated that. thus the relationship of Competitive and Participant styles). the data from the current study suggest that faculty will encounter significantly different learning preferences as well as other different student characteristics. As the World Wide Web continues to become an important medium for educational delivery. 1998. Thus. Blackmore. they are willing and able to participate in collaborative work if they have structure from the teacher to initiate it. health education students at their institution. (1996).. and to meet the expectations of their teachers. Though faculty may attempt to utilize the same teaching methods in a distance environment that they would employ in an equivalent on-campus class. that there may be drastic learning style. 2. 1996. neither the online or equivalent on-campus students really preferred a Competitive learning environment relative to other styles of learning. students currently enrolled in under 12 units (66%. to better prepare for distance classes and to adapt their teaching methods to the preferences of the learners. 7%). designing class delivery methods.html[1997.cyg. distance education instructors should continually monitor student characteristics. Thus. While still valid. in the past. These characteristics agree with the general profile of distance students as reported by Thompson (1998). is appropriate and even necessary. Future field-based research should replicate the current study in different institutions and disciplines. the on-campus students appeared to favor competitiveness if it was clear that such competitiveness was expected (i. and autonomous. 50%). However. The mistake made by the author was that he assumed that online students would be self-directed. p. the author designed collaborative activities among students that required students to initiate peer contact. MI: Humanics Media. Strengthening lesser-preferred learning styles helps students to expand the scope of their learning. had completed a degree (12%. choosing educational technologies. it is apparent why this strategy failed: Online students will apparently respond well to collaborative activities. though online students prefer independent learning situations. and on-campus students more dependent. The authors have demonstrated a real and substantial difference in learning styles between distance. The on-campus students seemed to match the profile of traditional students who are willing to work in class provided they can obtain rewards for working with others. and their willingness to participate as good class citizens (Participant dimension). they should first address the issue of whether learning style differences exist at all. 38). A. Average Avoidant and Competitive learning style scores indicated that these learning preferences were favored to a lesser degree by both groups. Before faculty rush to find out the effects of learning styles on student outcomes. it is likely that the dynamic nature of distance education in general will keep student characteristics a moving target. and students above 26 years of age (36%. It was interesting that. 49%). The results of this study should send an important notice to faculty who are teaching their traditional courses in a distance mode. In his online class. as well as other characteristic differences between distance and traditional students that warrants consideration. In other words. Learning styles inventory manual. they were interested in collaboration to the extent that it helped them to compete favorably in the class. Based on the findings of the current study. . Learning styles were not the only differences between the distance and comparison groups in this study. 6%). and to be good classroom citizens. September 10] Canfield. and for meeting teacher expectations. regardless of the type of learning activity. in their styles as learners. or independent assignments for dependent or collaborative learners. Though it is tempting to identify and depend on a "typical" distance student profile. Demographic data indicated that the distance group had a higher percentage of females (59%. Conclusions The authors concluded that local health education students enrolled in an online class are likely to have different learning styles than equivalent on-campus students. However. and equivalent on-campus. Ann Arbor. One of the limitations of this study was the utilization of a non-probability (convenience) sampling technique. Instructors can also use learning style data to help them design "creative mismatches" where students can experience their less dominant learning style characteristics in a less threatening environment (Grasha.The online students also displayed collaborative qualities in their styles as learners that were related to their need for structure (dependence). not to an interest in being collaborative per se. Thus. and developing sensitivity to differing student learning preferences within the distance education environment. J. become more versatile learners. Designing collaborative assignments for independent learners. Pedagogy: Learning styles [Online]. the traditional class students had collaborative tendencies that were related to their needs to be competitive. as well as collect relevant demographic data. the results should not be over-generalized. more and more courses will be offered in an online format.e. Faculty should use social learning style inventories and resulting data for the purpose of facilitating class preparation. the lead author has used "list serves" and "threaded discussion" areas to promote collaboration among distance students. This is the case in a large portion of educational research.net/~jblackmo/diglib/styla. though we live in a highly competitive society. students who had completed 60 or more college units (12%. 172). Online students appeared to be driven more by intrinsic motives and clearly not by the reward structure of the class. (1980). 1%). and adapt to the requisites of the "real world" (Sarasin. p. Non-probability sampling is used when it is impossible or impractical to use random sampling techniques. Online students were more independent. collaboration was tied to obtaining the rewards of the class. In contrast. and to conduct the collaboration with a minimum of teacher-provided structure and support. faculty may want to employ learning style inventories. Available: http://granite. but only if sufficient structure and guidance is provided by the instructor. References 1.
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