Carolina RN to BSN Online
Conceptual Bases of Professional Nursing Practice
Learner Variables:  Learning Style
Part 1:  Variables Influencing Teaching and Learning

System Variables

Teacher Variables

Learner Variables

Part 2:  The Seven Steps of Planning --Plus One

Weekly Assignment 1
Evaluating Learning

Weekly Assignment 2
Analyzing Experiences


Learning styles can be described and assessed in a variety of ways. We'll look at two approaches to describing learning styles, and talk a bit about assessing them.

Learning Style: Dimensions Along a Continuum

Learning style has multiple dimensions, each of which can be viewed on a continuum (the same approach we used for teaching style). We'll consider five dimensions of learning style, you may be able to think of others.
The five learning style dimensions are described below.

Learning Style Dimensions

Concrete Thinking
   Two Headed Arrow    Abstract Thinking

Concrete thinkers learn best from actually visualizing a task or idea. Abstract thinkers can learn from symbols alone; often these learners have stronger verbal skills.

Most of you have taken statistics. In statistics I'm definitely a concrete thinker. When the formulas with all those "p hats" and "q's" are presented, I just don't get it. However, when I see examples using real numbers, it begins to make sense.

  Two Headed Arrow   Inductive

Deductive thinkers learn best by learning rules and then deducing actions from the rules. Inductive thinkers learn best by forming rules from their experience.


Most of this content on teaching and learning is being presented in an deductive fashion. That is, I'm presenting information (rules) to guide your actions. Some of you might prefer to look at your experience with teaching and learning to derive the guiding principles.

  Two Headed Arrow   Visual
Auditory learners learn best by listening to instructions, information, etc. Visual learners learn best by "seeing" instructions, information, and skills. This can mean observing the thing to be learned (like a psychomotor skill), or it can mean reading the information.


Here's another example using myself as a learner. When I do step aerobics, the instructor's cues are secondary to watching what s/he does. If I'm facing away from the teacher, I'm much less likely to get the move than if I'm able to see it. If the instructor says one thing and does another, I'll usually do what s/he does rather than what s/he says. Of course, if I already know the routine, I do it "right" regardless of what the instructor says or does!

Orally Dependent
  Two Headed Arrow   Writing Dependent

Orally dependent learners learn best by talking about the material to be learned, while writing dependent learners need to write.

Some of you may find it helpful to discuss assignments or class topics with others in your class, colleagues at work, or even family and friends. Others of you may not be so interested in dialog, but find it helpful to take notes when you read, or find yourself taking notes in class even when an outline or copies of slides are provided.

Two Headed Arrow   Social

Solitary learners learn best alone, while social learners learn best in groups where they are able to interact and support each other.

Once again, think of yourself as a learner. Do you tend to initiate or join study groups? Enjoy discussion and group activities in class? If so, your style is more social than solitary. If, on the other hand, you prefer individual class activities and assignments, your style is more solitary than social.

An individual's learning style can fall at any point on each continuum described above, and it may be different in different kinds of learning situations. This means there are an infinite number of possible learning styles, but most of us tend toward a preferred point on each continuum, and can describe our preferred style based on that. Try to identify where you fit on each continuum, and think about what that tells you about your preferred learning style.

Learning Style Types--Kolb

Another way to look at learning style is to combine similar characteristics of various learning styles into learning style types. One of the best known and often used classifications of learning styles is that developed by Kolb. Kolb describes four learning style types: accommodator; diverger; converger; and assimilator. The table below highlights characteristics of learners in each group and provides examples of teaching strategies that may be effective with each type of learner. Notice that Kolb's types incorporate many of the dimensions of learning style described in the previous section.

  • Are action oriented, like doing things
  • Solve problems intuitively by trial and error
  • Prefer concrete learning experiences and active experimentation
  • Excel in adapting to specific, immediate circumstances
Teaching strategies that work well with this group include:
  • Skill practice
  • Problem solving
  • Simulations

  • Are imaginative
  • Enjoy reflecting
  • Can organize relationships into a meaningful gestaldt (see the "big picture")
  • Can view concrete situations from a number of perspectives
  • Prefer concrete learning experiences and reflection
  • Tend to be interested in people and emotional elements
Teaching strategies that work well with this group include:
  • Logs
  • Journals
  • Brainstorming

  • Like practical application (pragmatic)
  • Use deductive reasoning
  • Like to deal with things
  • Prefer abstract conceptualization and active experimentation
  • Ask "How can I apply this?"
  • Tend to be relatively unemotional
Teaching strategies that work well with this group include:
  • Laboratory work
  • Skill practice
  • Activities requiring application

  • Create theoretical models
  • Use inductive reasoning
  • Like to deal with abstract concepts
  • Prefer abstract conceptualization and reflective observation
  • Ask, "How does this relate to that?"
  • Tend to be less interested in people and practical application
Teaching strategies that work well with this group include:
  • Individual activities and assignments
  • Reading

Two professors at NCSU have developed a learning style assessment called "Index of Learning Styles", which is available to try for free.  If you'd like to assess your learning style using this tool, click on the link below.

Assessing Learning Style

If you teach groups of people over time, you can use commercially available assessment tools. There are a number of tools available, including Kolb's learning style inventory. This approach is not practical in most areas of nursing practice.

Perhaps the most straightforward way to assess learning style is simply to talk to the learner. One way to do this is to ask the learner to tell you about a really good/successful recent learning experience. By listening carefully and asking follow-up questions you can identify what kinds of activities work well for this learner. Another option is to provide several kinds of learning activities, and let the learner choose the one(s) that best suit him/her. For example, you might offer written material, verbal explanation or going over written material with the learner, audio-visuals, etc. Of course, if you want to use this approach, you must have more than one type of learning activity available.

If you are teaching a group, but don't have an opportunity to assess their individual learning styles, your best bet may be to include a variety of activities in your session. You should choose activities that are likely to appeal to learners with different styles, so there will be something for everyone. This strategy can also be used in designing materials for individual learners. For example, your pamphlets could include words and pictures, practical suggestions as well as more abstract information, etc. That way, one pamphlet could be useful for learners with different styles.

Thinking about learning style in your practice ...
  • Do you assess learning style as part of teaching in your practice? If so, how do you do it? If not, how could you do it?
  • How comfortable are you with using different teaching methods to address different learning styles?
  • How could you improve your practice to better address learning styles?
  • How could you improve the teaching materials available to you so that they better address learning styles?
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