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The Use of Critical Thinking in Various Learning Styles


As I was growing up, key things were obvious about me. One of those was my ability to absorb information in any format. My brother on the other hand had a major problem. We were in the same grade and grasping anything that was written or read to him was always a challenge. He had to read a topic several times to get the concept. We would play teacher and student and when we arrived home from school, I would tutor my brother.

Eventually my brother repeated the 4th grade and we all thought he was slow or “hard headed.” Reflecting back on my childhood, I see that an injustice was done to him. As an educator, I face the same challenge with my students. Florida Associate of Post Secondary Colleges held a seminar and one topic struck me about the way in which adults learn. I began dissecting each area of the learner at this point: kinetics, audio and visual. I began asking myself questions such as what makes people learn the same subject in different ways? Is it innate? Are we looking at heredity or is their learning style a matter of preference? Does a person’s environment play into some or all parts of this equation? What does an instructor have to do to motivate the learner in this specific area of learning? What percentage of our learners are unreflective thinkers, beginning thinkers, challenged thinkers, etc. and how do we go about transforming unreflective thinkers within their style of learning to the next step of thinking?

On another occasion, I attended a critical thinking seminar and the presenter, Dr. Andrea Goldstein , a psychologist, brought up a valid point. When we teach our students, the approach is either “hard skills or “soft skills” as Dr. Goldstein termed it.
According to Paul and Elder (2006) “critical thinkers believe that command of the thinking process is the key to commanding behavior.” ( p. 42).
With the criteria for becoming a skilled thinker outlined, can we as instructors develop our students to be skilled thinkers within their learning style. Can a marriage between a style of learning and becoming a critical thinker ensue?

This article will attempt to resolve the problems many instructors face. How can we maximize student learning potential by identifying the way in which they learn. In researching the concept of adult learning styles, I will attempt to reach and understanding of theories from various researchers. We must first understand the meaning of learning styles and the concept of our learners' environment. Before we begin to teach, educators must first analyze his/her students based on the learners' environment (Paul and Elder, 2006, p. 254). Applying what you know about a student's background will enable the instructor to think critically as they understand their learners. I was able to capture the core of learning style by several researchers in the following journal by Renee L. Cambiano.
Learning style refers to the "way in which each learner begins to concentrate on, process, and retain new and difficult information" (Dunn, Griggs, Olsen, & Beasley, 1995, p. 353). Whittington and Ravens (1995) define learning style as a "predominant and preferred manner in which individuals take in, retain, process, internalize, and recall information and can represent both inherited characteristics and environmental influences" (p. 9).

Recognizing that adults learn differently is not a new idea (Fizzell, 1984). In the early 20th century, researchers examined how to increase learning retention. It was realized that learners were using different informational processing strategies, which were cognitive strategies, to assimilate knowledge and different modes of perceiving and remembering information (Reiff, 1992). Researchers recognized that learners were not only assimilating information through cognitive styles, learners were also using effective and physiological approaches to learn.

Researchers in the field of adult learning styles have created various styles. Hickcox (1995) summarized the types of learning style inventories into three categories: (a) physiological styles, learning styles through environment, sociological factors, emotions, and physical stimuli (Dunn, et al., 1995; Reiff, 1992); (b) cognitive styles, learning styles through thought or mental activity (Murrell & Bishop, 1995; Reiff, 1992); and (c) affective styles, learning styles through emotions and feelings (Murrell & Bishop, 1995; Reiff, 1992).

Theoretical Framework

The physiological styles take into account if a person is tactile, kinesthetic, visual, or auditory. Dunn (1984) found that learning styles are not affected by just one aspect of the learning environment. Learning style per Dunn, depends on a person's environmental, psychological, physical, emotional, and sociological characteristics.
Environmental Characteristics of an Adult's Learning Style Sound, light, temperature, and design are all environmental characteristics that Dunn (1984) discovered could affect how well a student is able to achieve in a learning atmosphere. These characteristics may not affect some adults' learning, but it may hamper the abilities of others. Temperature in a room can affect adults, especially elderly adults' ability to concentrate on new or difficult material. Therefore, there are better learning results when the environmental surroundings are comfortable and relaxing.Psychological Characteristics of an Adult's Learning Style According to Dunn et al (1995), adults learn in one of two processing styles: (a) global and (b) analytic. Global learners have the ability to learn through short stories, illustrations, and graphics. Global learners also need to know what is expected of them and why. Analytically learners focus on fact-by-fact accounts of the learning experiences. The information should be presented in a step-by-step manner in order for analytic learners to grasp new information (Burke, 1997, Dunn, 1984; Shaughnessy, 1998).

Physical Characteristics of an Adult's Learning Style

Perceptual strengths, food intake, times of day or night, and mobility are the core of the physical environment that affect an adult's learning experience. Some adults may prefer to learn new material by hearing the information. Others may prefer kinetic involvement. Some adults may need to snack at regular intervals while studying. Others may not consume food or beverages for hours while learning. The time of the day in which learning occurs may also have an impact on the adult's ability to learn. An adult may only be able to enroll in a class in the evening, but the same adult may prefer the morning to learn information. The ability to move around while learning may play an important role in some adults' ability to learn (Dunn, 1984).

Emotional Characteristics of an Adult's Learning Style

Motivation, persistence, responsibility, and a need for some kind of structure make up the emotional characteristics of Dunn's learning theory model. Emotional characteristics are different from the other characteristics, in that these characteristics are internal. According to Dunn (1990), motivation correlates with achievement. Therefore, if the adult is not motivated, it may be difficult to keep the adult in a learning environment. According to Dunn (1990), if learning styles of the student are considered, then motivation will be increased.

Sociological Characteristics of an Adult's Learning Style

Sociological aspects of the learning environment are important factors in an adult's ability to learn. Some adults prefer to learn alone. Some may prefer to learn in groups. Some adults may need a considerable amount of structure; whereas, other adults are extremely self-directed (Dunn, 1984).

According to Sims and Sims (1995), "learning may not take place if teaching is not structured to facilitate learning."(p.5). How an instructor: (a) sets the stage, (b) provides a chance for the student to actively participate in the learning process, (c) provides feedback, (d) teaches students to reinforce their learning, and (e) teaches students how to take responsibility for their own learning, are all factors that may facilitate the learning process. Students who can identify a specific learning style preference and learn how to use it appropriately are more capable of taking responsibility for their own learning (Sims & Sims, 1995). Shaughnessy (1998) found that when teachers changed from the traditional teaching approach to learning style teaching, test scores and grade point averages increased significantly.

Learning Styles and the Adult Learner

Learning styles are critical to adults. According to Cross (1981), adult learning approaches are not one-dimensional. She states that one of the foundations for adult learning is life experience. Knowles (1973) notes these characteristics of adult learners: (a) self-directed, (b) centered on solving the problem at hand, (c) focused on the application of the material being presented, and (d) involved in their life experiences. Some adults, based on past learning experiences, have insight into their own learning preferences (Aronson, Hansen, & Nerney, 1996). It is important for adult learners to understand how they can use learning styles to their advantage. Knowing the style of one's learning can provide connections between teaching strategies and the learning process (Hewitt, 1995).

Learning Styles Linked with Gender

Philbin, et al (1995) tested the hypothesis that men and women have different learning styles. They studied 72 individuals, 25 males and 45 females, who were enrolled at the University of New Mexico. The study indicated that there was a significant difference in learning styles between males and females. "Females felt as though they did not fit the traditional educational learning style" (Philbin, et al., p. 491).

Mathews and Hamby (1995) examined the relationship between gender and learning styles among 501 pharmacy students. The researchers found that the sample of male students in the study preferred abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. Females preferred to generate ideas. Contradictory to Mathews and Hamby's (1995) research, Dwyer (1995) found that there was no significant correlation between learning style and gender, when he studied the differences by gender in communication and learning styles among 436 participants. Lam-Phoon (1986) conducted a study in which she compared the differences between male and female college students based on their preferred learning style. She found that the male students had a significantly higher preference for noise and were more tactile than the female students. She also indicated that females preferred to learn alone and were less persistent than males. Price (1979) administered the Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS) to 98 men and 124 women undergraduate students. He concluded that women preferred more light while learning, a warmer structured environment, and kinesthetic learning.

Learning Styles Linked with Age

According to Shaughnessy (1998), age is a variable affecting learning styles. Price (1987) administered the PEPS to 145 adult students 18 years old and older. The PEPS (Productivity Environmental Preference Survey) is designed to measures 20 adult learning style preferences (noise level, light, warmth, design, motivation, persistence, responsibility, structure, alone/other, authority, several ways, auditory, visual, tactile, kinetic, intake, evening, late morning, afternoon, mobility). He found that older adults are more motivated and prefer a formal design. Younger adults are kinetics learners and are more persistent. Price (1979) also concluded that productivity occurs in the evening for younger adults, whereas older adults are more productive in the morning. Females over the age of 55 were not as productive in the afternoon as they were in the morning. Younger males prefer to learn in the evening and did not want an authority figure present when learning new information. Price came to the conclusion that significant changes occur as an adult ages.


Based on the findings, structure environment, evening learning preferences, and afternoon learning preferences had a significant overall effect. Kinetic learning was not significant overall, but gender was a significant predictor. It was found that structure, utilizing the age-and-gender were mainly what effected significant learning styles. Female students scored an average of 2.98 points higher on the structure scale, and older students scored lower by 0.11 points a year of age. Some of the findings of this study concurred according to Price (1979) that females prefer kinetic learning. The findings identify females as having a preference for learning new or difficult information by way of field trips or being physically involved in the learning experience.
The data indicated that females preferred a structured learning environment. Needing a structured environment indicates that females require professors to be more thorough in their assignments. Females need more direction than male students, with clearly stated objectives. Females prefer assignments to be itemized. They prefer, in an educational setting, that nothing be left to interpretation. Older females prefer to learn new or difficult information in the evening hours; whereas, younger females prefer learning in the afternoon.


The findings in the study have led current thinkers to focus on the following:
- When developing curriculum for higher education, learning style preferences should be taken into consideration.
- In preparing future educators, attention should be given to learning styles in their programs of study.
- All students should be made aware of their learning style preferences in order to better comprehend the material.
- When considering the use of technology, it is imperative to recognize that learning styles must be taken into consideration in new learning environments. Some students will encounter problems in adapting to the hands-on environment of technological classrooms, computer stations, or distance learning environments.
It is imperative for educators to have a critical thinking understanding of individual learning styles of students in a higher educational setting. This knowledge will enable educators to better serve students' learning needs. Educators that are aware of the different learning styles will be able to narrow the existing gaps between how material is presented and how learners receive information and gain knowledge. Taking into account learning preferences in the adult population will enhance learning and retention. It is imperative that adult students realize their preference for acquiring knowledge.
Reflecting on the concepts of Paul and Elders “element of thought” we first must understand learning styles in the college classroom. The previous authors based their theories on adult learning styles by environment, gender and age, but not on a critical thinking prospective. Paul and Elder exams the classroom setting and looks at the way in which we have been taught and sums it up as the following: Paul and Elder, (2006) stated once we understand the logic of college classes, we can then consider college in the light of its history and traditions.

College today is a product of college yesterday. Traditions in college instruction go back hundreds of years. For example, the most common way for professors to try to get students to learn a body of knowledge is to state that body of knowledge in a sequence of lectures, and then to ask students to internalize that knowledge outside of class, largely on their own. Quizzes and examinations are interspersed among the lectures as means of assessing the extent to which students have learned what the lectures covered. Often a quiz or exam is not given for six weeks or more. In this typical class structure, students often use one or both of the following strategies, neither of which is conducive to deep learning:

1. Taking random notes during the lecture (writing down points that might be on the test)
2. Intensive cramming one or two nights before the quiz or test (striving to store a large amount of information in short-term memory.
Under these conditions, students often go from being passive learners to being desperate learners, and from being largely inactive learners to being frantic ones.
Paul and Elder (2006) outlines the best way to learn is through practicing:
1. Proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening
2. Acquiring and effectively use significant information, reasoning well, communicating effectively, solving problems, and exercising sound personal and professional judgment.
3. Proficiency in formulating, using, and assessing goals and purposes, questions, and problems, information and data, conclusions, and interpretations, concepts and theoretical constructs, assumptions and presuppositions, implications and consequences, and points of view and frames of reference.
4. Thinking more clearly, accurately, precisely, relevantly, deeply, broadly, logically, and fairly.
5. Being more intellectually perseverant, intellectually responsible, intellectually disciplined, intellectually humble, intellectually empathic, and intellectually productive.
6. Acting more reasonably, ethically, and effectively in reasoning though personal and professional issues.
7. A lifelong commitment to learning in order to deal effectively with a world of accelerating change, intensifying complexity, and increasing interdependence. (p. 107 and p. 108)

Through the element of thought, questioning the authors theories on learning style is important . Paul and Elder’s “Socratic questioning” redirected me to exam closely the theories of the various authors. Although their theories were conclusive, holes were left for me to assume questions. The following conclusions were drawn from the purpose of each learning styles by Dunn R. (1990), Hickcox ( 1995), Shaughnessy (1998), Philbin et al( 1995):

The Purpose of Approach

The purpose of how to approach adult learning style is important since the foundation for adult learning is life experiences. Integrating lifestyle can provide connections between teaching strategies and the learning process. ( Hewitt, 1995)

The Purpose of Gender

Linking Gender is relevant in that it helps an instructor set the tone of the environment for their learners. Philbin, Meir, Huffman and Boverie, (1995) stated men prefer noise based classes and are more tactile while females are more individualistic and preferred more light, a
structured environment and are kinetics learners.

The Purpose of Learning Style and Age

This study’s purpose showed the different learning styles between younger males and females over 55. Younger males preferred evening classes with less interaction with authority while older females preferred morning classes and formal design. ( Price 1979).
Dunn et al (1995) stated a person’s environment play a part in their education. Are we to assume, if all learners came from an impoverished background that his learning would be hampered by the traditional classroom setting. The authors further stated that temperature, sound and light affect students’ ability to learn. The authors leave the reader to assume his/her study was based on students from varying climatic back ground. The study did not report where all the students actually lived, therefore temperature may play a role in a student’s ability to learn In other words, students from cold climates who study in a warmer climate or vice versa may be affected by temperature.
On the subject of learning style and gender, Philbin et al, ( 1995) based his conclusions on younger males and females over 55. What of the older male and younger female or the older male. Are their learning styles similar therefore not requiring a study of their own?
Overall given the various learning styles, cognitive physiological and effective points of view embraces the learners physical and mental state of the learner. An instructor must blend these styles of learning together. Identify the way in which a learner can best understand the subject then train the learner to think by asking questions. Paul and Elder (2006) believes by uniting fundamental concepts, you will achieve the subject and its goals. An instructor must set the stage for his/her students through incorporation of ideas such as cognitive thinking of learning. By using key concepts of the “element of thought,” an adult learner can maximize: the purpose of his/her class, the questions and relevance of the assignments, interpretation, theoretical concepts, implications and point of views of the instructor and the subject matter. (p.110).

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