Knowledge of Student Characteristics





When students are unable to learn with complementary resources–textbooks, films, or videotapes for visual preference; manipulatives for tactual preferences; tapes or lectures for auditory preference; or large floor games for kinesthetic preference–they do not achieve what they are capable of achieving. Research has revealed the importance of adjusting learning styles to the learner.  In addition, the closer the match between students’ learning styles and their teachers’ teaching styles, the higher the grade point average (R. Dunn, Griggs, Olson, Gorman, & Beasley, 1995).

R. Dunn and K. Dunn (1992)  revealed the benefits of a comprehensive model of learning styles because not only are many individuals affected by different elements of a learning style, but so many of the learning elements are capable of increasing academic achievement.

R. Dunn and Griggs (1995) conceived a Learning Style Model revealing that students are affected by five main factors:

1.  their immediate environment (sound, light, temperature, and furniture/ setting design)

2.  their own emotionality (motivation, persistence, responsibility, or the opportunity to do things in their own way)

3.  their sociological preferences (learning alone or in different-sized groups)

4.  their physiological characteristics (perceptual strengths represented by auditory, visual, actual, kinesthetic, and sequenced characteristics)

5.  their processing inclination (global/analytical, right/left, impulsive/reflective)

Further explanation shows how student learning may be affected by these five factors and their subcategories.  Concerning their immediate environment, although many students require quiet while concentrating on difficult information, others literally learn better with sound than without (Pizzo, as cited in R. Dunn, & K. Dunn, 1992).  In addition, while many people concentrate better in brightly illuminated rooms, others think better in soft light rather than in bright light. Fluorescent lighting overstimulates certain learners and causes hyperactivity and restlessness (R. Dunn, K. Dunn, & Price, 1989).

Other environmental factors that may affect learning include temperature and furniture/design.   Some students achieve better in warm environments and others in cool environments (Hart, 1981).  Some people prefer studying in a wooden, plastic, or steel chair, but others become so uncomfortable in conventional classroom seats that they are prevented from learning.

Students’ own emotionality may also affect their ability to learn.    Their inner motivation, persistence to complete assignments, ability to take responsibility for their own behavior and work, or the opportunity to do things in their own way may all play a role in how a student best learns (R. Dunn, & K. Dunn, 1992).

Sociological factors may also affect learning.  Teachers need to be aware of the students’ learning styles under various conditions.  Variations that enhance, or inhibit, learning may include learning alone, in pairs, in small groups, as part of a team, with either an authoritative or a collegial adult, and wanting variety as opposed to patterns and routines (R. Dunn, & K. Dunn, 1992).

Physiological characteristics are another Learning Style Model factor that can affect student learning.  These characteristics refer to when and how students learn best.  Understanding students’ physiological characteristics will let teachers help students learn based on their perceptual strengths.  The characteristics include time of day, outside stimulation, energy level, and mobility while studying.  For instance, teachers could encourage students to study at their best time of day, which might be early in the morning before they leave for school, during lunch or study halls, immediately after school, or in the evening before they go to bed.  Students also react differently to outside stimulation when they concentrate on studies.  Some like to eat, chew gum, or drink while learning.  Some older students may even prefer to smoke while learning.  Still other students may have perceptual strengths in the area of energy level or mobility.  They may study better or work better in a classroom situation if they can move around while learning and not be confined to one desk space (R. Dunn, & K. Dunn, 1992).

The way students process information can also affect learning abilities.  Some students are more analytical processors who tend to be persistent.  They may not always start an assignment immediately, but once they do begin, they have a strong emotional urge to continue until the task is done or until they come to a place where they feel they can stop.  Global learners, on the other hand, tend to prefer learning with what conventional teachers think of as distractions–sound (music, tapping, or conversation), an informal design (lounging comfortably), soft illumination (covering their eyes or wearing sunglasses indoors), peer orientation (wanting to work with a friend), and a need for food (snacks) while studying (R. Dunn, & K. Dunn, 1992).

Two other processing inclinations may affect students’ learning abilities: right/left and impulsive/reflective.  Some students process information sequentially, analytically, or in a “left-brain mode” rather than in a holistic, simultaneous, global, “right-brain” fashion.  And some students will rush into learning and sometimes work too fast, and their grades may reflect this.  The impulsive students will not spend much time in learning.  A reflective student will spend time thinking about the information, understanding the content being taught (R. Dunn, & K. Dunn, 1992).

The Learning Style Model and Its Benefits

Using the Learning Style Model, teachers can test and identify students’ learning styles accurately (Beaty, 1986).  For instance, it is difficult to determine whether a student’s hyperactivity is due to a need for mobility, an informal seating arrangement, kinesthetic resources, or breaks, or to nonconformity or a lack of discipline (Shaughnessy, 1998). The Learning Style Model is a reliable and valid instrument and the only comprehensive one that can diagnose the many learning style traits that influence individuals (Shaughnessy, 1998).

One of the key factors for students in having a knowledge of their learning style is improved self-esteem (Martin & Potter, 1998).  “Now these at-risk students exhibit confidence and accept responsibility for their own learning” (Perrin, 1990, p. 24).  When children understand how they learn and how they struggle to learn, they can be more in control of their environment and ask for what they need (Martin  & Potter, 1998). O’Brien (1989) stated that “perhaps schools should spend more time developing students’ awareness of their style rather than pushing teachers into more inservice workshops about adapting curriculum” (p. 85).

When students understand their learning style, they no longer need to feel different because they require total quiet to study or need to be mobile during class (Martin & Potter, 1998). “Students can learn almost any subject matter when they are taught with methods and approaches responsive to their learning style strengths; these same students fail when they are taught in an instructional style dissonant with their strengths” (R. Dunn, 1990, p. 18). De Bello (1996) argued that “principals and teachers have a responsibility to make parents aware of their children’s need for a study environment that reflects their learning styles strengths”(p. 39).

 “Perhaps the most important people who need to understand the concept of individual style are parents” (Guild & Garger, 1985, p. 85).  Parents need to understand the distinctiveness of their children to help them become better students (Martin & Potter, 1998).

R. Dunn (as cited in Shaughnessy, 1998) concluded that students achieve more when their teachers teach according to students’ learning styles.    She based her conclusions on a meta-analysis of 42 experimental studies conducted with the Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Model between 1980 and 1990 by 13 different institutions of higher education.  These studies revealed that students whose characteristics were accommodated by educational interventions responsive to their learning styles could be expected to achieve 75% of a standard deviation higher than students whose styles were not accommodated.

Moreover, practitioners throughout the United States have reported statistically higher test scores or grade point averages for students who changed from traditional teaching to learning-style teaching at all levels–elementary, secondary, and college. For instance, the Frontier, New York, school district’s special education high school program applied the Learning Style Model.  After the first year (1987-1988), the percentage of successful students increased to 66 % from previous years.  During the second year (1988-1989), 91%  of the district’s population was successful; in the third year (1989-1990) the results remained constant at 90% (Brunner & Majewski, as cited in Shaughnessy, 1998). 

Two North Carolina elementary principals published similarly startling gains with the same learning styles program.  One principal worked with a K-6 school whose students were from low-income, minority families.  The students had been scoring in the 30th percentile on the California Achievement Test and were brought up to the 83rd percentile in a three-year period where their learning styles were accommodated (Andrews,1990). The other principal taught highly tactual learning disabled (LD) elementary school students with hands-on resources and allowed them to sit informally in subdued lighting. Within four months, those students showed four months’ gain on a standardized achievement test, better than they had previously done (Stone, 1992).

Finally, a U.S. Department of Education four-year investigation that included on-site visits, interviews, observations, and examinations of national test data  concluded that attending to learning styles was one of the few strategies that had such a positive impact on the achievement of special education students throughout the nation (Alberg, Cook, Fiore, Friend, & Sano, 1992).        

Gardner’s Theory and Its Impact

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, proposed a theory regarding the nature of intelligence that stands in contradiction to the prevailing psychometric perspective. This theory of multiple intelligences, posited in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1993a), stressed the importance of not viewing intelligence as uni-dimensional construct, but rather as a series of seven independent intelligences. The seven intelligences enable the individual  “to perform transformations and modifications of one’s perceptions” and “to recreate aspects of one's experiences” (Gardner 1983, p. 173).

The original seven types of intelligences are as follows:

Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence.  This is the capacity to employ words effectively, whether orally (e.g., as a show host, orator, politician, storyteller) or in writing (e.g., as a journalist, playwright, poet, editor).  A highly verbal/linguistic learner would enjoy reading, writing, telling stories, and playing word games (Armstrong, 2000).

Students who possess this intelligence have the ability to manipulate: the structure or rules of language (e.g., punctuation for dramatic effect); the sounds of language ( e.g., alliteration); the meaning of language (e.g., double entendre); the pragmatic dimensions of language; using language to convince (rhetoric); using language to remember information (mnemonics); using language to explain (expatiation); using language to talk about itself (metalanguage) (American Education Network Corporation, 1999).

Logical/Mathematical Intelligence.  Logical/mathematical intelligence includes the ability to use inductive and deductive reasoning, solve abstract problems, and understand the complex relationships of interrelated concepts, ideas, and things.  Reasoning skills apply to a broad array of areas and include using logical thinking in science, social studies, literature, and other areas (Bellanca, 1997).

This intelligence also includes the skills of classifying, predicting, prioritizing, and formulating scientific hypotheses and understanding cause-and-effect relationships.  Young children develop this intelligence as they work with concrete manipulatives and grasp the concept of one-to-one relationship and numeration. These critical thinking skills are taught in most schools' curricula, but need to be emphasized through active learning activities. 

Visual/Spatial Intelligence. This intelligence of pictures and images encompasses the capacity to perceive the visual world accurately and to be able to recreate one’s visual experiences.  This intelligence begins with the sharpening of sensorimotor perceptions. The painter, sculptor, architect, gardener, cartographer, drafter, and graphic designer all transfer images in their minds to the new object they are creating or improving.  Visual perceptions are mixed with prior knowledge, experience, emotions, and images to create a new vision for others to experience.

Students with spatial intelligence have the ability to keenly perceive: color, lines, shapes and forms, space, and the relationship that exists among these elements. Learners with visual/spatial intelligence also have the ability to visualize, graphically represent visual or spatial ideas, understand one’s position in a special matrix (American Education Network Corporation, 1999).

Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence. The intelligence of the whole body, particularly the hands, enables us to control and interpret body motions, manipulate physical objects, and establish harmony between the mind and the body. It is not limited to athletes, but includes such skills as a surgeon's fine small-motor control when performing an intricate heart operation or an airplane navigator's ability to fine-tune delicate navigational instruments. “This intelligence includes specific physical skills such as coordination, balance, dexterity, strength, flexibility, and speed, as well as proprioceptive, tactile, and haptic capacities” (Armstrong, 2000, p. 2).

Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence. This intelligence starts with the degree of sensitivity one has to a pattern of sounds and the ability to respond emotionally.  As students develop their musical awareness, they develop the fundamentals of this intelligence. It further develops as students create more complex and subtle variations of musical patterns, develop talent on musical instruments, and advance to complex composition.  This intelligence grows as students increase their sophistication when listening to music. It represents “the capacity to perceive (e.g., as a music aficionado), discriminate (e.g., as a music critic), transform (e.g., as a composer), and express (e.g., as a performer) musical form” (Armstrong, 2000, p. 2).

Interpersonal Intelligence. This is the ability to quickly grasp and evaluate the moods, intentions, motivations, and feelings of other people. This can include sensitivity to facial expressions, voice and gestures; the capacity for discriminating among many different kinds of interpersonal cues; and the ability to respond effectively to those cues in some pragmatic way (Armstrong, 2000, p. 2).

This intelligence “involves verbal and nonverbal communication skills, collaborative skills, conflict management, consensus building skills, and the ability to trust, respect, lead, and motivate others to the achievement of a mutually beneficial goal” (Bellanca, 1997, p. 24).  For example, at a simple level, this intelligence is seen in children who notice and are sensitive to the moods of the adults around them. A more complex interpersonal skill is an adult's ability to read and interpret the hidden intentions of others.

 Intrapersonal Intelligence. This intelligence includes having an accurate picture of oneself (one’s strengths and limitations); awareness of inner moods, intentions, motivations, temperament, and desires; and the capacity for self-discipline, self-understanding, and self-esteem (Armstrong, 2000).

An individual of this type of intelligence thrives on time to think, to reflect, and to complete self-assessments. The need for such introspection makes this intelligence the most private. In Gardner' s words, “the intrapersonal intelligence amounts to little more than the capacity to distinguish a feeling of pleasure from one of pain and, on the basis of such discrimination, to become more involved in or to withdraw from a situation" (1993b, p. 27).

Gardener added Naturalistic Intelligence to his original seven in 1991.

Naturalistic Intelligence. This is the intelligence of students who learn best through nature.  For these students, most learning needs to take place in outdoor settings.  These students enjoy doing nature projects, such as bird watching, butterfly or insect collecting, tree study, or raising animals.  They like studying about ecology, nature, plants, and animals (Gardner, 1994).

Armstrong (2000) argued that it is very beneficial for these students to have greater access to developing their naturalistic intelligence inside the school building. So the school’s task is to bring the natural world into the classroom and other areas.

Gardner’s theory has played a major role in a unique combination that Soares and Soares (1994) described as the core of three new theories of teacher training that could be considered the solution to going beyond the traditional theories.  Gardner’s theory explains how each theory has worked in one university program represented by (a) the Copernican plan for block scheduling, (b) the application of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and (c) John Dewey’s basic ideas about process. By combining these three perspectives, faculty and students are afforded more opportunities to work together in an interdisciplinary context, to discover the degree to which children and teachers possess the talents and interests indicated in each of the seven intelligences, and to develop personal mastery in content, instructional skills, and learning styles (Armstrong, as cited in Soares, 1998).

In applying the theory of multiple intelligences to the classroom, the curriculum is organized around the seven capacities: linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (Gardner, 1991).  The multiple intelligences concept has provided the foundation for much of current curriculum development (Armstrong, as cited in Soares, 1998) in pre-university classrooms. The advantages of this approach include the following:

  •  More opportunities for developing children’s strengths and achieving mastery

  •  More time for connecting the content areas

  •  More provision for improving assessment

Gardener’s theory had a catalyzing effect on education. For instance, in general education there was a push for valuing cultural diversity, and the lens of multiple intelligences was another way to validate that intelligence is a culturally constructed construct (Gardner & Avery, 1998). Gardner’s work has also supported other important directions in educational practice related to the construct of creativity. By emphasizing the importance of the field in recognizing a creative achievement, he is endorsing the value of real-world applications that are subjected to expert judgment. Gardner’s insights have also given additional impetus to the fostering of habits of mind and the importance of intrinsic motivation (Gardner & Avery, 1998).


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