Journal of Nursing Education

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Learning Style Preferences and Selection of Learning Strategies: Consideration and Implications for Nurse Educators

Patricia M Ostmoe, RN, PhD; Helen L Van Hoozer, MA; Annette L Scheffel, RN, MNEd; Carolyn M Crowell, RN, MSN

Abstract

Current trends in nursing education recognize that nurse educators should have not only advanced nursing knowledge and practice skills, but also knowledge and skills related to the nurse educator role (National League for Nursing, 1979). Certain dimensions of the nurse educator role, such as the ability to develop objectives, assess learner needs and evaluate student performance are frequently discussed in the nursing literature. This article addresses one aspect of the role of the nurse educator that has received less attention; that is, the factors which should affect the selection of learning strategies, particularly the factor of students' preferences for different types of strategies.

A learning strategy is defined as the sensory stimuli through which necessary conditions for perceptual stimulation, cue selection and translation are structured to provide the student the opportunity to attain one or more predetermined behaviors. Research indicates that it is not only the learning strategy itself that accounts for a difference in learning, but rather a specific characteristic, attribute or quality that it entails as the learner actively responds to it. The Table delineates several of the learning strategies currently available and their "potential attributes."

As the matrix illustrates, the attributes that have the potential for affecting learning cut across the various strategies. When strategies are combined, analysis of attributes becomes extremely complex. No one strategy can be singled out as a panacea for all learning situations or for all students (Salomon, 1979).

Consideration of the attributes of learning strategies is based on the assumption that certain potential attributes of a strategy may affect the achievement of learning outcomes due to differences in individual learning styles, modality strengths, cognitive styles, and learning preferences. Consequently, there is a movement in education toward investigating the learning styles, learning preferences, modality strengths and cognitive styles of students. ThiB movement is based on the assumption that individuals differ in their approach to learning and that no single learning strategy will provide optimum learning for all students. It also postulates that students have preferences for specific learning strategies and that these preferences may influence the degree of learning that occurs when exposed to them. It assumes that individuals differ in regard to whether they learn best through the auditory, visual, tactile, or a combined sensory modality.

Learning style is generally described as an attribute, characteristic, or quality of an individual that interacts with instructional circumstances in such a way as to produce differential learning achievement (Payton, Hueter, & McDonald, 1979). Learning style categorizes students in terms of educational conditions under which they are most likely to learn and the amount of structure they require for learning to occur (Hunt, 1979). The concept of learning style encompasses sensory partiality, perceptual preferences and the environmental factors most conducive to learning. Learning style is not permanently fixed and preferences may be changed by motivation and interest (Dunn, DeBellow, Brennan, Kromsky, & Murrain, 1981).

Learning preference is one aspect of learning style. It relates to the "likes" and "dislikes" that individuals have for particular sensory modes and conditions of learning, including preferences for certain learning strategies.

The perspective that takes learning preference into consideration when selecting learning strategies connotes a particular philosophy of teaching in which instruction is viewed as an active two-way communication process involving the direct and indirect exchange of knowledge, skill, and effect. The learner must be involved intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally in order for learning to occur. Each learner brings to the teaching-learning situation "a cluster of understandings, skills, values, and attitudes which have personal meaning and are the sum of reactions to previous stimuli" (Pugh, 1976, p.51). Another assumption underlying…

Current trends in nursing education recognize that nurse educators should have not only advanced nursing knowledge and practice skills, but also knowledge and skills related to the nurse educator role (National League for Nursing, 1979). Certain dimensions of the nurse educator role, such as the ability to develop objectives, assess learner needs and evaluate student performance are frequently discussed in the nursing literature. This article addresses one aspect of the role of the nurse educator that has received less attention; that is, the factors which should affect the selection of learning strategies, particularly the factor of students' preferences for different types of strategies.

A learning strategy is defined as the sensory stimuli through which necessary conditions for perceptual stimulation, cue selection and translation are structured to provide the student the opportunity to attain one or more predetermined behaviors. Research indicates that it is not only the learning strategy itself that accounts for a difference in learning, but rather a specific characteristic, attribute or quality that it entails as the learner actively responds to it. The Table delineates several of the learning strategies currently available and their "potential attributes."

As the matrix illustrates, the attributes that have the potential for affecting learning cut across the various strategies. When strategies are combined, analysis of attributes becomes extremely complex. No one strategy can be singled out as a panacea for all learning situations or for all students (Salomon, 1979).

Consideration of the attributes of learning strategies is based on the assumption that certain potential attributes of a strategy may affect the achievement of learning outcomes due to differences in individual learning styles, modality strengths, cognitive styles, and learning preferences. Consequently, there is a movement in education toward investigating the learning styles, learning preferences, modality strengths and cognitive styles of students. ThiB movement is based on the assumption that individuals differ in their approach to learning and that no single learning strategy will provide optimum learning for all students. It also postulates that students have preferences for specific learning strategies and that these preferences may influence the degree of learning that occurs when exposed to them. It assumes that individuals differ in regard to whether they learn best through the auditory, visual, tactile, or a combined sensory modality.

Learning style is generally described as an attribute, characteristic, or quality of an individual that interacts with instructional circumstances in such a way as to produce differential learning achievement (Payton, Hueter, & McDonald, 1979). Learning style categorizes students in terms of educational conditions under which they are most likely to learn and the amount of structure they require for learning to occur (Hunt, 1979). The concept of learning style encompasses sensory partiality, perceptual preferences and the environmental factors most conducive to learning. Learning style is not permanently fixed and preferences may be changed by motivation and interest (Dunn, DeBellow, Brennan, Kromsky, & Murrain, 1981).

Learning preference is one aspect of learning style. It relates to the "likes" and "dislikes" that individuals have for particular sensory modes and conditions of learning, including preferences for certain learning strategies.

The perspective that takes learning preference into consideration when selecting learning strategies connotes a particular philosophy of teaching in which instruction is viewed as an active two-way communication process involving the direct and indirect exchange of knowledge, skill, and effect. The learner must be involved intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally in order for learning to occur. Each learner brings to the teaching-learning situation "a cluster of understandings, skills, values, and attitudes which have personal meaning and are the sum of reactions to previous stimuli" (Pugh, 1976, p.51). Another assumption underlying this philosophy is that if the individual sees the experience as being self-fulfilling with relevant personal meaning, he or she will "want to learn." Similarly, the teacher has developed a set of feelings, values, skills, attitudes, and understandings that compose a concept of self which also affects behavior. Each teacher individualizes and internalizes a definition of teaching which directs the way in which he or she teaches.

Teachers must be able to generalize and apply knowledge concerning the needs of individual learners to groups of learners. The group is sometimes given alternatives and allowed some leeway in selecting the means by which to learn particular subject matter. In some instances, teachers must permit students freedom of choice in determining what will be studied, and how the content will be learned as well. This approach implies that the learner has unique needs, preferences, attitudes, and learning style, and that they must at the least have a positive attitude toward the learning strategy in order for optimum learning to occur (Cronback & Snow, 1977; Simonson, 1980; Simonson, Thies, & Burch, 1979).

Table

TABLEPOTENTIAL ATTRIBUTES OF SELECTED STRATEGIES

TABLE

POTENTIAL ATTRIBUTES OF SELECTED STRATEGIES

Literature Review

A few investigators have attempted to describe the learning style of health career oriented students and have also tried to examine the effects of utilizing learning strategies compatible with learner preferences. Rezler and French (1975) studied the learning style preferences of students enrolled in six different health related curricula and found that the majority of these students preferred teacher-structure learning experiences dealing with concrete rather than abstract aspects of course content.

Ferrell (1978) investigated the learning style preference of adult learners returning to school to earn an Associate Degree in Nursing. An inventory was used to obtain data about how students felt regarding nine specific methods of learning. The methods of learning included: projects, simulation, drill and recitation, peer teaching, discussions, teaching games, independent study, programmed instruction, and lecture. Results of the study indicated that students had a slightly positive attitude toward all learning methods, except simulation, lests administered at the conclusion of the nursing program suggested a slight increase occurred in student preference for the traditional learning strategies of drill, recitation, and lecture.

Only one other study was found which related to the learning preferences of nursing students. In 1974, Canfield and Lafferty (Payton et al., 1979) compared the learning style preferences of students studying criminal justice, pre-education, physical therapy, nursing, and girl scout administration. Physical therapy and nursing students in baccalaureate programs expressed significantly stronger needs for organization and direct experience that all other groups studied.

The few studies that have been conducted to support the hypothesis that choosing strategies compatible with the learning style preferences of students will enhance learning outcomes can, at best, be described as presenting conflicting evidence. The results of studies conducted by James, Pascal, Tobias, and Heuter all indicate that matching instruction to student preference confers no advantage in learning outcomes (Cronbach & Snow, 1977; Payton et al., 1979). Rosenwein's results were mixed in that matching instructional methods with student learning preferences sometimes gave better results, sometimes worse, and sometimes had no effect. McLachlan found that students preferring unstructured teaching did better with discovery method strategies (Cronbach & Snow, 1977).

Serendipitous findings of some studies, however, support the significance of further investigation into the possible relationships between student learning preferences and selection of learning strategies. For example, Pascal found that students who were taught according to their preferred method had a more favorable attitude toward the subject matter (Cronbach & Snow, 1977). Heuter also found that anxiety levels were higher when students received instruction through their least preferred mode of learning (Payton et al., 1979).

Since little data were found which dealt with the learning style of nursing students, we decided to explore these students' expressed preferences for particular learning strategies. Our long-range goal was to determine the feasibility of matching learning strategies with the learning preferences of the students.

A learning strategies preference questionnaire was developed and administered to two groups of baccalaureate nursing students. Students beginning their first nursing course, (Group A, N = 47) and students completing their last nursing course (Group BN = 45) were asked to voluntarily participate and complete the questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to elicit information on the students attitudes toward 28 different learning strategies. Students were asked to indicate if they had ever experienced each strategy listed. They were then asked to rate their preference for these strategies on a five-point Likert scale. Individual learning strategy preference ratings for both groups are reported. Since our intent was to describe those strategies most preferred by a "typical" baccalaureate nursing student, the categories reported reflect median computations.

Both groups of students rated the following strategies as "usually" preferred: Lecture augmented with visual, Live Demonstration, Course Textbook, Required Readings, Course Syllabus, Films, and Case Studies. Not surprisingly, students nearing graduation "always" preferred clinical practicum experience. These students (Group B) rated as "seldom" preferred, learning strategies which included: TV. Lecture, Audio Tapes, Audiovisual SelfInstruction, Written Programmed Instruction, Independent Study, Correspondence Study, Role Playing, and Computer Assisted Instruction. Beginning nursing students (Group A) seemed to be more positive toward a greater variety of learning strategies. No strategies were "never" preferred and only one strategy, correspondence study, was "seldom" preferred.

Our findings seem to suggest that the baccalaureate nursing students in this study prefer learning strategies that are traditional in nature, teacher-directed, denote student passivity, and are highly organized. These findings are consistent with those reported earlier by Canfield and Rezler.

Responses from students in their last nursing course suggest that students' preferences for the more non-traditional or innovative learning, strategies tend to decrease as students move through the undergraduate program and are exposed to these strategies. This could be due to the fact that students in the lower level nursing courses experienced a concentration of these strategies early in the curriculum.

Research on learning style is still in an embryonic stage. It seems apparent that preferences for particular learning strategies do exist. Predicted relationships between learning style preferences and achievement remain unclear. There may be some value in exposing students to a variety of learning strategies to promote the development of greater flexibility in learning and in problem solving. "This may be a greater service than always structuring the learning situation to match the student's preferred learning style" (Dunn et al., 1981, p. 373).

A number of questions have been raised by this pilot study. When students express dislike or non-preference for particular strategies, could it be that they have experienced mediocre use of strategies? Have they picked up the negative attitudes of others? Perhaps the physical attributes or technical design of strategies have "tuned them out" and "turned them off." Has the content or subject matter treatment been an influencing factor on preference? Given a choice of strategies, will the student select a strategy that is compatible with his or her learning stylé? If so, what affect on learning will result? Do teaching style preferences influence the use or non-use of strategies and consequently affect the attitudes of the student? These questions warrant further investigation.

The few studies that have been done support the idea that student preferences and strengths should be considered when planning instruction. Student characteristics, such as learning style and preferences, however, are not the only factors to consider when selecting learning strategies.

Educators must also consider other student characteristics, the type and level of the program, the nature of the subject matter, the learning outcomes that need to be attained, the available facilities and resources, the characteristics and potential attributes of the strategies themselves, and even teacher preferences and style. It is only after thorough analysis of each of these factors that a strategy decision should be made.

The investigation of the possible relationships between student learning preferences and the selection of learning strategies should be continued. The results of such investigations may have far-reaching implications for both nurse educators and students and for the establishment of a healthy, positive, effective learning environment.

References

  • Cronbach, L.J., & Snow, E. (1977). Aptitudes and instructional methods. New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc.
  • Dunn, R., DeBellow, T., Brennan, P., Kromsky, J., & Murrain, P. Learning style researchers define differences differently. Educational Leadership, 1981, 38, 372-375.
  • Ferrell, B. (1978). Attitudes toward learning styles and self-direction of ADN students. Journal of Nursing Education, 17, 19-22.
  • Hunt, D.E. (1979). Learning style and students needs: an introduction to conceptual level. In H. W. Keefe (Ed.), Student learning styles: diagnosing and prescribing programs. Reston: National Association of Secondary School Principals.
  • National League for Nursing. (1979). Characteristics of graduate education in nursing leading to the masters degree. New York: National League for Nursing.
  • Payton, O.D., Hueter, A.E., & McDonald, M.E. (1979). Learning style preferences of physical therapy students in the United States. Physical Therapy, 59, 147-152.
  • Pugh, E. (1976). Dynamics of teaching-learning interaction. Nursing Forum, 15, 47-58.
  • Rezler, A.G., & French, R.M. (1975). Personality types and learning preferences of students in six allied health professions. Journal of Allied Health, 4, 20-26.
  • Salomon, G. (1979). Interaction of media, cognition, and learning. San Francisco: JosseyBass Publishers.
  • Simonson, M.R. (1980). Media and attitudes: a bibliography. Part 2. Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 28, 47-61.
  • Simonson. M.R., Thies, P., & Burch, G- (1979). Media and attitudes: a bibliography. Part 1 - articles pubished in AV communication review (1953-1977). Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 27, 217-236.

TABLE

POTENTIAL ATTRIBUTES OF SELECTED STRATEGIES

10.3928/0148-4834-19840101-07

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