Learning Preferences


Incorporating learning preferences into your teaching practice can be a useful strategy.  Below are some resources to help you think about this in varying ways.

Dunn & Griggs (2000) describe learning preferences as the ways in which students begin to concentrate on, process, internalize, and remember new and difficult academic information.

Strategies for success:

  • Instructors can vary the strategies they use to compliment a greater variety of learning preferences
  • Students can use what they know about their own learning preferences to guide the way they study

This page will summarize the work of the following researchers and provide suggestions for practice:

  • Rita & Ken Dunn – Dunn & Dunn Model
  • Richard Felder – The Index of Learning Styles
  • William G. Perry – Intellectual development
  • Neil Fleming – VARK
  • Howard Gardner – Multiple Intelligences

The Dunn & Dunn Model

The Dunns identified 21 elements that people react to while concentrating on new and difficult academic knowledge or skills. These 21 elements fall under 5 categories:

  • Environmental: light, sound, temperature, formal/informal arrangement
  • Emotional: motivation, persistence, responsibility, structure/choices
  • Sociological: self, pair, peer, teams, adult lead, variety of work groups
  • Physiological: food intake needs, mobility, time of day, perception (visual, aural, kinesthetic,
  • Psychological: big picture first, linear, sequential, impulsive, reflective

This model is based on the theory that:

  • Most individuals can learn
  • Instructional environments, resources, and approaches respond to diversified strengths
  • Everyone has strengths, but different people have different strengths
  • Individual instructional preferences exist and can be measured reliably
  • Given responsive environments, students attain statistically higher achievement and aptitude test scores in [classes that match their learning styles]
  • Teachers can learn to use learning preferences as a cornerstone of their instruction
  • Students can learn to capitalize on their learning strengths when concentrating on new and difficult material

Instructors can vary their teaching strategies to accommodate learner preferences in each category listed above. To read more about the Dunn & Dunn Model and details about each category:

  • Read the text: Dunn, R., & Griggs, S. A. (2000). Practical approaches to using learning styles in higher education. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.
  • Go to an online tutorial

Richard Felder – The Index of Learning Styles

This section is summarized from Felder’s article: Felder, R.M., & Brent, R. (2005). Understanding student differences. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 57-72.

Richard M. Felder, Ph.D.(Hoechst Celanese Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University) was saddened by the decreasing enrollment in engineering and technical programs at his school. Not satisfied with the prevailing notion that students drop out of engineering and technical programs because they aren’t suited academically, he set out to understand the reasons why student numbers were decreasing.

He learned from student surveys that many students leave engineering programs, not because of poor grades, but because of dissatisfaction with the instruction they receive.

What was going on in those classrooms regarding students and instructional preferences? Why were some students so successful and others clearly turned off by the traditional classroom practices? Felder sought to discover more about the students themselves, namely: how they learn, how they approach a learning situation, and how they develop intellectually.

How students learn

Felder created a LS inventory to find out more about student learning preferences. The inventory is an on-line instrument used to assess preferences on four dimensions: active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global. The inventory and more information about the model can be found at http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/ILSpage.html  It is free and available for use for educational purposes

Dos and Don’ts when using learning style inventories

  • Don’t pigeon-hole people: E.g. if someone is a global versus an analytic thinker, don’t assume they are not suited to engineering
  • Don’t let students use it as an escape from responsibility for learning
  • Do gather information about your students’ LS from the inventories
  • Do vary your instructional strategies for two important reasons: to reach students with diverse learning styles and to give students skills to be competent in every learning style

This can help students become more work-ready for a professional environment.

How students approach a learning situation

Felder delineated three approaches that students can take towards a learning situation

  • Surface approach: Students with this approach simply memorize the content and repeat it back in similar form for exams and problem solving. Little or no independent thinking occurs
  • Strategic approach: Students with this approach to learning do just what they need to do to get the grade they want. They carefully plan out the amount of effort needed to reach their goal and rarely go above and beyond what is needed
  • Deep approach – These students are looking for meaning in the learning that occurs. They ask questions and look for applications from the new to the known

What encourages a deep approach to learning?

  •  An interest in the subject/background knowledge encourages a deep approach
  • Clearly stated expectations/clear feedback
  • Assessment methods that emphasize a conceptual understanding of material rather than factual
  • Teaching methods that foster active learning and engagement with content
  • Opportunities to make responsible choices in content and methods of study
  • Stimulating and caring teaching – students must perceive that the teaching is good
  • Previous experiences that encouraged a deep approach to learning

How do students develop intellectually?

Felder looked at the work of William G. Perry (Harvard University) regarding student intellectual development and came up with some suggestions to help students grow intellectually.

Perry studied student intellectual development by analyzing student essays and interviews. In them, he saw patterns of student intellectual development over time.

Perry Model of Intellectual Development

Dualism (Levels 1 &2): knowledge is black & white – there is one correct answer – authority has the answer – job of student is to memorize/repeat – students don’t like active/cooperative learning or theories/abstract models. They want facts/formulas. Many entering college students are at this level

Multiplicity (3 &4): There are some questions without answers now, but they will eventually be answered – open-ended questions/cooperative learning tolerated only if it doesn’t affect grade – may start using supportive evidence to resolve issues rather than teacher – accept preconceptions/prejudices – once solution is formed, little inclination to see other views. Most graduating college students are here.

Relativism (5 & 6): Knowledge and values depend on context and individual perspective –  using evidence to reach and support conclusions is habitual and internalized – begin to see the need for commitment to a course of action even with gray areas – based on critical evaluation and not external authority. A few college grads reach this level.

Commitment within relativism (7-9): Individuals make personal commitments in personal direction and values; evaluate the consequences and implications of these commitments; attempt to resolve conflicts; acknowledge that these may never fully be resolved – come to terms with struggle (getting comfortable with the questions). Rarely reached by college students.

How to help move students up through the levels

  • Provide appropriate balance of challenge and support
  • Occasionally pose problems/questions 1-2 levels above current level
  • Assign open-ended real world problems
  • Have students work in small groups – automatically exposes them to multiplicity of ideas
  • Model the type of thinking being sought
  • Provide supportive feedback –respect for students at all levels of development

Read the entire article at:


Neil Fleming – VARK

The VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic) learning style inventory was created by Neil Fleming of Lincoln University in New Zealand.

VARK is a questionnaire that provides users with a profile of their learning preferences regarding how they take in and give out information. The questionnaire is available on-line. The student help sheets are very useful, providing information to students about best ways to attend lectures, study for exams, and do homework based on their learning style preferences.

Howard Gardner – Multiple Intelligences

In 1983, Howard Gardener wrote the groundbreaking book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, changing the way educators think about how people learn and the varied ways that they can be “intelligent”. The different “intelligences” were delineated by Gardner as:

 Linguistic Learner

  • likes to: read, write and tell stories.
  • is good at: memorizing names, places, dates and trivia.
  • learns best by: saying, hearing and seeing words.

Logical/Mathematical Learner

  • likes to: do experiments, figure things out, work with numbers, ask questions and explore patterns and relationships.
  • is good at: math, reasoning, logic and problem solving.
  • learns best by: categorizing, classifying and working with abstract patterns/relationships.

Spatial Learner

  • likes to: draw, build, design and create things, daydream, look at pictures/slides, watch movies and play with machines.
  • is good at: imagining things, sensing changes, mazes/puzzles and reading maps, charts.
  • learns best by: visualizing, dreaming, using the mind’s eye and working with colors/pictures.

Musical Learner

  • likes to: sing, hum tunes, listen to music, play an instrument and respond to music.
  • is good at: picking up sounds, remembering melodies, noticing pitches/rhythms and keeping time.
  • learns best by: rhythm, melody and music.

Bodily/Kinesthetic Learner

  • likes to: move around, touch and talk and use body language.
  • is good at: physical activities (sports/dance/acting) and crafts.
  • learns best by: touching, moving, interacting with space and processing knowledge through bodily sensations.

Naturalistic Learner

  • likes to: be outside, with animals, geography, and weather; interacting with the surroundings .
  • is good at: categorizing, organizing a living area, planning a trip, preservation, and conservation.
  • learns best by: studying natural phenomenon, in a natural setting, learning about how things work.

Interpersonal Learner

  • likes to: have lots of friends, talk to people and join groups.
  • is good at: understanding people, leading others, organizing, communicating, manipulating and mediating conflicts.
  • learns best by: sharing, comparing, relating, cooperating and interviewing.

Intra-personal Learner

  • likes to: work alone and pursue own interests.
  • is good at: understanding self, focusing inward on feelings/dreams, following instincts, pursuing interests/goals and being original.
  • learns best by: working alone, individualized projects, self-paced instruction and having own space

Vary your teaching strategies, or allow choices in assignments to give students with different preferences a chance to shine.


  • Students have different preferences when it comes to how they concentrate on, process, internalize, and remember new and difficult academic information
  • Research shows that matching instructional strategies to learning style preferences enhances student engagement and promotes academic success
  • Student preferences can be identified through LS inventories
  • Instructors can vary the strategies they use to compliment a greater variety of learning styles
  • Students can use what they know about their own learning style to guide the way they study
  • Students differ in LS preference, approaches to learning, intellectual development levels, and strengths within different types of intelligences


To read more about learning preferences, see the resources listed below.

Baxter-Magolda, M.B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students intellectual development. Jossey-Bass.

Dunn, R., & Griggs, S. A. (2000). Practical approaches to using learning styles in higher education. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

Felder, R.M., & Brent, R. (2005). Understanding student differences. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 57-72.

Fleming, N. VARK: A guide to learning styles. Retrieved June 19, 2019 from Web site: http://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark /

Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard University Press.

Manner, B.M. (2001). Learning styles and multiple intelligences in students: Getting the most out of students’ learning. Journal of College Science Teaching, Mar/Apr, 30(6), 390-393.

Perry, William G., Jr. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the
College Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

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