The challenge of addressing the needs of students in our classrooms is a frequent topic of discussion among university faculty. As experts in our respective disciplines, we may teach in ways that we were taught when we were students. However, relatively few university faculty have had the benefit of specific study in the area of teaching and learning in order to explore other options. Sarasin's Learning Style Perspectives: Impact in the Classroom provides a quick overview of the theories of learning styles and specific strategies regarding how to reach and teach students with a variety of learning styles.
Learning Style Perspectives begins with a chapter explaining why it is important to acknowledge the multiple styles of learning that students bring to our classrooms. The chapter provides a brief discussion of the three types of learning styles that Sarasin identifies as critical: auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic. Her descriptions are clear and concrete. A typical classroom, lecture-discussion format supports the auditory learner, a person who deals well with information presented through a listening channel. A visual learner is well supported in a class that provides multiple sorts of visual information as the lecture is being presented, such as graphic organizers, maps, charts, outlines of the lecture, or simply the use of overheads and PowerPoint slides to accompany the oral presentation. The tactile/kinesthetic learners need involvement with the material. They need to be doing as they learn. They need physical interaction and therefore benefit from lab activities, experiments, and role-playing. Videos and multimedia would assist both the tactile/kinesthetic and the visual learners. There is some controversy among educators about the importance of learning style and its perceived effect on learning. Many of our students benefit from learning about how they learn best and in what sort of environment. As they attempt to identify those strategies that they have used in learning situations where they have felt successful, they begin to develop their abilities to become more efficient learners.
A brief review of the literature on learning styles helps orient the reader to the language of the field as well as the overlapping assumptions of the main theorists. Sarasin presents a synopsis of the teaching of Ronald Sims and Serbrenia Sims, who suggest viewing learning styles from the perspective of how the individuals process information. They speak of cognitive, perceptual, behavioral, and affective learners. Bernice McCarthy identifies four quadrants of learning: proactive, creative, practical, and abstract. She also acknowledges that many individuals fall within more than one quadrant when approaching different tasks. According to John Harb, S. Olani Durrant, and Ronald Terry, learners can be classified according to three categories: reflective/abstract, concrete, and active. References to learning styles can be traced back about thirty years or so but gained some prominence in the 1980s as information processing theory became popular. A graphic organizer (Chart 2: Characteristics of Learners, page 18) helps the reader to see the similarities among the major contributors to the field. What seems important here is the exposure to this line of thinking and how it can be translated into effective university teaching.
The third chapter introduces issues related to the adult learner, active learning strategies, learning to learn, and metacognitive strategies. The information presented in this section is particularly relevant for university faculty members as we must acknowledge that adult learners bring unique needs to the classroom. Often they are inexperienced in the art of being a successful student and in identifying how they learn and what they need to do in order to be efficient learners. The discussion of active learning strategies is useful and provides examples that can be readily applied in various disciplines. The remaining chapters focus on specific discussions of the identified learning styles: auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic. In each chapter learner characteristics are presented, followed by a discussion of classroom activities, assignments that will engage the various learning styles, and appropriate assessment techniques.
Perhaps the most useful chapter in this short text is the last one. Chapter Seven, "Significance of Learning Styles Research," presents a number of suggestions for multiple disciplines to assist the faculty member in implementing some of the strategies identified in the preceding pages. This chapter provides the readers with immediate concrete examples of what to do in their classrooms and provides suggestions regarding accommodating multiple learning styles simultaneously. Sarasin presents examples of holistic lessons that attempt to provide activities that engage auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic learners. She stresses combining techniques. For example, a history professor can use graphic organizers and charts before presenting a lecture on the dates, and then can involve students in a simulation or the use of artifacts. If group activities are carefully selected and if the goals and outcomes are clearly stated, group learning tasks allow students with various styles to be accommodated, while providing students with the added benefit of observing different types of learning styles.
Learning Style Perspectives would be a useful text for new faculty members and for those who have not had any exposure to learning styles theory or to the pedagogy of the adult learner. For those more aware of this literature, this text may seem overly simplistic, adding little that is new. This is more a how-to book than a scholarly publication, but it has merit for the faculty member who wants both a quick introduction to learning styles research and an easy summary of ways to apply the theory to improve learning in different disciplines.