Learning Profiles & Achievement

Do learning preferences have a place in promoting student success in the classroom? by Carol Ann Tomlinson

Five teachers from a single school were engaged in vigorous conversation about teaching and learning. They agreed on one thing: A fair number of their students were not learning effectively in their classrooms. They disagreed about effective approaches to altering that reality.


Mr. Murrow, a 3rd-grade teacher, said he found it effective to determine his students’ learning styles and provide tasks and projects that let kids learn in ways that worked for them. Mrs. Hampton, who teaches 4th grade, said she thought the idea of learning styles was outdated. She preferred the more contemporary idea of working with intelligence preferences.


TomlinsonCarol Ann Tomlinson, chair of the educational leadership department at University of Virginia, is a leading authority on the use of differentiated instruction in K-12 education.

Mrs. Ellison, a reading teacher, said she thought both approaches were misguided. In her view, the issue was one of student skills. It makes no difference, she said, to ask a student to express visually, rather than verbally, ideas the student doesn’t understand in the first place. Ms. Rentz, another teacher, said she thought the whole conversation was pointless anyhow because she had so much material to cover to prepare students for the state standards test that she couldn’t take the time to present things in different ways. Besides, she reminded her colleagues, the end-of-year standards test made absolutely no allowances for differences in how students learn. That one reality, she said, negated the worth of the discussion. Mr. Gonzales, a new teacher, said he was confused and just wished someone would tell him what to do.

Supportive Ideas
The conversation among the five teachers actually represents a larger conversation in current educational literature about the place of learning preferences in supporting student success. There, too, it’s hard to find a consensus. Nonetheless, it’s important for school administrators at every level to understand the issues surrounding the topic in order to provide sound guidance and professional development for teachers who work — and will continue to work — with academically diverse student populations.

The premise behind concepts such as intelligence preference, learning style or learning profile is that people learn in different ways and that teaching and learning would be more successful if students could explore and express content in ways that work best for them. Behind all of the terms is the belief that people learn more effectively and efficiently when they can take advantage of their preferred ways of learning. From there, the implication is that because students differ in how they learn, teachers will be more effective if they make provisions for the differences.

Often the terms “learning style,” “intelligence preference” and “learning profile” are used as synonyms. They are not. While the terms overlap to some degree, there are distinct differences in what they represent. It should go without saying that administrators need to understand both the similarities and differences so they can contribute to and make sound decisions.

Learning profile: This is an umbrella term, an organizer, for several categories that may impact student learning. Education literature suggests at least four such categories: gender, culture, learning style and intelligence preference. The categories intersect — for example, a person’s gender or culture may affect that person’s learning style, yet culture- and gender-influenced traits appear to extend beyond learning style.

Culture can impact patterns of communication, how individuals respond to authority and how they view time. While patterns of learning may exist within a culture or gender, it’s incorrect and unacceptable to conclude that all, or even most, people from a particular culture or gender learn in a particular way.

Learning style: This refers to preferences in regard to environmental elements, interactions and personal needs. One person might feel more comfortable learning in a quiet setting or one in which there are minimal visual distractions. Another person may feel more comfortable as a learner in a setting with some noise or one in which there is a great deal of visual stimulation. Whereas some learners seem readily able to take segments of knowledge and weave them into a big picture of meaning, other learners seem to need a clear sense of the landscape of meaning before the smaller elements make sense to them. Learning profile refers part-to-whole and whole-to-part preferences.

Numerous learning style preferences are described in theoretical, research and practice-oriented literature. A few of those are visual-auditory-kinesthetic, light vs. dark, warm vs. cool, working alone vs. working with others, abstract vs. concrete, expressive vs. controlled, reflective vs. action oriented, and information oriented vs. feeling oriented.

Intelligence preferences: Intelligence preferences sometimes are referred to as ways of thinking. The two key proponents of intelligence preference theories, Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner, believe intelligence preferences are “hard wired” — in other words, they are neurologically set. Just as a person is born with a genetic predisposition to be tall, a person also might be born with a genetic predisposition for a particular intelligence or set of intelligences. Viewed in that way, intelligence preferences are quite powerful, likely much more so than a learning style.

Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, proposes eight or nine intelligences: spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and existential. (See related story, page 16.) Sternberg, a dean at Tufts University, proposes three: analytical (schoolhouse intelligence), practical (street smarts, contextual problem-solving ability) and creative (imaginative thinking and problem-solving ability). (See related story, page 10.)
Both remind us that while we may have preferences for particular intelligences or sets of intelligences, all of us use all of the intelligences to navigate daily life.

Research Says
Theory and research support the proposition that all four of the learning profile categories — learning style, gender, culture and intelligence preference — impact learning, indicating that learning is enhanced when a mode of learning or approach to learning matches an individual’s learning preferences.

The work of Rita Dunn and Kenneth Dunn over an extended period, as well as an extensive study on the Dunn and Dunn studies by M.H. Sullivan, find both attitude and achievement gains when teachers address students’ learning styles through flexible teaching. Likewise, numerous researchers report achievement gains when culture-based and gender-based learning preferences are attended to in the classroom.

The work of Robert Sternberg on intelligence preferences has been widely researched with students ranging from kindergarten through college. Studies suggest achievement benefits (a) when instruction and opportunities to explore and express knowledge match a learner’s intelligence preferences, and (b) when teachers teach both to strengthen and expand students’ intelligence preferences. The studies also indicate that achievement benefits are evident on standardized tests, even when the test is not in a student’s preferred intelligence. The last of the findings is likely the case because students learn more when they work in ways that work for them and because they enter test-taking with more confidence about their learning. While less research is available on Gardner’s model of multiple intelligences, classroom-based studies indicate achievement benefits from using the model in teaching and learning.

Some scholars advise that adapting instruction to address a student’s learning style makes no sense. Daniel Willingham, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, argues that adapting classroom instruction to attend to learning styles is not useful. He bases his position on at least two arguments.

First, he explains the brain doesn’t work the way learning style theory would suggest. For example, he says, people used auditory strengths to learn and store what they learned, what they would store in the brain as a result of using that strength would be awareness of sound differences, not meaning about math or a novel. What we want students to remember, he emphasizes, is meaning, not auditory qualities.

Second, Willingham makes the same argument against using kinesthetic or visual instructional techniques. He notes that findings that occur in a lab setting with individual learners do not necessarily translate into classroom practice where many variables are at work in the learning process. Yet Willingham concedes that people clearly learn in different ways.

A Wise Course
It is certainly the case that the students who populate our classrooms are increasingly heterogeneous. It is clearly the case that a “teach as I was taught” approach misses many students. We know students approach learning differently. While research supports the use of learning style and intelligence preference theories in the classroom and points to the importance of addressing gender- and culture-based approaches to learning, respected detractors say at least some of these approaches are misguided.

So what is a wise course of action for building- and district-level administrators toward using student learning preferences in teaching? Here are some guidelines for decision making in this area.

• Use of learning style and/or intelligence preference to improve student achievement is one kind of differentiation in the classroom.

Education leaders should understand that attending to students’ learning profiles, while potentially beneficial, is not a replacement for attending to their readiness needs. Having the option to do an assignment in a visual vs. auditory vs. kinesthetic mode, for instance, is of little enduring help to a student who can’t read the textbook.

Similarly, being able to complete a project in an analytical vs. practical vs. creative mode is not productive for a student whose learning is three years in advance of the project requirements. For some teachers, beginning to address student needs through a learning profile may be a comfortable beginning point. It should not be the ending point.

• It is likely that a student’s learning preferences are more fluid than fixed.

This means a student may prefer one approach to learning in math and another in history. A student may learn best one way when content is unfamiliar and another when it is familiar. It’s possible that a student approaches learning in a particular way simply because he or she has not been introduced to another way. That does not mean it’s pointless to pay attention to student learning preferences. What it probably does mean is that it’s unwise for a teacher to spend a great deal of time administering and scoring learning profile surveys to determine “what kind of learners” their students are.

It is even more unwise to suggest to a student that he or she is a visual learner or a logical-mathematical learner or a creative learner as though that is a static label. What makes more sense is offering students options for learning, helping students attend to which approaches work best for them at a given time, and guiding students to be attuned to whether they are learning effectively and to develop alternative ways of approaching content when learning is not proceeding productively.

• Attending to learning profiles is only part of an answer.

While potentially useful in supporting student learning, developing a learning profile should not be viewed as a way to bypass important elements of quality teaching, such as building student-teacher connections, establishing a positive learning environment, developing and/or teaching high-quality curricula, using assessment to inform teaching and learning, and helping students be partners in their own learning. When the application of a learning profile in the classroom enhances these elements, it is worthwhile.

• Teacher attentiveness to the ways individual students learn best carries two potent benefits.

First, it helps teachers develop the habit of studying their students as individuals instead of looking at them as a unit or a “pack.” That skill professionalizes teachers who, after all, need to be skilled diagnosticians. It benefits students who are better known and understood by their teachers.

Second, planning for varied modes of teacher presentation, student exploration of knowledge and student expression of knowledge necessitates that teachers open up their classrooms — that is, that teachers learn to plan for instruction and manage instruction more flexibly. A teacher who normally emphasizes oral presentation might add visuals and demonstrations to his or her repertoire. A teacher who typically works only with the class as a whole might build into lesson plans time to work with smaller, needs-based groups.

That skill is nonnegotiable for any classroom in which students’ varied learning needs can be met.

Teachers teach more responsively when they consistently seek to understand what’s working for individual students and what’s not, when they can design and engage students in multiple tasks simultaneously to ensure student academic growth and when they can help students be more knowledgeable about and responsible for their own success. Under those conditions, more students learn better, as well.

An Inexact Science
The hypothetical conversation among Mrs. Hampton, Ms. Rentz, Mrs. Ellison, Mr. Murrow and Mr. Gonzales may reflect a more general lack of agreement about the role of a learning profile in academic success. We do know enough about the issue to make intelligent decisions, however. Students vary as learners. More effective teachers are more flexible in their approaches to teaching and learning. Students in the classrooms of such teachers benefit academically from the teacher’s grounded flexibility.

We may not know with absolute precision how all aspects of a learning profile play out in the classroom. We do know, however, that when teachers are students of their students and when they apply their growing knowledge of each student to plan for both student similarities and differences, students will benefit.

Supporting teachers in purposeful and informed application of learning profile theory in the classroom can be a positive step in developing classrooms that make room for more kinds of learners.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is the William Clay Parrish Jr. professor and chair of educational leadership foundation and policy at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. E-mail: cat3y@virginia.edu