Learning Paths






Luciano Mariani




(Perspectives, a Journal of TESOL-Italy - Vol. XXI, No. 2/Vol. XXII, No. 1, Spring 1996)




1. Introduction

In this paper I am going to report the preliminary results of a small-scale project which I started some time ago on learning styles. The project has involved students and teachers discussing their own learning styles on the basis of a questionnaire, and has so far raised many interesting issues.

 Two main sets of considerations have prompted me to start investigating learning styles. First, in the past few years we have been working quite hard in the area of learning strategies and study skills. One thing that has been worrying me in developing and using materials is the fact that individual students and whole classes respond to tasks in very different ways, so that the same strategy (for example, using inductive questions to become more aware of grammar points) has a different appeal to different students and therefore meets with various degrees of acceptance or rejection in the class. In a way, this means that a student s general approach to learning is perhaps even more important than his or her use of a particular strategy or technique. It also means that it may be interesting and valuable to investigate not just how students go about learning in terms of strategies, but also how students use their more general preferences about learning.

A second motivation to investigate learning styles came from the idea that by understanding more about our own learning styles we can probably understand more about our own teaching styles. I believe that a basic component of what we do as teachers and why we do it reflects what we did in the past and would do even now as learners.

In this paper I will be discussing three main issues:

- what are learning styles?

- how can we get information about our studentīs learning styles?

- how can this information be put to use in the classroom?


2. What are learning styles?

Learning styles are one of the many kinds of individual differences which affect learning - age, aptitude, general intelligence, modality preferences (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic), motivation and sociocultural factors being other important variables in this respect (Skehan 1989, 1994). These individual differences are obviously related, but I felt the need to concentrate on one - learning styles - as the focus of my project. I deliberately avoid the term cognitive style because this seems to refer only to mental operations, while we will soon see that the term learning style can also include affective, social and even physiological behaviours.

A tentative definition of learning style could be a learnerīs overall approach to learning, her or his typical and consistent way of perceiving and responding to learning tasks. How does this definition relate to other important, related concepts like personality or Iearning strategies? One might visualize these complex relationships in this way (Fig. 1):



Learning style


Learning strategies



Fig. 1

At the very top we might place personality - the very general basic individual character structure. Further down the line we meet learning styles - how personality works in a learning context, for example in the classroom; styles reflect the individual s consistent and preferred learning approach, an approach which he or she exhibits time and time again, in a wide range of situations and contexts - and not necessarily in school contexts. A person s style affects the kinds of learning strategies that he or she will use - in other words, if you tend to prefer certain strategies on a rather permanent basis, this means that you are probably using a particular learning style. Finally, a learning strategy consists of a cluster of tactics or techniques, this being the only visible level, what we see when we look at what a learner actually does in the classroom.

As we move from the bottom to the top of this line, we move from specific to general, and we also move from less stable, more modifiable personal qualities to more stable, less modifiable features. Let me give you a few examples. It is not very difficult to teach a very specific technique, for instance, how to recognize prefixes and suffixes in a new word. It is certainly less easy to teach a more general strategy like using inference and deduction - in fact, in this case we have to rely on more specific strategies, like brainstorming to activate previous knowledge of a topic, or considering the context to deduce the meaning of an unknown word. But as we go further up the line the going gets even tougher. It is very difficult to change a person s learning style: if, for example, you are very analytical and need to focus on form and accuracy, it may be difficult for you to join me in a roleplay or a game, because that is exactly the kind of learning tasks that do not come easy to you. If we then reach the top of the line - personality - then we are obviously faced with the basic structure of your self , and that is something we can hardly hope to change, unless we venture out into the various forms of psychotherapy.

Of course all this has important implications for teaching, and for educational change in general, and we shall get back to it soon.

But let s now look more closely at learning styles. How can we identify and describe types of learning styles? Let s start from a simple experiment, which is based on a well known psychological test. Look at Fig. 2 for just a few seconds and immediately write down what you see.





Fig. 2



Now look at the picture again for a few more seconds: if you can now see something different, again write it down immediately.

What exactly can we see in this picture? We can certainly see a vase - but we can also see two faces. We cannot see faces and vase at the same time, because our brain recognizes an item by separating it from its background.

This test has often been used to determine how field-dependent or field-independent a person is. It is usually thought that the harder it is for you to see faces and vase - the more field-dependent you are. In other words, if you are less able to separate a figure from its background, you tend to be field-dependent, i.e. you tend to see the environment as a whole which, for you, is difficult to analyse into separate components. On the other hand, if you can more easily screen out features which are not part of what you are concentrating on, you tend to be field-independent.

This basic opposition has often been criticized by researchers (see a discussion in Skehan 1989), but I think it is still a valuable starting point to identify features of learning styles (Fig. 3).







form, accuracy












meaning, fluency










 Fig. 3




For example, field-independent people tend to be analytical people; in language learning they tend to focus on form and accuracy; they look out for rules and patterns; they like to plan what they have to say or write; and they like abstract, impersonal, factual material. On the other hand, field-dependent people tend to be synthetic people; in language learning they tend to focus on meaning and fluency; they collect examples of language use rather than form rules; they like to produce an oral or written text in a straightforward way, and later correct it if necessary; and they like material which is of a more concrete, human, social or artistic nature.

I do not want to suggest the idea that all these differences are derived from the field independent/field dependent opposition. In fact you could consider a number of other ways of describing learning styles (Fig. 4).






sequential     random

systematic     intuitive

convergent     divergent

left-brained   right-brained








Fig. 4




For instance, you may tend to favour a sequential, systematic approach or you may favour a random, intuitive approach - and in this case you would tend to belong to those people who like learning by feel . This may remind you of other classic oppositions, for example the one between convergent and divergent learners, or the one between left-brained and right-brained people.

So far we have described learning styles basically in terms of cognitive features, the favourite ways in which our mind seems to perceive and process information. However, the concept of learning style can be made to include affective and social factors as well, that is, as those broad psychological features which most clearly seem to affect our approach to learning (Fig. 5).









reflective     impulsive

cautious      risk-taking



within the task


less tolerant



beyond the task


more tolerant










Fig. 5




For example, we as teachers are all familiar with the basic difference between being reflective and being impulsive in language learning. We all know that in language learning you can draw a basic distinction between students who are reflective and cautious, and so tend to remain within the task you set for them, and students who are impulsive and more prepared to take risks, to experiment with language, and so are more likely to go beyond the task; you can identify people who are, or tend to be, rather anxious,and thus are less tolerant of ambiguity, and people who tend to be relaxed,which allows them to tolerate ambiguity better. On one side, you may find people who tend to be inhibited, introverted, and perhaps a bit rigid; on the other side, people who tend to be uninhibited, extroverted, and maybe a bit more flexible.

As regards the social orientation, you could draw a similar distinction (Fig. 6).







individual       group

independent         dependent





intrinsic motivation

own work plan


extrinsic motivation

external work plan







Fig. 6




On one hand, you find people who have an individual learning style preference; they are likely to be independent also in terms of self-­esteem, personal identity and social role; they tend to be motivated by intrinsic and self-defined awards; they may have a tendency to provide their own work plan. On the other hand, people with a group style preference are likely to be more dependent on a group or an external authority to define their identity and role; they tend to be motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments; they may benefit from being given a work plan and rely more heavily on the features of the task itself.

So the first, and perhaps easiest, way to identify learning styles is to describe them in terms of polar oppositions, as we have just done (for a more in-depth discussion see Prokop 1989 and Schmeck 1988; see also Note 1). I think it is all right to do so, provided we keep in mind three basic points.

First, these are descriptive andn on-prescriptive labels; that is, terms like analytical and syn­thetic, cautious and risk-taking, independent and dependent are neutral. In describing styles they do not have positive or negative implications, and, as we shall soon see, they can all be useful and important approaches to learning.

Second, these terms describe tendencies rather than absolute features. Many people can be placed somewhere along a continuum between, e.g., systematic and intuitive - that is to say that many people show a balanced learning style, even if one feature may be more or less predominant. This means that many people are actually rather versatile- they can make use of different learning styles according to different tasks and subject matters to be learned. So, under normal conditions, the differences are more likely to be matters of degree.

Finally, I think it makes sense to bring together the three basic kinds of descriptions, the cognitive, the affective and the social ones, because this reminds us that we are actually talking about a whole person, and not just an artificial collection of pieces. I would like to give you an example of this interaction between cognitive and affective features.

If you tend to be an introverted type of person, this will probably mean that a single stimulus of low intensity will activate your mental processing; you will dislike excessive input. A single picture, a single sentence or a single grammatical point will draw your attention and will be enough to start your mind working. In other words, you will tend to be the analytical and sequential sort of learner. On the other hand, if you tend to be an extroverted type of person, this will probably mean that you need a stimulus of higher intensity to activate your mind; you will like a richer and more varied input. A series of pictures, a longer passage, an overview of a whole grammatical area will be necessary to engage your attention. In other words, you will tend to be the synthetic and non-sequential type of learner.


3. How can we get information about learning styles?

Let s now turn to our second main sub-theme - how can we get information about our students learning styles? Basically, this can be done in two ways - formally and informally. If you take a formal approach, you can devise tests, questionnaires and interviews, or use one of the several ready-made questionnaires and interview formats which are now available (see e.g. Cornoldi et al. 1993; Davis et al. 1994; Ellis and Sinclair 1989; Katan 1994; Willing 1989). Alternatively, you can informally observe students while they are actually doing a task and make notes about the tactics and techniques that they use - these may provide valuable insights into their strategies and, in turn, their preferred learning styles.

In designing the questionnaire which I have used in my project on learning styles (2), I obviously had to face the problem of deciding which descriptions of learning styles to include and which ones to leave out. I started from the wide range of polar oppositions that we have just discussed. It was obvious from the very start that I had to select the parameters which I thought were most relevant in my particular case, that is, English language learning in an Italian classroom context. However, there was another impor­tant criterion to consider. I wanted my project to be practical rather than academic, to contribute first and foremost to the improvement of communication in the classroom -so I chose those parameters which I felt would be most interesting for both students and teachers to think and talk about:

·analytic vs synthetic;

·form- vs communication-oriented;

·reflective vs impulsive;

·independent vs dependent (meaning, in this case, how far one tends to be autonomous and personally responsible for oneīs learning);

·and, finally, individual- vs group-oriented (meaning how far one prefers to work on oneīs own rather than with others).

In addition to these five oppositions, I also included three modality preferences, that is viual, auditory and kinesthetic.

The questionnaire has so far been administered to twenty-five classes of various high schools and a few middle schools (here I wish to thank all the friends and colleagues who have worked with me in this project) (3). It was made very clear to the students that the terms used in the questionnaire were only descriptive, that there were no right or wrong answers, that there were no better or worse scores, and that the results of the questionnaire would be used only to get a better understanding of the class and to improve on working methods. The students filled in the questionnaire anonymously and calculated their scores individually, then read the interpretations of the scores which were provided as part of the package. In some cases this was followed by a class dis­cussion. The questionnaires were then collected and analysed by the class teacher and by myself. Again, the teachers usually shared and discussed the results with the students.

The first specific objective of this questionnaire was obviously to verify the distribution of learning styles in the classroom, that is, see which styles were represented and in what proportion. The second specific objective was to verify if the descriptions I had chosen were somehow related. Last, but not least, a third, rather more general objective was to use the questionnaire as a starting point for promoting the awareness of learning styles in both teachers and students.

This last general objective has in most cases been achieved. The reactions of both students and teachers have been positive and encouraging. In several cases the class discussion was perhaps the most useful stage in the project, and this has certainly helped to improve the quality of communication in the classroom and to start people thinking about how they learn (and teach) best.

But what about the other, more specific objectives? The preliminary results seem to show that parameters 1 and 2 (the analytic vs synthetic and the form- vs communication-oriented oppositions), and also, but to a lesser extent, Parameters 2 and 3 (the form- vs communication-oriented and the reflective vs impulsive oppositions) are related. This means that cognitive features correlate, sometimes highly, with other broad personality factors; that is with affective features. In other words, there is a tendency for analytic learners to be form-oriented, and also, but, as I said, to a lesser extent, for form-oriented learners to be reflective. The reverse is of course true - there is a tendency for global, synthetic learners to be communication-oriented and for communication-oriented learners to be somewhat impulsive. Lower, but still interesting, correlations were noted between Parameters 3 and 4 (reflective vs impulsive and independent vs dependent) and between Parameters 4 and 5 (independent vs dependent and individual- vs group-oriented). All this may seem obvious, but I think it is encouraging to see our intuitions confirmed: cognitive and socio-affective factors are not two separate dimensions, but really need to be taken as a whole.

The other specific objective of the questionnaire has also yielded some interesting results. It was possible to spot individual students and groups of students who definitely show a particular learning style - these, of course, are the students who may need more specific attention. The distribution of styles within a class was also noted: some classes, for instance, are more heterogeneous - they show a wider range of styles than others; other classes are more homogeneous - they seem to tend, even if slightly, towards certain styles. Also, differences between parallel classes (that is, two first grades, or two second grades) were noted: some classes showed a tendency, for example, towards a more group approach than others.

However, one of the most interesting findings was that in several cases students appeared to have a balanced orversatile learning style; that is, they did not show a definite tendency towards a particular style. Although this may be due, at least in part, to the internal structure of the questionnaire, I think we still have to face a problematic issue: are balanced or versatile students so lucky that they get the best of both worlds? Unfortunately, I don t think that this is the case really. The fact that many students have a balanced learning style doesn t necessarily mean that they can automatically and efficiently switch, so to say, from one style to another, nor that they can match the styles to the learning situation. In other words, if you are versatile, you still have to know how to use the most productive approach according to the task you have to perform and the subject matter you have to study. So even if we should have a class of balanced students, we would still have to help them discover how different styles can be used under different circumstances.


4. How can information about styles be used?

This leads us to the third and final question I asked at the start, that is, how can we use the information we get about our students learning styles? Once we have found out that several learning styles are represented in our class, what can we do? Basically, I think that at this point we have to deal with perhaps the most intriguing dilemma which faces educators. Lt is a sort of chicken or egg dilemma; that is, should we accommodate personal characteristics or should we try to change them? In other words, should we design materials and activities which suit the individual learners personal styles, or should we rather ask our learners to adapt their own styles to different materials and activities?

This is no easy question to answer, but there is one important consideration to make. All styles represent positive approaches to learning; all styles can be productive and useful according to the situation, and especially according to the specific task you have to face. Being both systematic and intuitive, for example, is necessary in reading comprehension, because you need to use your analytic powers if you have to understand or evaluate information in great detail, but it would probably be better to use your intuition if you had to grasp the overall meaning or assess your personal reactions to a text. In the same way, there are situations where your orientation to the form of the language will come in useful (e.g., if you have to produce a written composition), but on other occasions (e.g. in an oral interaction task), you will probably be better off if you make the most of your orientation to communication rather than form.

In other words, the demands of a task may mean that some styles or approaches are more appropriate for certain purposes than for others. This is to say that learners preferences or natural ways of performing may be irrelevant to a particular task: for example, no matter how visual you are, some ideas are hard to convey graphically, so you need to learn other ways of expressing them.

So if we simply chose to adapt materials, activities and teaching styles to our learners favourite approach, if we asked them to perform only in ways which come easy to them, we would not be doing them a good service after all. We would certainly reinforce their strong points but we would neglect their weak points - and, as we know, we have a tendency to become weaker and weaker in those areas which we deliberately choose to avoid. So what we probably need is a balanced approach: on one hand we will certainly want our students to make the most of their preferred learning style, and so we will try to offer the class varied learning opportunities to suit different styles - but on the other hand we will also want our learners to increase their flexibility to different tasks and contexts.

It seems to me that this balanced approach involves three basic conditions:

-first, that students become aware of their preferred ways of learning;

-second, that they realize the requirements of the tasks they have to perform;

-third, that they get to know and practise suitable learning strategies to cope with the specific demands of the tasks.

Of course, these strategies may or may not come naturally to them - this is one of the reasons why I believe it is important to train learners in the use and personal evaluation of learning strategies.

Let me give you a few examples. (Incidentally, it is a comforting thought to remember that as EFL teachers we have probably been working in this direction for a long time, so that perhaps the most urgent action to take would be to make our colleagues in the staff room ( Consigli di Classe ) more aware of these issues.)

My first example concerns the use of video. If we ask students to watch a video without sound, we are actually offering our visual students a good opportunity, but we are also probably making considerable demands on our auditory students; vice-versa, of course, if we ask them to listen to the sounds without watching the video. In this way we are offering different learners a chance to use their preferred modality - fair enough. However, we might also use the same activity as a learner training activity: we would then need to help auditory learners with specific strategies to cope with the absence of the sound, and we would need to help visual learners to cope with the absence of the video. In practice, this would mean making them aware of the variety of clues that we can use to make the most of our predicting skills - auditory students could try to focus on visual clues and visual students could try to focus on auditory clues.

Let s now consider a reading/writing task. We could use the same comic or photostory to provide alternative opportunities to different students. If we wanted to please, so to say, visualisers, we could delete the words and ask them to fill in the bubbles; if, on the other hand, we wanted to please verbalisers, we could leave the words in the bubblesbut delete the pictures, and ask them to interpret and explain the comic. In this way we would be offering students, in turn, an opportunity to use their favourite style. However, the same activity could be reversed: visualisers could be asked to read the words and verbalisers to look at the pictures. Of course, in this case we would be making more demands on our students, so we would probably need to offer them some help, for instance by providing a series of explicit steps to follow in order to do the task.

Let me give you another example, in this case related to a speaking or writing task. A picture with a lot of detail (e.g. several people doing lots of different things) could be used to stimulate oral or written expression. Our analytic, systematic learners would probably focus on the details and start describing the various activities in the picture. Our synthetic, intuitive learners would probably find it easier to talk about the picture in general, or perhaps give their opinions on or reactions to what they see. We could of course set both kinds of tasks to all our learners. However, if we wanted them not just to reinforce their strong approach, but also to take the opportunity to practise their weak approach, we would need to make the purpose and demands of the task very clear, and then offer them some help with specific strategies. For example, in writing a description of a picture of this kind we would prompt systematic learners to consider the picture as a whole before getting into details - and we wod prompt our intuitive learners to give a detailed description of what they see and perhaps justify their opinions and reactions by referring to specific details. In other words, the more intuitive, less sequential learners would be helped by being given explicit help in planning, drafting and revising their work.

What about our form-oriented vs our communication-oriented learners? If we set a structural practice exercise, we are obviously favouring form-oriented learners, and if we set up a role play we are pleasing communication-oriented learners. This is fine, since in this way we are providing different learning opportunities to suit different styles. But we could also decide to give our form-oriented, cautious and maybe anxious learners some help in dealing with the problems they would probably meet in coping with real-time interaction. For example, we might give them some preliminary guided practice in communication strategies like asking for help, creating thinking time, checking that you have understood, checking that others have understood you, and so on - in this way we would be giving them some kind of support in keeping the conversation going and at the same time we would be trying to increase their self-confidence. But what about our communication-oriented learners facing, say, a grammar or vocabulartask that implies dealing with subtle differences in tense usage or shades of meaning in new words? In this case our learners would probably profit by being offered graded activities to help them analyze the language in a step-by-step fashion (4).

Let s sum up the essential features of this balanced approach (Fig. 7).






A balanced approach








to capitalize on learners strengths


accommodate the tasks to the learners


to deal with learners weaknesses


accommodate the learners to the tasks







Fig. 7




We could say that we can use the information we get about our students learning styles in two basic ways: to capitalise on learners strengths and to deal with learners weaknesses. On one hand we could try to offer them a variety of learning opportunities to match the range of styles which is represented in the classroom. This would mean, for example, varying the materials and the activities; using group work and cooperative learning, by, for example, grouping learners so that there are students with different styles in each group, or allocating different tasks to each group. In this way we would be accommodating the tasks to the learners. On the other hand, we could help students to shape or adjust their learning approach to suit the requirements of the tasks. This implies, as we have seen, helping them to recognize the purpose and the demands of a task, and then helping them to use also what is not their preferred style. We would then try to make our students more flexible and versatile; in this way we would be accommodating the learners to the tasks.


5. Directions for research and action

I will finish by saying what I consider to be useful directions for further investigation and action, keeping in mind that working in this area may help us cope with the increasing demands of our school system (just think of the relevance of what we have been discussing to the problems of remedial work).

There are three main areas where I think we could most profitably work. The first is the relationship between learning styles and teaching styles. There is no doubt that the information we get about our students learning styles must be complemented by similar information on our own styles. By our own styles I mean, first of all, our own learning styles, because I think that we tend to shape our teaching on the basis of the ways in which language learning has come and still comes easiest to us. The way learning has worked for us, and the way we believe learning takes place, probably act as filters on the ways we decide to teach - it also makes it rather difficult for us to consider alternative approaches. So if we compare our students styles with our own styles we may spot possible mismatches and maybe do something to counterbalance our own biases.

The second area for investigation concerns the teaching materials we actually use in the classroom. How flexible are they in terms of providing alternative approaches? How much do they cater for different styles? How much do they help us as teachers to offer different opportunities in different tasks, but also within the same task? And how far can we adapt these materials to suit the demands of different styles? This is an important issue, because sometimes, rather than directly changing our own teaching style, which might seem a daunting prospect to many of us, we might instead think of incorporating an approach we are not familiar with, or do not particularly favour, into the materials we use. In this way the materials might do a job for us - for example, I have a feeling that, sometimes at least, learning strategies embodied in teaching materials can improve students performance even if our own teaching strategies are not always in tune with our students expectations.

The third area which needs more investigation is the analysis of task purposes and demands. I have already made the point that styles affect task perception and therefore task performance. I have also talked about how a task may require the combined use of different styles. However, I think a lot remains to be done in this area. We still need to have a clearer grasp of what the tasks we actually set in the classroom imply in terms of different learning styles, and, in turn, in terms of possible learning strategies.

There is one guiding principle which I think is worth keeping in mind. As we have seen, learning styles are relatively stable and fixed. However, this does not mean that we or our students are prisoners, so to say, of our own selves . Luckily, people can and do change, and perhaps one of the most gratifying things in our profession is the fact that we can witness change in people. Perhaps we can also do something to promote this change, by helping people discover their own route to learning.

Let me end by asking you to read the Chinese poem in Fig. 8.







Go to the people

Live among them

Start with what they know

Build on what they have

Be of the Best Leaders

When their task is accomplished

Their work is done

The people will remark

We have done it ourselves







Fig. 8







 (1) There is, of course, the possibility of going beyond simple polar oppositions to combine them into more complex structures: while this may further complicate the issue, it could provide us with more realistic descriptions of learner types in clearly defined contexts. Willing (1985), quoted in Skehan (1994), for example, worked out a bidimensional model of learning styles, by combining one classic polar opposition (the field-independent vs field dependent one) with the passive vs active distinction, thus obtaining four basic style types: communicative, concrete, authority-oriented and analytical . Back to text

(2) Copies of this questionnaire (in Italian) are available from the author. Back to text

(3) I gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and encouragement of the following colleagues: Mirella Verbano and her colleagues Paola Buonanno, Olga D Aponte, Anna Grappone, Cinzia Iovinelli (Progetto Speciale Lingue Straniere - Naples); Anna Maria Cirillo, Bianca Iadicicco, Roberto Nicla, Carla Rossi (Progetto Speciale Lingue Straniere - Naples); Orazio Marchi, Anna Maria Farneti, Stefania Frasca (Forlė); Liceo Ginnasio Statale Dante Alighieri (Ravenna); Laura Rasā, Giovanna Cantore (Milano); Ottavia Lagorio (Imperia); Patrizia Bavastro (Alessandria); Eva Morello (Stradella). Back to text

(4) Notice that in all these examples we are using the same material - whether it is a video, a comic, a picture or a role-play - but we are varying the task. This points to the fact that it is not always necessary and, indeed, it may be even counterproductive, to provide different materials to different students. We can use the same material, but provide alternative routes and ask students to experiment with these routes to find out which works better for them. Of course I am not saying that working out alternative routes for a task is easy It may in fact be even more difficult than finding different materials. I am only suggesting that sometimes, instead of being concerned with finding new materials, we could exploit the same materials in different ways. Back to text



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