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Adult learning styles

The more we know, the better we can teach

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The more teachers of adult learners know about how students learn, the more effective we will be as teachers. 

From front row left, Assoc Prof Suchada Nimmannit, former Thailand Tesol president and Asst Prof Ubon Sanpatchayapong, current president of Thailand Tesol participated in one of the plenary sessions during the 30th Annual Thailand Tesol International Conference. PURICH TRIVITAYAKHUN

Adult learning myths

The stereotype that adults are deficient in their learning abilities is just that: a stereotype. Findings confirm that adult learners perform better overall than normal-age students.

As early as 1928, researchers found that adults 25 to 45 years of age can be expected to learn at nearly the same rate and in nearly the same way as they would have learned at 20.

More importantly, studies have shown that when research focused on the ability to learn and not the speed at which learning takes place, adults up to age 70 tend to do as well as younger adults. The fact that adults can learn as effectively as younger students is important becaue it suggests that programmes do not need to be adapted for them. Nor do adult learners need to be treated differently based solely on age disparities.

Learning, teaching models

Among the instruments used to measure learning styles, the Learning Preference Inventory (LPI) examines student preferences for a particular learning environment and how these preferences match effective classroom activities.

An "abstract" focus is more effective with students who enjoy learning and generating new theories and hypotheses. "Concrete" learning is valuable with students who prefer hands-on learning that results in skills being acquired or applied. Students with a "teacher-structured" preference are those who enjoy a well-organised teacher who has carefully explained expectations and course goals, whereas a "student-structured" preference reflects students who want to work independently.

Thus, effective teachers can match preferred learning styles by filling a variety of roles, with some roles being authoritative and others "facilitative". Authoritative roles include instructing or challenging learners, while facilitative roles include eliciting information from and offering support to students.

The Kolb method

David Kolb, a US educational theorist and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Weatherhead School of Management, created a learning style profile that suggests approaches and the types of learning activity to use.

According to Kolb, effective learning is accomplished through varying modes:

direct experience, or the affective mode;

observation and reflection, or the perceptual mode;

abstract conceptualisation, or the thinking mode; and, finally,

experimentation, or the behavioural mode.

Kolb also suggests that learning is cyclical and holistic, in that all learning modes are applied, although most people tend to favour one type of learning over the others. This suggests that while adults learn via all learning styles, most seem to prefer one or two approaches, although it remains unclear if the same style is used in all learning situations.

Learners demonstrating an "activist" style learn best with new and immediate learning experiences and tend to be bored with the longer-term projects. "Reflectors" like to watch and collect data for analysis before making conclusions from or about an experience.

"Theorists" enjoy working with assumptions, theories and systems in which rationality and logic were important. Preferring things to be neat and tidy, they disfavour vagueness and subjectivity. "Pragmatists" are those who try to find new ideas and be among the first to experiment. This group sees problems and opportunities as a challenge.

An appreciation of learning styles is important as it can help instructors become more sensitive the best method(s) to use when teaching a particular learner or lesson type.

For example, the eliciting of information followed by a short lecture, related to a topic or theme, followed by pair or group assignments based on the content should provide each student with at least one activity/teaching method that each student prefers as a learner.

Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through, at, at or on 081-834-8982.

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