Writing Centers and Learning Styles

Nowadays, we all know many things affect academic achievement. One factor is learning style, a concept that has received scholarly attention more recently but has been around since the 1920s. Since the goal of the writing center is to improve the writer, part of role of the tutor becomes providing instruction in a manner that the student will comprehend. There are many different ways to offer this guidance, so I thought sharing some information on learning styles for writing tutors might be useful.

What is a learning style? Basically, a learning style is not an ability, but a preference for learning a certain way. These preferences include the things people do to learn things (e.g., making diagrams, re-reading, practice) as well as broader styles (step by step instructions, collaborative learning, etc.).
Research on learning styles shows that individuals differ in how they prefer to take in, process, and acquire new information, but much remains unknown. For instance, scholars and psychologists don’t know where learning styles come from. Are they associated with personality traits? Are they fixed ways of thinking? This research on learning styles impacts education: if it’s true that individuals learn in different ways, what should educators do about it? There are essentially two camps when it comes to addressing learning styles in the classroom. One feels that instructors should diagnose individuals, and then tailor instruction to meet each individual’s learning style. An entire business has sprung up because of these advocates; that is, commercial measurement devices (tests) to help teachers assess individuals are constantly being invented and sold. Unfortunately, most of these tests don’t produce concrete results and there is no concrete evidence to suggest that matching presentation of material to an individual learner makes a significant difference. The other camp sees this lack of evidence and claims that because teaching to individual styles does not work, we should instead focus on multi-dimensional teaching.  

The most important outcome from research into learning styles is awareness. Just being aware that students prefer to understand new information in different ways goes a long way for instructors. In fact, recent literature on learning styles suggests that both educators and the learners themselves should investigate their personal learning styles. This important concept of metacognition leads to the ability to teach to different styles and provides vocabulary for talking about learning styles, where the learner can express his or her individual needs or adapt accordingly. Teachers are encouraged to diversify their lessons, and learners are encouraged to use different learning strategies and move beyond their preferred method when necessary.

To help us think about the ways we learn and the ways we tutor in the writing center, I’m highlighting 5 basic cognitive styles that relate to learning style. What kind of learner are you? What kind of learner is your client? How do stages of the writing process fit into these cognitive styles, and can you think of ways to alter how you provide instruction to match each style?
1.     Field independent/ dependent. Field independent learners are internally motivated with self-directed goals, structure their own learning, and define their own study strategies. Field dependent learners, on the other hand, are externally motivated, respond better to clearly defined performance goals, need structured guidance from the instructor, and prefer to collaborate.

2.     Convergent-Divergent. Convergent style learners seek the one accepted correct answer from the available information, and divergent style learners tend to produce a number of potentially acceptable solutions to the problem.

3.     Leveler-sharpener. Similar to convergent/divergent styles in many ways, the leveler has a tendency to oversimplify and reduce the complexity of a task, but the sharpener introduces more complexity, treating each detail or event as a serious event.

4.     Holist-serialist. Although these are different cognitive processes, they can produce the same end result. Serialists operate on a step-by-step approach to learning, while holists will use significant amounts of information from the start, looking for patterns or trends to understand the data.

5.     Verbalizer-visualizer. Visualizers tend to learn best from pictorially-presented material, while verbalizers learn best from text-based materials. These styles are seen as incompatible with each other and are often cited as a problem when instruction doesn’t match.

Keeping these basic divisions in our tutor tool-belts might help us recognize how to best present materials to our clients, and practicing different ways to present that material will help us stay sharp (and maybe even save a session where something just doesn’t seem to be working!)

Cassidy, S. 2004. "Learning Styles: An Overview of Theories, Models, and Measures." Educational Psychology 24:419-44.

Coffield, F., D. Moseley, E. Hall, and K. Ecclestone. 2004. Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What Research Has to Say to Practice. LSRC reference, Learning & Skills Research Centre, London.

Fan, J. and L. Zhang. 2013. "The Role of Learning Environments in Thinking Styles." Educational Psychology 34:252-68.

Hatami, S. 2012. “Learning Styles.” ELT Journal 67:488-490.

Pashler, H. M. McDaniel, D. Rohrer, and R. Bjork. 2008. "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence." Psychological Sciences in the Public Interest 9:105-19.

Rolfe, A. 2012. "Learning Styles." InnoAiT 5:176-81.


  1. Definitely a great thing to keep in mind here. People learn in lots of different ways, and some are more effective for an individual than others. I can definitely say I'm a visualizer, myself!


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