Chapter Six

An Investigation of Learning Styles in General Chemistry Students


Implications For the Classroom

In as much as this research has shown conclusively that real differences exist in the way individual learners acquire and process information, it must be recommended that a wide variety of teaching strategies be used in the classroom, in every course, and in each major concept.

General Chemistry is typically taught in a lecture format, and large universities, such as Clemson, often have hundreds of students in the general chemistry lecture section. How then may a professor address the individual needs of every student?

The intuitive learners need to see the overall concept first, so that they can construct a framework into which to fit the details as they come. So the lecturer may begin the class with a concept statement. "Today we are going to discuss the relationship between energy and molecular motion, and its effect on physical state of a substance. " The intuitive learner then knows to listen for how changes in energy affect molecular motion, and how that might be related to states of matter. The NF student may at this point reflect on what he knows, water has three states, solid ice, liquid water, and gas. Ice is cold, water is warmer, and gas then must be hot. The NT sees the pattern of more energy, more motion water moves easier than ice, and gas moves even easier than liquid water. (The SF frequently misses much of the first minutes of lecture, as she is looking around to see who is here, and who is sitting with whom. The ST is getting organized, opening notes to the right page, finding pencils, and putting books and paraphernalia in the correct places to settle in for the class.)

From the overall concept statement the lecturer should move into the detailed, organized explanation, building stepwise through the material. The ST will take organized notes, concentrating on recalling the details. At this point a physical or visual demonstration of the principle is advised, so the SF students will see and build memory of personal relationship with the concept. Hold an empty 12 ounce soft drink can with a pair of tongs. Put a small amount of water into the can, and hold it over a Bunsen burner. Putting heat into the system heats the water, turns it to vapor, and drives it out of the can. Once the can is filled with vapor, turn it over quickly and just barely submerge the top of the can in a beaker of water. The can will suddenly collapse with a bang. The SF student will identify with and therefore recall the demonstration, especially if a very brief comment is permitted about how the student reacted when the can collapsed. From this point, move into calculations that elaborate on and further explain or quantify the concept. Develop and work through the equations. Show how multiple equations are related, or how they may be derived from one another. (For the NT's) Work a couple of sample problems, then give the students a problem to work. Have them work one alone or with another student. ST's prefer to work alone, SF's need to talk through the problem to build understanding of the procedure. If need be, set up a step wise procedure for working problems of multiple steps, and allow students time to practice working the problems. End with a discussion of how this material relates to other work, or transfers to other types of problems. ST students should have access to multiple problems of the same type for repetitive practice. SF dominant students should form study groups to work them while discussion the procedure.

A difficulty in large lecture format is giving ST students the amount of immediate feedback they require. They need to know that they are doing things correctly. Frequent opportunities to demonstrate competence, such as quizzes, are necessary for these learners.

Of course, this pattern of teaching may be used in small classes also, with increased opportunity for individual feedback for the ST and cooperative activities for the SF, metaphorical exercises for the NF and conceptual exploration for the NT.

It is helpful for the instructor to know the learning style dominances of the students, but in large lecture halls it is difficult enough to learn even most of their names. It may be assumed in any random group of 16 or more that there will be a diversity of learning styles requiring a diversity of teaching strategies.

Given the size of the population studied in this research, and the diversity of the Clemson University student population, the conclusions may be transferable certainly to introductory physical science courses at other universities and colleges, and likely to secondary level physical sciences as well.

For further research

This research did not demonstrate overall improvement in final grade between the treatment and control groups, although when analyzed by cognitive dominance the NT population showed substantial gains. It stands to reason that a appreciable number of the NT's, who require an initial overview of a concept prior to the details, had sufficient exposure to the study techniques to get the concept, and to correctly apply the new methods to personal study. This is supported by the gains in grade of NT dominant learners in the treatment group over the control group. Other learners did not have sufficient exposure in the one hour introductory lecture, in phase one, CH102. Improvement was seen in the second phase, CH101, when examined by learning style, treatment over control, likely due to increased exposure since the printed material (study styles handout, Appendix F) was also given at the introductory lecture.

Further research is needed to improve dissemination of study techniques, to investigate whether grades may be improved significantly. Research is planned, and grant funding has been applied for a trial of recitation sections where material will be covered by learning style, and students taught the study techniques and given opportunity to apply the techniques in recitation. The control group will attend recitations under the usual question and answer format. The population of this further research will be approximately 200 per group, which will increase the effect size necessary to see a significant improvement in grade. But it will also allow a qualitative addition to the research to assist in further development of the study techniques.

Additional research is recommended in other content areas and with younger students. The model is believed relevant, and has been used expensively by this author and others through secondary levels, and is applicable to other content areas, as the same students take these courses too. Specific teaching strategies are needed in each content area, but the student patterns are the same.

It would be also be of interest to follow a group of students from elementary school through college, or even beyond, testing cognitive profile once per year, tracking influences such as courses taken and school and living environment in a longitudinal study. It would be anticipated based on Piaget's work that the younger student would begin dominant in the concrete, sensor region, with growth near age 11 in strengthening of the intuitive quadrants. However, it would appear from observation of the student population that in reality small children have a broad use of the NF region, and this could be developed earlier to strengthen critical thinking in the NT area were the schools not to rely so totally on recall of details at the lower levels.


This research has clearly established, with a carefully controlled, statistically rigorous study, that learning style differences do exist, and do influence student achievement in general chemistry. Students who are most likely to succeed (ST) have learned to trust memorization and recall. Students who naturally learn conceptually (NT) are not performing at their best, and can improve significantly when taught appropriate study techniques. SF and NF learners, even when SATM is used as a covariate, score lower in chemistry, and don't learn the study techniques in a single brief encounter either. These students should benefit most from additional exposure in the form of recitations in learning style format.