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Learning Environments, Student Perspectives, and the Improvement of Learning
 
Dr. Richard A. NeSmith
April 2001

Introduction
Behavioural theorists dominated educational practices during the early 1960s with the stimulus-response (S-R) concept of learning. From this germinated behavioural objectives, which were considered proper, if measurable and observable. Learning was defined as a response to a stimulus. In order to learn, the proper stimuli needed to be administered. Learning basically became a change of behaviour. This was too narrow of a definition for many. Teachers struggled because the inadequacy of this paradigm to accommodate many areas. This discontent fuelled educators and psychologists, alike, to seek a more thorough understanding of the brain and its function(s) in learning. This led to a cognitive approach to learning referred to as cognitive science.

In this review of the literature we will seek to define learning, as well as to answer the question: do students have a preferred style of learning, and if so, are they cognizant of it? Can students’ perceptions provide insight into improving classroom environments? If students do, indeed, have a preferred learning style, then how does this affect performance and what are the outcomes of adjusting and modifying an environment to be more “environmentally-fit” for the student. It is important that we understand whether this approach can improve teaching, and, thus, improve learning. Finally, we want to propose questions that need further study and research in order to enhance our understanding of how the environmental and the cognitive interrelate with one another in the realm of learning.

 

Learning defined

Our understanding of learning and what constitutes learning has evolved during the last forty years. The behavioural psychologists, of the classical conditioning theory (i.e., the stimulus-response concept), defined learning in behavioural and observable terms. This paradigm recognised learning to be a response to stimuli, which resulted in a copying of conditions that existed in the physical world (Hergenhahn 2000). In 1961, for example, Kimble, as stated in Hergenhahn (2000), defined learning as “…a relatively permanent change in behavioural potentiality that occurs as a result of reinforced practice”. Gagne (1985) defined learning as, “…a change in human disposition or capability that persist over a period of time and is not simply ascribable to processes of growth”. With learning being equated to a change in behaviour (e.g., observerable), applications and methods were developed to improve upon the quality of education. Mager (1975), for instance, provided educators with a means of converting educational goals into behavioural objectives with specific measurable outcomes and pre-stated criteria. It is of significance that educators moved away from a behavioural learning approach to a conceptual and cognitive learning theory. The behaviouristic theory shackled educators in that it became overly concerned with techniques (Lingred & Suter 1985). Teachers became frustrated in having to determine how some aspect they alleged to be a type of learning could be measured or demonstrated. The behaviouristic approach to studying learning focuses on environmental conditions that stimulate learning. The teacher is to provide the activities that the students could copy and, in return, be demonstrated (i.e., imitated).

As cognitive data proceeded to emerge, educators began to edge away from the proposal that learning is limited to behavioural changes that are measurable and observable. In the early 1960s, Jean Piaget, a geneticist by training, was concerned with the “…genesis of internal mental structures” (Wozniak 1987). He theorised that learning is the result of “…internal mental (or psychological) structure that acts as a general organizing principle with respect to external physical action” (Wozniak 1987). This definition described an active type of learning, rather than passive as the behaviourists had proposed. Hergenhahn (1988, p. 280) explains it as, “The cognitive structures are projected onto the physical environment and thus create it. In this way the environment is constructed by the cognitive structures. But it also is correct to say that the environment plays a large part in creating the cognitive structures.” Piaget placed a very different emphasis on the learning environment. He recognised that heredity does play a part in cognition, but that it is not the only factor in cognitive development. He proposed three aspects for heredity on cognition: 1) inherited physical structures (the nervous system), 2) inherited behavioural reactions (reflexes), and 3) the maturation of physical structures having psychological correlates (brain maturation leading to language development) (Hergenhahn 1988). Thus, Piaget redefined “learning” as an operational theory based on the following basic tenets.

1. Physical maturation provides framework,

2. Accommodation and assimilation seek equilibration,

3. Social and physical environments (experiences) provide mental development.

As one physically matures, the framework is provided to enable an individual to enter the formal operational stage, which typically occurs around the age of eleven and is characterised by the ability to think logically about abstract ideas (Lloyd 1985).

Piaget held that the teacher-pupil relationship was vital and should be a one-to-one relationship in order for the teacher to become familiar with the student’s cognitive state, regarding his/her current operational mode, as well as the state of the student’s accommodation/assimilation process (Hergenhahn 1988). He advocated that very few individuals actually reach the formal operational stage and that even fewer maintain this stage. In order to assist the student the teacher, therefore, must recognise the cognitive state (accommodation/assimilation) of the pupil and seek a means to facilitating the student reaching equilibration. It is from this context that conceptualisation began to emerge, for Piaget believed that the teacher is the key element in directing the student to accommodate new concepts by evaluating and synthesising new and old concepts based on the student’s successful assimilation. Tobin and Fraser (1998) clarify that, “Learning constructs reflect the theoretical frameworks used by a participant to give meaning to what is experienced.” Learning, therefore, is the end result of a progression of many processes. We will now examine the relationship between learning and the learner.

 

Learning styles

In the cognitive approach to learning it is assumed that students have a cognitive style (Sperry 1972). This style reflects differences in personality organisation as well as cognitive functioning and organisation. Learning style could be defined as personal ways in which the learner processes information in the course of learning new concepts. Crozier (1997) considers learning styles to be “…stable, self-consistent forms of adaptation” forming a link between the cognitive and the personal/affective spheres. Dunn, Dunn & Price (1979) define learning style as “…the manner in which at least 18 different elements from four basic stimuli affect a person’s ability to absorb and retain.” Incongruously, Dunn, Dunn and Price’s definition does not include intelligence as one of the 18 different elements of learning (Hyman & Rosoff 1987). Whether intentional or not, Dunn, Dunn, and Price’s definition does not tell us what the student does as learning occurs, but only how specific elements may affect a person’s ability to “absorb” and “retain”. Hyman and Rosoff (1987) argue that Dunn’s definition deals with behaviour and not ability.

In this paper, for the purpose of simplification, a learning style is hereby defined as, the approach that a student (consciously or subconsciously) uses to “attack” an educational endeavour. Students’ motivations for learning and for achievement are related to learning styles but this is not very well understood (Crozier 1997). Crozier denotes that learning styles are closely linked to “clusters” of factors, such as one’s motive to succeed, competitiveness, and levels of organisation. The literature regarding learning styles is proliferate and yet, generally incongruent in that boundaries are often blurred or overlapping. Definitions sometimes contradict one another. Various and numerous schemes, systems and approaches have been proposed, most with an assortment of paradigms and labels. These include: “deep-level v. surface-level” (Crozier, 1997), modalities (Dunn & Dunn 1979), left-brain v. right-brain (Lazear 1991, Gardner 1983) “introversion v. extroversion, sensing v. intuitive, thinking v. feeling and judging v. perceiving” (Leonard 1997), “field-independence v. field dependence” (Leonard 1997), and many other models too numerous to mention. What does seem to be in concurrence is that students not only have a learning style but they also tend to have a preferred learning style (the result of being an individual and being unique). In Models of Learning, Joyce and Weil (1992) advocate that, “Learning styles are important because they are the education-relevant expressions of the uniqueness of the individual. Individual differences are to be prized because they are the expression of the uniqueness of personalities.” In discussing cognitive styles, Crozier (1997) is careful to point out that learning styles are linked to particular learning situations and that different styles are of equal value, or equally effective, at task performance. In other words the same “level” of performance can be accomplished in different ways.

Some students learn fast and some slow…but the rate of learning should not be confused with the capacity to learn (Shumsky 1972). A slow tempo can be associated with either sluggishness or cautiousness. Does the rate of learning denote a style or an approach? What role, if any, does motivation or emotions play in the use of learning styles? McGeehan (2001) maintains that emotion is, in fact, the “gatekeepers to learning”. Crozier (1997) draws attention to research associating learning styles to personality and social behaviour. Personality seems to influence learning styles and perspectives (Woolnough 1994). Could this explain why some learners work well independently, whereas others need more direction or motivation externally? Many students need teacher assistance and are not hesitant to ask, whereas, others need help but seldom ask for it. Children vary in their attentiveness and their level of attentiveness may fluctuate daily, several times a day, or even several times during a class period. Students tend to use a variety of approaches to learning, and often the tasks-at-hand, or the grading criterion, is the determining factor (Crozier 1997). It seems reasonable to say that all of these characteristics and manners make up what is referred to as a learning style.

Learning styles are numerous, albeit learners tend to be inclined toward certain modes more frequently than others; that is, a “preferred” style or environment (Tobin, Kahle & Fraser, 1990). This should not, however, be mistaken as the only means or method or style in which a student learns. No individual is strictly of one specific learning style. Hyman and Rosoff (1987) go so far as to state that a student’s learning style today may not be his/her learning style next week. Just as the hunter has specific ammunition for hunting rabbits and specific ammunition for hunting lions, the learners has a repertoire of learning styles and most learners are quite flexible in using them. In fact, Joyce and Weil (1992) found that students typically adapt to totally unfamiliar teaching styles without much concern. They suggest two possible pitfalls in making assumptions about learners and learning styles:

1) To assume that a model of teaching is a fixed, unadaptive [sic] formula for teaching, which should be employed rigidly for best results.

2) To assume that each learner has a fixed style of learning that is unlikely to change or grow.

Either mistake leads us into an impossible dilemma, for if unyielding teaching methods are mismatched with rigid learners a destructive collision is inevitable. Leonard (1997) proposes that the demands placed upon the student determine the style of learning the student chooses. This prompts the question: are students conscious of their preferred learning style (Dunn, 1983)? Do making students aware of learning styles affect student achievement? Dart, Burnett, et al., (2000) state that, “…students’ conceptions of learning are related to their approaches to learning.” Does, therefore, teaching students various learning styles/methods improve their conception, and thus their future approach to learning?

Many researchers propose that learning styles are simply teaching styles turned inside out. Exemplary teachers have a range of teaching styles and methods to facilitate learning just as exemplary learners have a range of learning styles. Most teachers tend to teach according to their own preferred learning style (Tobin, Kahle & Fraser 1990). Can student performance be predicted then, based upon a given teacher’s teaching style? Or, can learning styles predict student achievement? If so, then can learning styles be honed to improve student achievement? If affirmative, how does one best educate students regarding learning styles? Ultimately, we must ask, what correlation, if any, does learning styles have with the classroom-learning environment?

 

Learning Environments

For the purpose of this literature review we are equating learning environment with classroom environment. Many studies liken these as one, or at least made up of the same entity. Mandinach and Cline (1994) inadvertently noticed that classroom environments with the aim of being more student-focused actually had less discipline problems than classes that were more traditional in their focus on the curriculum. They recognised that cooperative and attentive students leaving the student-focused classroom returned to being mischievous and difficult to manage in other non-student focused classes. Mandinach and Cline description of this teacher is pertinent to our study. They stated, “This teacher is always looking for more effective and engaging ways of presenting materials and ideas to students. He never conveys facts to the students, instead instilling in them a need for control over their own learning” (Mandinach and Cline 1994). The decrease in disciplinary problems may be the results of appropriate teacher-students interactions, which are important and considered necessary to avert discipline problems (Wubbels & Brekelmans 1998). The point is that the teacher, through whatever means, tries to produce a more stimulating, interesting and discovery-type learning environment (requiring teacher-student interactions), and the students responded to it in a positive manner. This result, however, may also be an outcome of the teacher’s enthusiasm and a nurturing spirit (Woolnough 1994).

Does the learning environment make a difference in student achievement? According to the literature on this subject, the answer is, “yes” (Tucci & Hursh 1994; Cervone 1993).  To say yes, however, seems to bring us back philosophically to where we began, that being the emphasis on learning environments given by the traditional classical condition theorists. From a superficial view this would seem to be the case, however, upon closer examination one should recognise a distinctive difference. The behaviourists (those adhering to classical conditioning) placed emphasis on the environment as the stimulus that elicited a response. The response was to act upon the stimulus thus creating a change in one’s behaviour (which they defined as “learning”). The behaviourists were not completely incorrect in their theory, for one’s environment does have an influence on student achievement. The difference, however, is that the behaviourists treated the learner’s response to the environment as a type of “knee-jerk” reflex in which the student had to respond to subconsciously. Those advocating the importance of the classroom environment have not claimed that a change in the classroom environment will create a stimulus upon which the students will have to respond. The choice is up to the student. Constructivists are seeking to provide learners with an environment that will “fit”, thus the term “environmental-fit” (Fraser & Fisher, 1983). This is a description of the learning nature, which the learner consciously and subconsciously prefers. The result of being in the preferred learning environment is that the student improves performance, just as a swimmer would improve performance upon making an about turn and swimming down stream. Classroom environment, therefore, is an important aspect of education and training and should examine what methods and means of pedagogy best assist the learners in performing more effectively. Teachers need to examined various methods and increase their repertoire of modes and styles of teaching in order to avoid causing students to have to “swim upstream”, thus creating additional problems for students (low self-esteem, lack of control over their education, boredom, low morale and motivation, etc.), as well as for teachers (bored students, discipline problems, low self-efficacy, etc.). Such practices, however, require training/retraining teachers to change or modify their own teaching styles (Hyman & Rosoff 1987). This could prove to be the most difficult task; for results indicate that teachers perceive their classroom environment more favourably than do the students and they naturally gravitate to their own learning style (Tobin, Kahle & Fraser 1990).

Typically, students are surveyed to determine their preferred learning environment. Upon the examination of student perceptions, the teacher responds to learning styles deemed by students as undesirable or less preferred, and then changes are initiated in order to accommodate what students perceive as being the ideal learning environment (McRobie, Fisher & Wong 1998; Tobin & Fraser 1998). After some designated period of time the teacher would again survey the same group of students to determine what progress has been made to improve the actual learning environment with the previously surveyed preferred learning environment. Fraser and Fisher (1982; 1983) and Tobin, Kahle and Fraser (1990) found that, “Student achievement and satisfaction have been found to be greater in classrooms in which there is a close match between the actual classroom environment and the one preferred by students.” The exact cause of why, or how, students improve in preferred learning environments using a variety of complementary teaching styles is not clearly understood. This area that needs further study.

 

Conclusion

Hyman and Rosoff (1987) suggest that focusing on learning styles is inappropriate and unacceptable. In actuality, however, most studies indicate that students do show increases in achievement, and possibly decreases in unacceptable behaviour, when placed in a classroom environment they prefer. This suggest that accommodating student learning styles is beneficial to all involved and is a viable means of improving learning outcomes. Not all research, however, indicates such a positive correlation (Joyce & Weil 1992). More research is needed to determine how this environment-fit facilitates learning, as well as why some learners excel regardless of the environment in which they are placed. Some educational researchers believe teachers need to spend more time mentoring and teaching students how to enhance their learning (Howard & Michelle 2000).

Could it be that the flexibility of the mind to adjust and adapt to “non-preferred” environments is greater for some than others? This would explain the academic success of some student who succeeds in any classroom environment in which they are placed. Could it be that those learners who are borderline or below the average (stanine percentile) have less cognitive flexibility to adapt to a non-preferred classroom environment? Since surveying plays a vital role in the determination of the students’ perception of preferred versus actual classroom environments, one must ask whether students know what is the best learning environment. Is it possible that a student may prefer a particular learning environment but actually perform at a lower level of achievement using that style? Does student perceptions match reality? Is it possible to change a classroom environment to a preferred environment and not see student performance improve? And, if so, why? Researchers need to address these issues in order to determine student perceptions and exactly what they signify. There is also a need for educators to carefully examine the disciplinary effects resulting from altering to a preferred learning environment.

Can students perceive better learning environments innately? If not, then what margin of error is present in altering a classroom environment, and what are the likely risks of an altered environment being counterproductive? Is there the possibility of the students being surveyed facing perceptual centration (Glover, Ronning & Brunning 1990)?

Improving classroom environments is not a “cure all”, but it is a step toward ameliorating the system of education by realigning what has been revealed by cognitive data regarding the occurrence of learning. Student progress and achievement is our prime directive, and if we can increase our effectiveness by modifying classroom environments then we should do so. The top percentile of students may benefit only a small percentage, but according to the studies, the mid- to lower-percentile of students could benefit greatly. This paradigm is practical in that it does encourage teachers to make learning meaningful, with an emphasis on comprehension. It also promotes “deep approaches” to learning through the creation of learning environments that students perceive as safe, supportive, and facilitate the building of relationships (Dart, Burnett, et al., 2000). In my own science classroom I find that students do respond positively to a menagerie of teaching approaches. They are better behaved when interested and involved. Teachers need to identify an arsenal of approaches to teaching, experiment with various teaching styles, increase their repertoire of methods and strategies, avoid fixation, and seek to provide a positive experience in education and learning. This requires teachers improving students’ learning environments.


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