AUTOMATIC STUDENT MODELLING FOR DETECTING
LEARNING STYLE PREFERENCES IN LEARNING
Women’s Postgraduate College for Internet Technologies
Vienna University of Technology, Vienna, Austria
Silvia Rita Viola
Dip. Ingegneria Informatica, Gestionale e dell’ Automazione “Maurizio Panti”
Universita’ Politecnica delle Marche, Ancona, Italy
School of Computing and Information Systems
Athabasca University, Athabasca, Canada
Providing adaptivity based on learning styles can support learners and make learning easier for them. However, for
providing proper adaptivity, the learning styles of learners need to be known first. While most systems, which consider
learning styles, use questionnaires in order to identify learning styles, we propose an automatic student modelling
approach, which analyses the actual behaviour and actions of students during they are learning in an online course in
order to infer students’ learning styles. Such an automatic approach has the advantage that students do not have any
additional effort for providing information about their learning styles. Additionally, an automatic approach can be more
accurate by excluding extraordinary behaviour of students and adapting in the case that the learning styles changed over
time. In this paper, we present an automatic student modelling approach for learning management system, which aims at
identifying learning style preferences within the four dimensions of the Felder-Silverman learning style model (FSLSM).
The approach is based on patterns derived from literature and a simple rule-based method for calculating learning styles
from the students’ behaviour. The proposed approach is evaluated by a study with 75 students, comparing the results of
the learning style questionnaire with the results obtained by the proposed automatic student modelling approach. As a
result, the approach is appropriate for identifying all learning style preferences within the active/reflective dimension of
FSLSM and some learning style preferences within the sensing/intuitive and visual/verbal dimension. For the
sequential/global dimension, results of learning style preferences show only moderate precision.
Learning styles, automatic student modelling, Felder-Silverman learning style model, learning management
According to Felder and Silverman (1988), learners with a strong preference for a specific learning style
might have difficulties in learning if their learning styles are not considered by the teaching environment. On
the other hand, providing courses that fit the learning styles of learners makes learning easier for them and
* This research has been funded partly by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science, and Culture, and the European Social
Fund (ESF) under grant 31.963/46-VII/9/2002.
leads to better progress. However, for provide adaptivity, the learning styles of students need to be known
first. Therefore, student modelling is a crucial aspect of each adaptive system.
Brusilovsky (1996) distinguished between two different ways of student modelling: collaborative and
automatic student modelling. In the collaborative student modelling approach, the learners provide explicit
feedback which can be used to build or update the student model. With respect to learning styles, students
can be asked, for example, to fill out a questionnaire to detect their learning styles. On the other hand, in the
automatic student modelling approach, the process of building and updating the student model is done
automatically based on the behaviour and actions of the learners when they are using the system for learning.
In this paper, we introduce an automatic student modelling approach for detecting learning style
preferences according to the Felder-Silverman learning style model (FSLSM) (Felder and Silverman, 1988).
Most learning style models provide a questionnaire in order to identify learning styles. For identifying
learning styles based on the FSLSM, Felder and Soloman (1997) developed the Index of Learning Style
(ILS) questionnaire. In contrast to the questionnaire, the proposed automatic student modelling approach
identifies the students’ learning styles based on their actual behaviour and actions in the online course.
Therefore, students do not have any additional effort and just need to use the system for learning.
Additionally, an automatic approach can be dynamic and therefore less error-prone, while a static approach
such as questionnaires describe the learning style of a student at one specific point of time. Therefore, an
automatic approach is robust towards extraordinary behaviour of students such as if they are in bad mood on
one day. Furthermore, an automatic approach can dynamically adapt in the case the learning style of a
student changed over time.
The approach is developed especially for learning management systems (LMS). LMS are commonly and
successfully used in e-learning. They provide a variety of features to support teachers to create and manage
their online courses. However, they provide very little or, in most cases, no adaptivity (Graf and List, 2005).
An automatic student modelling approach for LMS provides on one hand teachers with more information
about their students and is on the other hand an important issue for enabling LMS to provide adaptivity.
In the next sections, we introduce FSLSM as well as groups of learning style preferences within FSLSM,
which are used as basis for the automatic student modelling approach. Section 4 introduces the automatic
student modelling approach and Section 5 presents the evaluation of the proposed approach. Section 6
discusses related work and Section 7 concludes our paper.
2. FELDER-SILVERMAN LEARNING STYLE MODEL
While several learning style theories exist in the literature, for example, the learning style models by Kolb
(1984) and Honey and Mumford (1982), Felder-Silverman learning style model (1988) seems to be the most
appropriate for use in computer-based educational systems (Carver et al., 1999, Kuljis and Liu, 2005). Most
other learning style models classify learners in few groups, whereas FSLSM describes the learning style of a
learner in more detail, distinguishing between preferences on four dimensions.
The first dimension distinguishes between an active and a reflective way of processing information.
Active learners learn best by working actively with the learning material by applying the material and trying
things out. Furthermore, they tend to be more interested in working in groups and discussing the material
with others. In contrast, reflective learners prefer to think about and reflect on the material. Regarding
communication, they prefer to work alone or maybe in a small group together with one good friend.
The second dimension covers sensing versus intuitive learning. Learners who prefer a sensing learning
style like to learn facts and concrete learning material. They like to solve problems with standard approaches
and also tend to be more careful and patient with details. Furthermore, they tend to be more practical than
intuitive learners and like to relate the learned material to the real world. In contrast, intuitive learners prefer
to learn abstract learning material, such as concepts and theories. They like to discover possibilities and
relationships and tend to be more innovative and creative than sensing learners.
The third, visual/verbal dimension differentiates learners who remember best what they have seen, e.g.
pictures, diagrams and flow-charts, and learners who get more out of textual representations, regardless of the
fact whether they are written or spoken.
In the fourth dimension, the learners are characterised according to their understanding. Sequential
learners learn in small incremental steps and therefore have a linear learning progress. In contrast, global
learners use a holistic thinking process and learn in large leaps. They tend to absorb learning material almost
randomly without seeing connections but after they have learned enough material they suddenly get the
whole picture. Then they are able to solve complex problems, find connections between different areas, and
put things together in novel ways. Because the whole picture is important for global learners, they tend to be
interested in overviews and a broad knowledge whereas sequential learners are more interested in details.
The ILS questionnaire (Felder and Soloman, 1997), consisting of 44 questions, is an instrument for
identifying learning styles based on FSLSM. As mentioned, each learner has a personal preference for each
of the four dimensions of FSLSM. These preferences are expressed with values between +11 to -11 per
dimension. This range comes from the 11 questions that are posed for each dimension. When answering a
question, for instance, with an active preference, +1 is added to the value of the active/reflective dimension,
whereas an answer for a reflective preference decreases the value by 1.
3. GROUPING OF LEARNING STYLE PREFERENCES
As can be seen from the description in the previous section, each learning style dimension seems to include
different characteristics. In an empirical study (Graf et al., 2007), the groups of preferences within each
dimension of FSLSM were analysed and their relevance for each dimension was investigated. Table 1 shows
the proposed groups as well as the related answers of ILS questions (Felder and Soloman, 1997) for each
group. A question may appear twice in the table, if the two possible answers to the question point to two
The semantic groups within the dimensions provide relevant information in order to be able to identify
learning styles. For example, if a learner has a preference for trying things out and tends to be more
impersonal oriented, he/she would have a balanced learning style on the active/reflective dimension.
However, a learner has also a balanced learning style if he/she prefers to think about the material and tends to
be more social oriented. Although both learners have different preferences and therefore different behaviour
in an online course, both are considered equally according to the result of ILS. Considering the proposed
semantic groups leads therefore to more accurate information about learners’ preferences and to a more
accurate model for identifying learning styles based on the behaviour of learners in an online course.
Table 1. Semantic groups associated with the ILS answers
trying something out
careful with details
from parts to the whole
ILS questions (answer a)
1, 17, 25, 29
5, 9, 13, 21, 33, 37, 41
2, 30, 34
6, 10, 14, 18, 26, 38
3, 7, 11, 15, 19, 23, 27, 31,
35, 39, 43
4, 28, 40
20, 24, 32, 36, 44
8, 12, 16
think about material
not careful with details
difficulty with visual style
ILS questions (answer b)
1, 5, 17, 25, 29
9, 13, 21, 33, 41, 37
2, 14, 22, 26, 30, 34
6, 10, 18, 38
3, 7, 15, 19, 27, 35
3, 7, 11, 23, 31, 39
4, 8, 12, 16, 28, 40
20, 36, 44
4. AUTOMATIC DETECTION OF LEARNING STYLES
According to a study by Graf and Kinshuk (in press), students with different learning styles behave also
differently in online courses in LMS. Furthermore, the study shows some correlations between patterns of
behaviour and answers of the ILS questionnaire. These findings indicate that the behaviour in an online
course can be used to get information about the students’ learning styles. In this section, we introduce an
approach for automatic student modelling of learning style preferences in learning management systems.
4.1 Investigated patterns
Different LMS provide teachers and course developers with the opportunity to integrate different features in
an online course. For providing an automatic student modelling approach that can be used by LMS in
general, we used only patterns related to those features which are implemented in most LMS and which are
also commonly used by teachers and course developers. The incorporated features include content objects,
which represent the learning material, and outlines, which provide a summary of a chapter. Furthermore, we
used self-assessment tests, which provide students with the opportunity to check their acquired knowledge,
and exercises, where students can practise. Moreover, examples and discussion forums are included.
Regarding content, outline, and examples, the number and time students spent on these objects are used
as patterns. With respect to the self-assessment tests, the total number of answered questions and the time
spent on self-assessment tests is considered as pattern. Furthermore, the students’ performance on questions
dealing with facts or concepts, referring to details or overviews, being about graphics or text, and asking
about interpreting a given solution or developing a new one is incorporated as pattern. Moreover, a pattern is
included dealing with whether a learners is answering the same question twice wrong. Additionally, the
number of revisions on answers in self-assessment tests is considered as patterns. Another pattern dealing
with self-assessment tests is the time students spent on reviewing their results. Regarding exercises, also the
performed number and the time spent on exercises is used as patterns. Furthermore, the performance on
questions about interpreting a given solution and developing a new solution, the number of performed
revisions, and the time students reflected on the results of the exercise is combined with the behaviour in self-
assessment tests. With respect to the forum, the number of visits, the time students spent in the forum, and
the number of postings is included. Regarding navigational behaviour, patterns deal with how often students
skipped learning objects via the navigation menu as well as how often they visited and how much time they
spent on the course overview page.
4.2 Relevance of patterns for groups of learning styles
In this section, we describe relevant patterns for each group of learning style according to the literature
(Felder and Silverman, 1988) and related behaviour of learners with a preference for a specific group.
Learners who prefer to try things out focus more on an active way of learning. Therefore, they are
expected to visit exercises more often, spent in general more time on exercises, and perform more self-
assessment tests. Furthermore, they tend to have a weak preference for reflecting about the learned material.
This lack of reflection can be seen, for example, when looking at how often learners answer the same self-
assessment question twice wrong or when looking at how much time they spend on reflecting about results in
self-assessment tests or exercises. Furthermore, they do not like to spend much time on examples, which
illustrate how others have solved a problem. Also, they do not like to learn from content, which results in a
low number of visits as well as a low amount of time spent on content objects and outlines. In contrast,
learners who prefer to think about the material focus more on a reflective way of learning rather than an
active one. They like content objects, which can be seen from a high number of visits and a high amount of
time spent there, and they tend to spend more time on outlines, reflecting about the content of the topic. Due
to their preference for reflecting, they tend to take more time on self-assessment tests, spend more time on
reflecting on the results of their tests, and tend to answer less often the same question twice wrong. On the
other hand, learners with a preference for thinking about the material are less interested in exercises, which
can be seen from a lower number of visits and time spent on exercises.
In online learning, the behaviour of learners in discussion forums can give indications about their
tendency for social orientation. Learners who are social oriented tend to post more often messages then
learners who are more impersonal oriented. On the other hand, learners with an impersonal preference tend
to focus more on reading what others have written, which results in more visits of forum entries.
Learners who prefer solving problems based on existing ways and with standard procedures are expected
to like to practice by performing a high number of self-assessment tests and exercises. Furthermore, they tend
to like to visit and spend time on examples, which show ways to solve specific problems. Moreover, they are
expected to perform poor in questions about generating new solutions. On the other hand, learners who prefer
challenges and solving problems in new ways tend to perform well in questions asking for generating new
solutions. Since they get easily bored by solving the same kind of problems always with the same procedures,
they tend to perform only a low number of self-assessment tests and are expected to have low interest in
examples (visits and time spent on examples)
Learners who prefer concrete material such as facts and data tend to like to learn from examples rather
than from the content objects. Therefore, a high number of visits and a high amount of time spent on
examples as well as a low number of visits and a low amount of time spent on content objects can indicate a
preference for concrete material. Furthermore, they are expected to perform better on questions about facts.
In contrast, learners with a preference for abstract material such as concepts and theories tend to like to learn
from content objects, which results in a higher number of visits and more time spent on content objects, and
use examples only as complementary information, resulting in a low number of visits and a low amount of
time spent on examples. Furthermore, they are expected to perform better on questions about concepts and on
questions about generating new solutions, where they need the knowledge about the concepts and theories.
The preference for being careful with details can be seen especially from the behaviour and performance
in self-assessment tests. Learners who are careful with details tend to check their answers more carefully,
therefore tend to spend more time on tests and do more revisions on their answers. Furthermore, they are
expected to perform better on questions about details. The same patterns, with opposite values, were used for
identifying a preference for being not careful with details.
A visual preference can be identified by looking at the performance on questions about content that was
presented in graphics. Furthermore, visual learners tend not to prefer to visit content objects that often, since
these objects contain mainly of written words. Moreover, they are expected to use the forum only little for
discussing learning material, in terms of posting a message in the forum. For the preference for spoken
words, no suitable patterns exist based on the incorporated features in our approach. Therefore, we excluded
this group from the identification process. Learners who prefer to learn from written words tend to prefer
using the forum, in terms of visiting, staying, and posting. They are expected to learn from content objects,
indicated by a high number of visits, and tend to be good in answering questions about text. Difficulties with
visual material can be identified by looking at the performance of students on questions about content that
was presented in graphics.
Learners who can be considered as detail oriented are expected to be good in answering questions dealing
with details. However, they tend not to focus on getting an overview of the topic, which is indicated by little
interest in outlines (visits and time) and the course overview page (visits and time). On the other hand,
learners who prefer to get an overall picture of the course tend to visit outlines and the course overview page
more often and spend more time there. Furthermore, learners who focus on the overall picture tend to be
good in answering questions dealing with overview knowledge.
Learners who prefer a sequential progress tend to go through the course step by step. This behaviour can
be seen from the number of skipped learning objects via the navigation menu and the number of visits of the
course overview page, which offers access to all learning objects. In contrast, a preference for a non-
sequential progress can be indicated by a high number of skipped learning objects and a high number of
visits of the course overview page.
The preference of first focussing on understanding all parts of the course in order to get the whole picture
can be seen by the tendency to focus not on getting an overview but on the learning material itself. Therefore,
a low interest in outlines (visits and time) and in the overview pages (visits and time) can act as indications.
Learners who focus on connections and relations between topics are expected to be good in questions
dealing with overview knowledge as well as with questions about interpreting and developing solutions,
where in both cases the knowledge about different topics is essential. Furthermore, they tend to have a higher
interest in the overview page (visits and time), where they can see the different topics and can access them.
4.3 From behaviour to learning style preferences
In order to conclude from the students’ behaviour to their preferences of semantic groups, we used a simple
rule-based method, similar to the approach used in the ILS questionnaire.
In a first step, the behaviour of students is gathered from the database of the LMS and for each pattern,
data are mapped onto a four-item scale. More formally, let O be the matrix of ordered data, including in rows
all students and in columns all patterns, values between 0 and 3 are assigned in order to classify the
behaviour of each student for each pattern. Values between 1 and 3 indicate the occurrence of a certain
behaviour (e.g., number of visits), where 1 represents a low occurrence, 2 a moderate one and 3 a high one. 0
indicates that no information about the respective pattern is available. The mapping of values between 1 and
3 is based on thresholds which are mainly derived from literature (García et al., in press, Rovai and Barnum,
2003, Wang, 2004), however, the thresholds can be adapted to the specific characteristics of the respective