Not Another Inventory, Rather
a Catalyst for Reflection
From To Improve the Academy, Vol. 11, 1992, Page 137.
Neil D. Fleming
Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand
Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand
In this article the authors focus on the use of a modal preferences
questionnaire as a catalyst to empower students to reflect on their own
sensory preferences and modify their study methods accordingly. The authors
discuss the development and use of the questionnaire, strategies for students
to use in modifying their learning behavior, responses of students and faculty
to the technique, and directions for further investigation of modal
Over the last four decades the literature from both psychology and educa-
tion has supported the proposition that learners of all ages have different yet
consistent ways of responding in learning situations. These behaviors or
predispositions to behave in a particular fashion have been termed learning
styles (Claxton & Ralston, 1978; Grasha, 1990; Price, 1983) or cognitive
styles (Goldstein & Blackman, 1978; Knox, 1977; Witkin & Goodenough,
1982). Research has spawned a wide range of inventories with which to
assess the various style dimensions that have been identified (e.g., Canfield &
Lafferty, 1974; Dunn, Dunn, & Price, 1987; Honey & Mumford, 1982; Kolb,
1984). Smith (1982) reviews fifteen such instruments for identifying learning
styles. These measurement tools tend to focus on a collection of style
dimensions to provide a profile of a learner's style.
The implications for teachers of the stylistic variation present in groups
of learners has been discussed extensively in the literature (Cronbach &
Snow, 1977; Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990; Kirby, 1979; Kogan, 1971; Martens,
1975; Messick, 1970; Schmeck, 1988; Tennant, 1988). Much has been
written on the desirability of matching teaching methods to students' learning
styles (Conti, 1985; Cronbach & Snow; 1977; Faurier, 1984). If we assume
that the matching of presentational style and learner styles is a desirable
objective, teachers face an incredibly demanding task. The range of style
dimensions and therefore the combinations that might occur in one particular
student group are likely to be so extensive that teachers are unable to extend
their repertoire of teaching methods to encompass all of them (Mills, 1989).
Our collective observational experiences as teacher trainers and as an
inspector of secondary schools in over 8000 classrooms during the last nine
years have reinforced our belief that it is simply not realistic to expect
teachers to provide programs that accommodate the learning style diversity
present in their classes, even if they can establish the nature and extent of that
diversity. We have come to the conclusion that the most realistic approach to
the accommodation of learning styles in teaching programs should involve
empowering students through knowledge of their own learning styles to
adjust their learning behavior to the learning programs they encounter. This
suggestion is not to say that we believe teachers should not consider the
learning styles when developing and delivering instructional programs.
Rather, we believe in assisting students to know themselves and to operate in
a metacognitive fashion to make adjustments in their learning behaviors
(Biggs, 1987; Flavell, 1976).
Students are in no better position than their teachers to understand and
assess the wide range of dimensions that collectively form an individual's
learning style. The literature is too extensive and provides limited assistance
in determining which particular dimensions need to be addressed to gain a
complete or at least comprehensive understanding of the nature of learning
style. We therefore looked for a dimension of learning style that had some
degree of pre-eminence over other dimensions.
By questioning students, we found that many students attributed their
learning difficulties to the form in which course material was presented.
Some students found they had difficulties learning in situations where the
course material was only presented orally, while others reported similar
difficulties when the material was primarily in written form. Still other
students experienced difficulty with ideas that were presented in graphics or
'without any associated concrete experiences. These insights prompted us to
focus on sensory modality as a learning style dimension that had some pre-
eminence over others. The notion that the way information is initially taken
in by a learner influences what subsequently occurs has intuitive appeal.
We found support for this notion in literature on neuro-linguistic pro-
gramming (NLP) (Handler, 1976, 1979; McLeod, 1990; Stirling, 1987) that
discussed the different perceptual modalities (aural, visual, and kinesthetic).
The following questions were suggested from our exploration of this field of
study, split-brain research (Gazzaniga, 1973; Sperry, 1973; Springer &
Deutsch, 1985) and left brain/right brain modalities (Buzan, 1991; Edwards,
• How can students be encouraged to reflect on the nature, extent and
implications of their sensory modalities?
• As a consequence of exploring their sensory modality preference, will
students modify their existing learning strategies in ways that assist their
Our experience with the administration of learning style inventories
did not encourage us to believe that the use of an inventory was going to be
the most effective way of encouraging students to reflect upon their sensory
modality preferences. We knew that students often found inventories tedious
to complete and at times difficult to respond to because of their generality.
Many inventories also lacked supportive strategies to assist students after
they had been diagnosed. Students usually fell into two categories: those who
enjoyed ascribing labels to their behavior and those who were suspicious of
any measure that claimed to be able to establish that they behaved in
Our attention therefore turned away from inventories. We sought, in-
stead, a simple technique that would promote reflection on sensory modality
and would be characterized by its brevity, simplicity, and ability to encourage
students to describe their behavior in a manner they could identify with and
accept. We believed that if students could be intimately involved in the
process that produced a description of their own sensory modality prefer-
ences, they might be more likely to use it in subsequent learning.
Developing a Technique
The first task was to design a technique that would focus students'
attention on ways they address information. Rather than a simple diagnostic
tool, we wanted something that would serve as a catalyst for discussion and
debate and encourage students to collaborate in the process. We believed the
technique had to be something that drew on common experiences and did not
introduce abstract notions. A simple questionnaire was therefore devised with
the questions drawn from observations students had shared, personal
observations of our own modal preferences, and preferences reported by
friends (Appendix A). Some of the questions were prompted by discussions
of how some people can navigate better than others. Other questions came
from reflecting on the ways people chose to remember or ignore different
sensory cues such as shopping lists or verbal instructions. Because we were
seeking a quick and easy catalyst for discussion rather than an elaborate
diagnostic tool, we decided that 13 questions would be adequate. In addition,
we established that because the instrument would be used primarily to
stimulate reflection and discussion, testing for construct validity and reliabil-
ity was unnecessary and inappropriate.
Although we started with Stirling's (1987) three categories of visual,
aural, and kinesthetic, we found that the categories appeared to be insufficient
to account for the more detailed differences we noted among students. Even
though our eyes are used to taking in all visual information, the information
itself differs. The first preference includes diagrammatic material often used
by teachers to symbolize information (e.g., graphs, charts, flow charts,
models, and all the symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies and other devices
used by teachers to represent what could have been printed information).
Second, there is information that is largely composed of printed words from
which some students appear to get a greater or lesser degree of
understanding. Although both use the visual sense, for the purposes of the
questionnaire, this visual preference was divided into two perceptual modes:
1. Visual (V) preference for graphical and symbolic ways of
2. Read/Write (R) preferences for information printed as words.
The third perceptual mode, aural (A), describes a preference for
"heard" information. Students who prefer aural forms of information
dissemination report that they learn best from lectures, tutorials, and
discussion with other students and faculty.
The fourth perceptual mode, kinesthetic (K), provides some
difficulties because it is multi-modal and because of the different ways in
which the word is used. For the questionnaire it was defined as the
perceptual preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated
or real). In that sense it is not a single mode because experience and practice
may be expressed or
"taken in" using all perceptual modes - sight, touch,
taste, smell and hearing. However, a kinesthetic teaching experience is
defined as one in which all or any of these perceptual modes are used to
connect the student to reality, either through experience, example, practice,
or simulation. To offer these experiences, the teachers may be presenting
information visually (V), aurally (A), or in a read/write fashion (R), but the
experience is kinesthetic because of the integrative and real nature of the
information. A teacher who chooses to provide "guns and butter" examples
of the economic concept of supply and demand - regardless of whether
visual, aural, or read/write modes are used - is presenting information in a
kinesthetic fashion. Such "guns and butter" examples could not be used as a
basis for questions in the questionnaire, however, as the intention was to
design a questionnaire that was not subject or discipline specific. Situations
from everyday life were therefore chosen for 12 of the 13 questions.
In the final questionnaire, the 13 questions are presented in multiple-
choice format. To be included from our original list, a question had to allow
for the expression of three or four modal preferences (V, A, R, K). These
modal preferences are offered as alternative actions in response to each
question. Each question attempts to place readers in a situation within their
experience and asks for a perception of their preferred action. For example:
Question Ten: You are not sure whether a word should be spelled
'dependent' or 'dependant'. Do you:
R) look it up in the dictionary.
V) see the word in your mind and choose the best way it looks.
A) sound it out in your mind.
K) write both versions down.
In the early stages of the development of the questionnaire, an attempt
was made to include only those questions in which the context was one of
"receiving information." Because this criterion became too limiting, the
questionnaire now contains questions dealing with both presenting and
processing information. Questions numbered 2, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 13 relate to a
context in which information is being received. In questions 1, 3 and 5
respondents are put into a context of sending information, and in the remain-
ing four questions (6, 10, 11 and 12) the context is one of cognitive
processing for decision making (see Appendix A). No attempt is made to
separate these three contexts in the scoring system.
Although the questions were designed to be as culturally neutral as
possible, question 8 uses some proprietary games (Pictionary, charades and
Scrabble) with which students need to be familiar in order to complete the
questionnaire. The alternatives within each; question were designed to be
balanced in intensity so that no one choice is seen as being determined by the
To allow for the fact that we all use a variety of perceptual modes, we
provided for the possibility of multiple answers for each question. All
answers are counted. Thus, some respondents may select a greater number of
alternatives than others. It also means that there is less need to balance the
modes within each question and within the questionnaire. In four questions
there are three choices. The remainder have four choices. The sum of the
alternative answers for each modal preference slightly favors the R mode
(Visual, 12; Aural, 12; Read/Write, 13; Kinesthetic, 11).
A Pattern for Discussion
The modal preference profiles that emerge are discussed with
individual students. In all cases the profiles are promoted as insights and not
as definitive diagnoses. Usually a general explanation of various common
profiles is given, accompanied by anecdotal evidence of how knowledge
gained from the questionnaire has helped other students. Students are
encouraged to challenge their personal profiles. In this way they are actively
encouraged to establish the validity of their profiles by thinking about their
general applicability. In some cases, students who have adopted strategies
aligned to their preferences are asked to address groups of students.
The discussions with students focus on: 1) the way information is
presented in classes; 2) ways in which students take notes; 3) ways in which
students make notes from their reading; and 4) strategies for memorizing for
During the early trials, students who produced profiles that were domi-
nated by one sort of response (i.e., V, A, R, or K) were questioned in depth
about the way they preferred information to be presented by faculty. They
were also asked to provide examples of their study notes. From the data
gathered, lists of note-taking and note-making strategies were compiled for
each type of sensory modality preference. These lists form the basis for the
handout "help" sheets (Appendix B) that give students ideas on how to use
the preferences they have identified to improve their learning.
After the profiles that emerge from the questionnaire are discussed, these
"help" sheets (Appendix B) are distributed to students. Students are then
encouraged to consider the suggestions on the "help sheet" in relation to their
learning practices. Possible modifications to study practices are briefly
discussed and the students make an appointment to report back on the effects
of any changes they subsequently make.
Using the Technique
The technique has been used in a number of different ways. First, it
has been used in one-to-one student counseling for those who seek strategies
for improving their learning. Second, it has been used with groups of faculty.
The third and most common use has been with classes of students. In each
case the process has begun by having participants complete the questionnaire.
In all cases participants are advised that they may record more than
one option for any question. If all of the options are appropriate, they are
asked to indicate what their first preference might be. For situations that lie
outside their experience, they are requested to leave the answer blank. We
have observed that most students can complete the questionnaire in four to
six minutes, and verbal reports indicate that they can easily relate to the
situations in the questions.
On completing the questionnaire, respondents are asked simply to sum
the occurrences of their preferences for each mode. This procedure results in
four scores, one for each modal preference. Because students can select more
than one option for each question and because they can omit questions, the
sum of the four preference scores on the questionnaire will vary among
individuals. The score
s are then perused to determine a modal preference
based on a simple numerical dominance of one mode over others. For
example, a student scoring 2 visual options (V), 4 aural options (A), 8
read/write (R) options and 2 kinesthetic options (K) would be counted as
having an R preference. When there is a tie between two or more modal
preferences, the result is considered a double or triple tied preference (e.g.,
VA or ARK).
It has been the close match between the anecdotal evidence and the
questionnaire and help sheet data that has led to our confidence in the ability
of the questionnaire to provide valid insights into the ways students deal with
information. In addition, students' responses have encouraged us to believe
that the technique as a whole is an effective way of promoting active
reflection by students on their learning activities. Students, convinced that the
insights that they have gained are valid, have been quick to revise their
The use of the questionnaire has generated a wide range of response
patterns that have been subsequently endorsed in the discussions with stu-
dents. The following comments are from students who have adopted strate-
gies to match the strengths reflected in their modality preferences. Their
modality preferences as indicated by the questionnaire are shown in paren-
I rearranged my study notes for the four subjects in four different
colors. That way I can easily filter out the stuff I need when I am doing an
exam for Economics because it is all in green, (visual preference)
Yesterday I bought my first Thesaurus. I have a dictionary for each of
my science subjects - ecology, biology etc. I think words are wonderful. I
build a glossary for my subjects too. (read/write preference)
When I am in an exam and I am not sure of an answer lean pause and
'hear' Andrew (lecturer in law) talking about a topic. I just listen in until
he 'tells' me the answer, (aural preference)
I have rearranged my notes so that the examples come first. It is so
much easier to remember the stories—better than having the heavy princi-
ples' stuff first. I put the principles, rules and formulae last. (kinesthetic
I end up with real scrappy notes in the lectures, 'coz I get hooked into
listening to the interesting stuff in the lecture. When I see what others
have written—I panic. Since I did the questionnaire I leave space to fill in
what I miss through listening, (aural preference)
Follow-up interviews with students have provided clear evidence that
students are using the insights gained from their questionnaire results and
subsequent discussion to reflect upon and modify their note-taking and note-
making practices. The following comments were made by students who
monitored the effects of changing their study strategies to be consistent with
their modality strengths.
I got my first A grade by using the things on the sheet Appendix B).
My notes now are all done as a read-writer.
It is excellent. I have an aural flat mate and we get together and talk
about our learning at study time. We both seem to learn better from
talking things through.
Since I attended the study skills session I have used a Walkman (audio
cassette player) for my own study summaries. Before the big tests I walk
around the campus hearing myself. It works.
All my notes now are done as diagrams. The words are still important
but I try to think of a picture which comes from the words. It worked last
semester. There seemed to be less to learn.
I used to write things out several times and I tried mnemonics but I
didn't do very well. I need to relate things to the real world. If I can get a
real-life example it helps my learning.
I don't use the set text. I found this other book which has a visual
approach. I use different highlighters in it to show the bits to remember;
similarities, contrasts, definitions and things.
Faculty, too, have found that the questionnaire provides a simple but
effective framework for reflecting on how they present information. The
faculty interest in using the technique is particularly exciting, because we
believe that to assist one student with information about modal preferences is
not as effective as increasing the sensitivity of one professor to the potential
for modal diversity in a class. Previously the exhortations to present course
content using the range of sensory modes had little impact. Since adminis-
tering the questionnaire to faculty and sharing with them the results gathered
from students, there is an increased awareness of, and interest in, varying the
teaching approaches to accommodate modal diversity. What was once an
unconscious strategy of the effective teacher has become a deliberate strat-
egy. One science lecturer noted:
I realize I have been requesting R & W assessment and examples for
my students. Now I need to provide more variation in both my lectures
One professor is now searching for kinesthetic and visual examples of
his economic theory content that previously tended to be taught only in a
read/write mode. Similarly a biology professor is skillfully adding various
diagrammatic examples of the systems to the typical kinesthetic experiences
that are studied in the laboratories. Professors are reporting positive feedback
from students when they attempt to make their teaching more multi-modal.
Two general observations have emerged from the data generated by the
questionnaire and the associated interviews:
1. The questionnaire does provide a basis for assisting students to reflect
upon their modal preferences.
2. The individual response profiles generated by the questionnaire are
supported by later discussion.
Each of these observations encourages us to believe the technique is
useful for focusing students' attention on the sensory components of learning.
The strength of the questionnaire appears to lie in its ability to act as a
catalyst and framework for reflection and discussion of learning practices,
including note-taking, note-making, and test and examination study. Students
find the technique provides a framework that is consistent with their rational,
intuitive notions about how they address information in learning situations.
They therefore have no difficulty accepting the notion that adjustments to the
way they take and make notes should be in accordance with their modality
preferences and could benefit their learning effectiveness. The questionnaire
and associated discussion appear to be encouraging metacognitive activity.
The next developments could take several directions. The possibilities
that have been suggested include:
• a longitudinal study of the effects of students' identifying their modal
preferences and adopting new strategies. There is a growing body of
anecdotal information, but it would be helpful to have a more focused
study of the detailed effects on some students' modifications of their
• a study of the effects of multi-modal presentation of course content.
Some faculty are extending their course content and teaching methods
to cope with the different modal preferences. The impact of modal
preferences on instructional design would be a worthwhile further study.
• a demographic study—including sex, age, race, and socio-economic
parameters—of the results from use of the handout sheet,
• a study of students with strong uni-modal preferences as contrasted with
those who have multi-modal preferences. There appears to be more
multi-modal preferences with more mature students but that is a judg-
ment based on anecdotal information rather than quantitative or quali-
• an alignment of this questionnaire with an inventory of cognitive proc-
essing or of personality traits. There is a rich background of research
and a wealth of database information on some of the widely-used
personality and cognitive-processing inventories. The modal perception
questionnaire could be conjointly used with an inventory to assess any
linkages between perceptual preferences, cognitive strategies and
• a study examining differences in the modal preferences of students and
faculty. There is clearly a great deal of variability in the way both
students and faculty address information. So far we have noticed
general trends that do appear to be significant. For example, students
appear to be less likely to show a strong preference for the read/write
mode than faculty. In contrast, faculty are more likely to prefer a
read/write mode than any of the other modes. Students with no
particularly strong preference tend to be older students. All of these
trends warrant further investigation.
• a link between the questionnaire and a fuller but validated diagnostic
Faculty developers are in search of strategies that encourage teachers
to use a variety of modes in their presentations. Extending repertoires has
become a touchstone for improved quality in teaching. The use of the modal
preferences questionnaire at our university has empowered students to reflect
upon their sensory preferences and to modify their study methods accord-
ingly. Furthermore, the questionnaire appears to have increased the level of
discussion about learning throughout the institution. The positive support
from a growing number of students has filtered back to the faculty and is
encouraging them to make changes. Although it is not yet possible to
document the effect of these changes in terms of learning, at this stage the
questionnaire is identifying differences, provoking reflection on learning and
teaching practices and receiving favorable comments from both students and
staff. Further research and development will be necessary to capitalize on
these benefits in terms of improvements in teaching and learning outcomes.
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