We know. There are more theories of learning styles out there than you can shake a brain in a jar at.

  • What they all have in common: the idea that different people absorb information in specific ways, and having a sense of which ways work best can maximize learning for individual learners, and for a class.
  • How they differ: the specific way each theory divides up and labels different types of learners.

And what's different about Felder-Silverman is that it divides those types up and then tacks on teaching styles, too. That's when you get the Felder-Soloman index of those learning styles and teaching styles, and that turns it into an all-out revolution in the classroom.

How Felder Met Silverman

Here's what happened. Engineering prof Dr. Richard Felder teamed up with educational psychologist Dr. Linda Silverman to write an article called "Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education." Their model aimed to capture differences among engineering students, and in turn help engineering instructors design a teaching approach to address that variety of needs.

All this came about because the two researchers had been passing notes about how engineering students seemed to absorb information in different ways, whether hearing, listening, logicking, or visualizing…and yes, that list will be neatly broken down into discrete categories for your digestive pleasure below.

At first, they were talking about how to teach engineering. But educators from plenty of other fields decided that these styles looked useful in other areas, too. That's because they divided up the whole concept of "learning" into reception first, and processing second.

Flashy.

For the time, at least.

The Styles

First up: the actual divisions of types of learners. According to Felder and Silverman, those are called four "dimensions." We know what you're thinking: there are more than three dimensions? Sounds super-sonic. Well, it could be if you're the sensing type and can intuit beyond 3D. Or just a very perceptive hedgehog.

Here's the deal. Each dimension includes two poles that independently designate two different, even opposing ways of perceiving the world—but, taken together, can lead to any learner's best knowledge-absorbing potential.

So, without further ado—and with a boost from Felder-Silverman on the International Centre for Educators' Learning Styles site—the four dimensions:

  • Sensing/Intuitive. A sensor likes problem-solving, experimenting, and using the senses to gather data, while intuitors are fans of grappling with new concepts, innovating, and working with symbols. 
  • Visual/Verbal. A visual learner, believe it or not, does well with pictures, diagrams, and other scraps of info that come in through the eyes. A verbal learner does great with discussions and explanations, thriving when a mix of hearing and speaking get involved. 
  • Active/Reflective. Learners who do well with active experimentation are happiest when they get to test out their new knowledge in the real world. Their counterparts, the fans of reflective observation, prefer "examining and manipulating the information introspectively," as the ICELS site puts it. 
  • Sequential/Global. One of these gains comfort with material that they're exposed to in a "logically ordered progression," and think based on "linear reasoning processes." The other one learns piecemeal, and usually has some sort of lightbulb moment when "the entire puzzle finally comes together." Guess which is which?

The next step is a series of questions that are supposed to help learners find their spot on a spectrum between each set (so maybe someone is way on the Global side of things, but more in the middle between Visual and Verbal).

Along these lines, Felder and Silverman came up with five questions to define learning style, and five other questions to define teaching style. Each set of questions asks about how information is presented, which sensory channels or methods of presentation are foregrounded, the way information is organized (whether by the teacher or in the student's head), and what perspectives are emphasized. 

And then Felder and Soloman came up with a much longer questionnaire (44 questions, to be precise) meant to place learners in a much more precise spot on the spectrum of each of those styles. That magical contraption is called the Felder-Soloman Index of Learning Styles, or ILS.

Those questions rely on the learning dimensions conceptualized by Felder and Silverman, but the actual questions are the brainchild of Felder and Soloman. We know, why couldn't Felder have teamed up with a Gonzalez or a Stravinsky? But if you can cope with the Silverman-Soloman dilemma (especially you verbal and auditory learners out there), then check out the questionnaire here.

The Takeaway

Work through the questionnaire, determine the best style for you, and try to access new information only through that method.

Jk.

Sure, if you're a visual learner you want everything presented in chart, lesson learned, end of story, boom. But chances are there will be some things you set out to learn that just don't quite fit in a nice charty diagram. And even if they do, it's important to gain comfort with other presentation methods to maximize your own learning. And no, we're not just talking to visual learners here (duh). This goes for both sides of all of those spectra, and everywhere in between.

How, you ask? Check out this list (think of it as a chart, if you're visual) of the different styles and approaches that can be effective for each one. It builds on the description of each style, plus offers ideas that work for each one.

The whole point of these learning style models is to understand different students' methods of taking in information and to help them branch out into other learning styles, rather than getting quagmired in the ol' comfort zone.

So whether you're puzzling out which dimension you fit into to get a grasp on your own methods, or thinking about how to alter your teaching to reach students of various styles, what's worth remembering is that variety is key. Knowing that you have a range of learners in your class and that they'll all benefit from exploring the whole array of learning styles can help you design activities that will exercise a gamut of processes and perspectives.

That's a surefire way to keep your students (and you) ticking. And ultimately, to propel you into a whole new dimension.