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If Advising is Teaching, Then Learning Style Matters
Authored by: Kim S. Uhlik

I still remember my first encounter with my Department's academic advising booklet; its soothing pastel cover belied its perplexing interior. A single Core with two separate Foundations curriculums supported a solitary Major divided into two Concentrations encompassing four Options, spread among three double-sided pages of lists and fill-in-the-blanks. While seemingly rational and orderly, it was nearly incomprehensible to a person like me (and many of my students) who needs to see how the parts interlock to from the bigger picture.

Thus began my exploration of learning style and advising. At a recent conference, Charlie Nutt, NACADA Executive Director, asked academic advisors to make the connection among learning, teaching, and advising. A corollary to that supposition is 'If advising is teaching, then learning style matters.'

Fundamentally, academic advising relies on communication, a crucial function shared with teaching. Models of communication identify critical components such as the medium used, sender and receiver attributes, and the context in which communication occurs. Each of these variables can be influenced by learning style.
Learning style can be described as the way individuals perceive and interpret reality or acquire and organize information. For millennia, people intuitively have been aware of various ways - particularly their own - of relating to the world; as Confucius said, 'I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.' Broadly, four learning style aspects, cognition, conceptualization, affect, and behavior often have been simplified as seeing, thinking, feeling, and doing.
Within this milieu, a given learning style system may be associated with human senses (e.g. seeing, hearing), activities (e.g. thinking, doing), emotions (feeling), or various combinations or dimensions of these three. Each person is thought to be predisposed to a dominant learning style, and also may be influenced by any or all the others to some degree. The consensus among learning style researchers may be summarized as follows:

  • Most individuals can learn.
  • Instructional environments, resources, and approaches [of which advising is one] respond to diversified learning style strengths.
  • Everyone has strengths, but different people have different strengths.
  • Individual instructional preferences exist and can be measured.
  • Given responsive environments, resources, and approaches, students attain statistically higher achievement and attitude test scores in matched, rather than mismatched treatments.
  • Most teachers [and advisors] can learn to use learning styles as a cornerstone of their instruction [and advising] (Dunn & Dunn 1993, p. 6)

David Kolb (experiential learning, 1984) and Howard Gardner (multiple intelligences, 1983) are, perhaps the two most popularized learning style proponents, but at many other approaches have been developed and derived from research results accumulated during the past 80 years.
This multiplicity contributes to the first of several learning style concerns: some people still don't recognize or acknowledge learning style. Truth be told, there is no unifying learning style theory. Gardner himself has revised upward the number of intelligences, and doubts have been expressed about whether each of Kolb's four learning style dimensions is truly independent from the others. This apparent lack of a definitive framework has eroded learning style credibility among some critics. Learning style does not have the same scientific 'weight' as, literally, the theory underlying gravitational force, for example.
However, healthy skepticism shouldn't obscure the fact that learning style is a useful framework within which advising, teaching and learning can be much more effective. Personal experience and a sizeable and ever growing body of research clearly indicates that something measurable is going on. More importantly, students intuitively respond to learning style appropriate designs (they really do have their own 'a-ha' moments).
Consider the following hypothesis: Given that four learning styles are distributed evenly (25%) among students, attending to only one, or even two, of those styles neglects the remaining 50% (if not 75%) of students. According to results based on the analysis of data collected from administering either the Learning Style Inventory (LSI) or Learning Type Measure (LTM) to almost 3,000 participants, the minimum statistic for any particular learning style is 18.6% (McCarthy, 2002, personal communication); the hypothesis, and it's potential effects, is not far off the mark
The second issue connects directly to the first: learning style resistance from advisors/teachers/administrators. Respectively, reluctance to embrace learning style can be parceled among a:

  • Lack of learning style awareness, both general and personal;
  • Perception that accommodation will require increased or consume precious class time;
  • Perception that it will involve increased cost in materials, technologies, and staff time.

Just as research has built the case supporting learning style, so too has it uncovered advising and teaching styles, such as 'counselor,' 'scheduler,' and 'teacher.' Further, various academic disciplines seem to attract students displaying particular learning styles. For example, two investigations of learning style among Recreation and Leisure Studies students (Szucs, F.K, Hawdon, J.E., & McGuire, F.A., 2001; Uhlik, 2004) revealed strong preferences for kinesthetic (doing) and visual (seeing) learning styles. Other studies of career choices have discerned preferences among high school educators (versus elementary teachers), police officers, psychologists, and physical scientists.
Obviously, awareness of these proclivities - and then matching them to those of students - becomes an obligation that advisors and teachers must fulfill. Nonetheless, the most recent (2003) ACT survey showed that only 48% of institutions offer faculty advisor training. Although this statistic represents an improvement over the previous (1998) 23%, the fact remains that less than half of us receive the training that could enlighten, or heighten, our learning style awareness.
If one equates the precise amount of time spent with students with the amount of actuallearning that occurs, then having to advise or teach to four (or more) learning styles may well be prohibitive on both counts. However, surveys consistently have shown that the students comprising any group represent the whole range of learning styles. Thus, failure to accommodate that diversity might actually slow down the pace of learning as advisors and teachers must continually repeat information or schedule additional office hours.
Regarding the standardization of materials and technology, one must not overlook the possibility that the synergy - or gestalt - created by the integration of methods lends itself quite well to simultaneously addressing multiple learning styles. The web version of the advising pyramid (Uhlik, 2004) described below, currently under development, interweaves text, graphics, sound files, and video clips.
A third concern involves the distinction between 'pampering' and accommodating. Without demeaning their importance, anyone familiar with the struggles underlying Title Nine of the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act understands the difficulties involved with overcoming inertia, perception, and prejudice. For example, the use of game-like initiatives in learning settings certainly involves an element of play, but the game - if properly designed - merely is the method by which important conceptual information is introduced and learned. Yet, the admonishing against 'playing games' persists, despite evidence of increased learning.
In contrast, recognition of learning style doesn't excuse students from taking responsibility for their preferences/weaknesses. Indeed, McCarthy's 4MAT (2002), among others, views an individual's learning style preference as the solid foundation from which to sequentiallystrengthen the other learning styles in an upward spiral of achievement: a learning style multilingualism, if you will.
So what are we, as advisors and teachers, to do? Various simple learning style assessment activities exist. A quick, fun and intuitively enlightening icebreaker involves surprising your advisee (or group, class, etc.) by holding up a tennis ball and asking, 'Who wants to play catch?' After a moment (you may, or may not, get an immediate response, depending on myriad contextual variables), ask the following questions, and for a show of hands in response:

  • How many of you were ready to play catch? (When these hands are raised, toss the ball to one of them.)
  • How many of you felt anxious or worried; 'Please, DON'T throw it to me!'
  • How many of you thought, 'What's s/he up to?'
  • How many of you were sitting back, watching me, and how the rest of the group was reacting?

A slightly more sophisticated method is suggested by Gail Wood (1998):

  • On a piece of paper (along the left-hand margin), write a list of all the things (including jobs, leisure activities, etc.) you like to do, would like to do, or do well;
  • To the right of that list, divide the paper into five columns, and label each column in turn with the word eyes (reading), ears (listening), order (organizing/ranking), images (picturing), and doing (activity/motion);

Obviously, these two schemes are generalized assessments, whose reliability and validity have not been determined. Further, the number and kind of learning styles addressed vary between them (four in the first, five in the second; feeling in the first is not addressed in the second, while reading and order appear in the second but not the first). Nevertheless, they serve the useful purposes of raising awareness, and establishing a context for further discussion and exploration.
A plethora of more formal assessment instruments exist, among them theLSI(Kolb), LTM (McCarthy), and MBTI (Myers-Briggs) (See, Pat Guild and Stephen Garger (1998) provide a great overview of these, and a cogent discussion of learning style in general.
So what about my Department's pesky six pages of lists and fill-in-the-blanks? As a conscientious faculty member, my obligation to academic advising - to my advisees, actually - is both moral and contractual; 'translating' my Department's curriculum into my learning style became an essential first step (See Figure).

Since I am a 'see-er' and a 'do-er' I grabbed a pencil and drew a large triangle to begin my curriculum map that emulated the Great Pyramid in Egypt . Along the base level, six 'stone blocks' comprised our Liberal Education Requirements (LERs) list. Laid on top of that was a long block symbolizing my Department's 'gateway' course, which all students must pass to continue in the Major. Then, the Core courses were arranged in ascending (by course number) order in the pyramid's center, with the two sets of Foundation courses arrayed on either side of the Core. Capping the pyramid were the four Options (one side of the pyramid for each Option), and finally, the Internship.

Eureka! The response from similarly styled advisees and other students was immediate, positive, and heartfelt; they finally 'saw how it all fit together,' and envisioned a clear path to graduation. You can do the same (or have your advisees draw it with your guidance).
Advising is teaching, and learning style does matter.

Authored by:

Kim S. Uhlik, Assistant Professor

School of Exercise, Leisure, and Sport
Kent State University


Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1993). Teaching secondary students through their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades 7-12. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.


Guild, P. B., & Garger, S. (1998) . Marching to different drummers (2nd ed.). Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Habley, W. R. (Ed.). (2003). Current practices in academic advising: Final report of ACT's sixth national survey of academic advising. Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Habley, W. R., & Morales, R. H. (Eds.). (1998). Current practices in academic advising: Final report of ACT's fifth national survey of academic advising. Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McCarthy, B. (2000). About teaching: 4MAT in the classroom. Wauconda, IL: About Learning, Incorporated.

Szucs, F.K, Hawdon, J.E., & McGuire, F.A. (2001). Learning styles of leisure science majors compared to management, psychology, and sociology majors. Schole: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education. 16: 15-31.

Uhlik, K. S. (2004). Visualizing academic advising in a learning styles context: A pyramid approach. Schole: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education. 19: 97-114.

Wood, G. (1998). How to study: Use your personal learning style to help you succeed when it counts. New York: Learning Express, LLC.

Cite using APA style as:

Uhlik, K. S. (2005). If advising is teaching, then learning style matters. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web Site:


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