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The Felder-Silverman Learning and Teaching Styles Model

Richard Felder’s prominent work is the Felder-Silverman learning and teaching styles model (1988) and the Solomon-Felder Index of Learning Styles The Solomon-Felder Index of Learning Styles (ILS) is a 44 question instrument designed to assess preferences on the four dimensions of the Felder-Silverman model. They created the initial version in 1991, followed by an updated version in 1994, and an online version in 1997 (Felder & Spurlin, 2005, p. 104).(1991). Engineering Education published the Felder-Silverman model in 1988 as an article entitled Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education to offer insights about teaching and learning based on Silverman’s expertise in educational psychology and Felder’s own experience in engineering education. Although their aim was to offer helpful information to other engineering professors, the response, according to Felder (2002), was astonishing as reprint requests came from all over the world. Felder’s work ended up being the most frequently cited paper in articles published in the Journal of Engineering Education over a 10 year period (2002).

Felder and Silverman (1988) developed their learning style model for two reasons: to capture the most important learning style differences among engineering students; and, to provide a good foundation for engineering instructors to design a teaching approach that would address the learning needs of all students (Felder & Spurlin, 2005, p.103).

The Felder-Silverman model classifies students’ learning preferences into one of the categories in each of the following four learning style dimensions: sensing or intuitive, visual or verbal, active or reflective; or, sequential or global (Felder & Spurlin 2005).

Definitions to keep in mind while reading this Article

Learning Style Model
A learning style model classifies students according to where they fit on a number of scales pertaining to the ways they receive and process information (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p.674).

Teaching Style Model A teaching style model classifies instructional methods according to how well they address the proposed learning style components (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p.674).

Description of the Felder-Silverman Learning and Teaching Style Model

Felder and Silverman (1988) advocate that students learn in different ways: by hearing and seeing; by reflecting and acting; reasoning either logically or intuitively; by memorizing and visualizing and drawing analogies; and, either steadily or in small bits and large pieces (p.674). They also advocate that teaching styles vary, such as an educator’s preference for lecturing or demonstrating, or for focusing on principles or applications.

The Felder-Silverman model explores three issues: (1) the aspects of learning style Learning styles are characteristic preferences for alternative ways of taking in and processing information (Litzinger, Lee, Wise, & Felder, 2007, p.309).that is significant in engineering education, (2) the learning styles most preferred by students and the teaching styles most favored by educators; and, (3) strategies that will reach students whose learning styles are not addressed by regular engineering education methods (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 674).

They describe learning in a structured educational setting as a two step process involving the reception and processing of information. Felder and Silverman (1988) explain that “in the reception step, external information (observable through the senses) and internal information (arising introspectively) become available to students, who then select the material they will process and what they will ignore. The processing step may involve simple memorization or reasoning, reflection or action, and introspection or interaction with others” (p.674).

Felder (1996) indicates that the Felder-Silverman model classifies students as fitting into one of the following four learning style dimensions:

  • Sensing learners (concrete, practical, oriented towards facts and procedures) or intuitive learners (conceptual, innovative, oriented towards theories and meanings);
  • Visual learners (prefer visual representations of presented material – pictures, diagrams, flow charts) or verbal learners (prefer written and spoken explanations);
  • Active Learners (learn by trying thins out, working with others) or reflective learners (learn by thinking things through, working alone);
  • Sequential learners (linear, orderly, learn in small incremental steps) or global learners (holistic, systems thinkers, learn in large leaps) (Felder, 1996, p. 19).

The model proposes the hypothesis that engineering instructors who adapt their teaching style to include both poles of each of the given dimensions (for example both visual and verbal) should be close to providing an optimal learning environment for most of the students in any given class (Felder and Silverman, 1988, p. 675).

According to Felder and Spurlin (2005), each of the dimensions (sensing or intuitive, visual or verbal, active or reflective, sequential or global) has parallels in other learning style models. The combinations, however, are unique to Felder’s model. The first dimension – sensing/intuition – is one of four dimensions of Jung’s theory of psychological types, and the third dimension – active/reflective – is a component of Kolb’s learning style. The second dimension – visual/verbal – is analogous to the visual-auditory-kinesthetic formulation of modality theory and is rooted in cognitive studies of information processing. The fourth dimension – sequential/global – has numerous references (p.103).

In the Felder-Silverman model, the visual dimension refers to internal processing (such as visualization), rather than sensory input. Felder and Spurlin (2005) also point out that Silverman in a 2002 article, presents evidence from brain hemisphere research and clinical observations that show that global learners are more likely to be visual processors and sequential learners are more likely to be verbal processors (p.104).

Since the 1988 publication of Learning & Teaching Styles in Engineering Education, Felder has made two significant changes to his model. The first change is the deletion of the inductive/deductive dimension, because of confusion with educators between using the inductive or deductive method of instruction. The second change was renaming the visual/auditory category to visual/verbal. Felder made this change to allow both spoken and written words to be included in the verbal category (Felder, 2002).

Felder and Spurlin (2005) summarize that learning styles reflect preferences and tendencies; they are not infallible indicators of strengths or weaknesses in either the preferred or the less preferred categories of a dimension. They conclude that the Index of Learning Styles has two principle applications: to provide guidance to instructors on the diversity of learning styles within their classes and to help them design instruction that addresses the learning needs of all their students; and, to give individual students insights into their possible learning strengths and weaknesses (p.110).

Main Elements of the Felder-Silverman Learning and Teaching Style Model

The four main elements of the Felder-Silverman model are (1) the four learning style dimensions, (2) the five questions that define a student’s learning style, (3) the five questions that define teaching style; and, (4) the Felder-Solomon Index of Learning Styles. The following is a brief summary from Felder and Silverman (1988) of each of the elements that make up the Felder-Silverman model.

  • The Four Learning Style Dimensions
    • Sensing/Intuitive
    • Visual/Verbal
    • Active/Reflective
    • Sequential/Global
  • The Five Questions that Define Learning Style
  • The Five Questions that Define Teaching Style
  • The Felder-Solomon Index of Learning Styles

The Four Learning Style Dimensions
Felder and Silverman (1988), define four learning style dimensions. The following is a brief summary of each of the dimensions.

  • Sensing and Intuitive Learners
  • Visual and Verbal Learners
  • Active and Reflective Learners
  • Sequential and Global Learners

Sensing and Intuitive Learners
The following information on sensing and intuitive learners is a summary from Felder and Silverman’s (1988) article Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education, p. 676.

Felder and Silverman (1988) explain that sensing and intuition are two ways in which people tend to perceive the world. Sensing involves observing and gathering data through the senses; intuition involves indirect perception by way of the unconscious: speculation, imagination, and hunches. Although learners will use both of these faculties, most will prefer using one to the other (p. 676).

Sensors like facts, data, experimentation, and solving problems by standard methods, but dislike surprises. They are patient with detail, but do not like complications. Sensors are good at memorizing facts, and tend to be careful and slower in completing their work (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 676).

Intuitors prefer principles, theories, and innovation, but dislike repetition. Detail may bore them, and they welcome complications. Intuitors are good at grasping new concepts, and they tend to complete tasks quickly, which on occasion, may lead to carelessness (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 676).

According to Felder and Silverman (1988), an important distinction between intuitors and sensors is that intuitors are more comfortable with symbols. Since words are symbols, translating them into what they represent comes naturally to intuitors and is more of a struggle for sensors (p. 676).

Visual and Verbal Learners
The following information on visual and verbal learners is a summary from Felder and Silverman’s (1988) article Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education, (pp. 676-677).

Felder and Silverman (1988) indicate the way people receive information may be divided into three categories or modalities: (1) visual – sights, pictures, diagrams, symbols; (2) verbal – sounds and words; and, (3) kinesthetic – taste, touch, and smell. They explain that visual and auditory learning both have to do with learning processes that perceive information, and kinesthetic learning has to do with both perception such as taste, touch, and smell, and information processing such as moving, relating, or doing something active (p. 676).

Visual learners remember best what they see: pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, demonstrations. They may forget information that is communicated to them verbally (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 677).

Verbal learners remember much of what they hear and even more of what they hear and then say. They remember and learn well from discussions, prefer verbal explanation to visual demonstration, and learn effectively by explaining things to others (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 677).

Active and Reflective Learners
The following information on active and reflective learners is a summary from Felder and Silverman’s (1988) article Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education, p. 678-679.

Felder and Silverman (1988) state that the complex mental processes that convert perceived information into knowledge consist of two categories: active experimentation and reflective observation. Active experimentation involves doing something with information in the external world, such as discussing it, explaining it, or testing it in some way. Reflective observation involves examining and manipulating the information introspectively (p. 678).

Active Learners do not learn much from lectures because they require them to receive information passively. They work and learn better in situations that allow for group work and hands on experimentation (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 678).

Reflective Learners require situations that provide opportunity to think about the information being presented. They work well alone or in a one-on-one situation with another person and when given the opportunity to devise theories (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p.679).

Felder and Silverman (1988) postulate that the opposite of active is passive, not reflective. This consideration is within the context of student participation in class. They explain that active signifies that students are doing something other than listening and watching in class, and that active student participation will encompass the learning processes of both active experimentation and reflective observation (p. 679).

Sequential and Global Learners
The following information on sequential and global learners is a summary from Felder and Silverman’s (1988) article Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education, p. 679.

Sequential learners are comfortable with mastering material presented in a logically ordered progression, learning it as the educator presents it. They follow linear reasoning processes when solving problems, and can work with material even when they only have a partial or superficial understanding of it. They may be strong in convergent thinking and analysis, and learn best when educators present material in a steady progression of complexity and difficulty (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 679).

Global learners tend to learn in bits and pieces: they may feel lost for days or weeks unable to solve simple problems or show the most rudimentary understanding, until suddenly they “get it” – the light bulb flashes and the entire puzzle finally comes together. And as a result, they may understand the material well enough to apply it to problems that leave most of the sequential learners baffled (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 679).

Global learners may have difficulty working with material that they only have a partial or superficial understanding of. They tend to make intuitive leaps and then have difficulty explaining how they came up with solutions. They tend to do better at divergent thinking and synthesis and have the ability to move directly to more complex and difficult material (Felder & Silverman, 1988, p. 679).

The Five Questions that Define Learning Style
Felder and Silverman (1988) propose that a student’s learning style may be defined by the answers to five questions (p. 675):

  1. What type of information does the student preferentially perceive: sensory (external) – sights, sounds, physical sensations, or intuitively (internal) – possibilities, insights, hunches?
  2. Through which sensory channel is external information most effectively perceived: visual – pictures, diagrams, graphs, demonstrations, or auditory – through words or sounds?
  3. With which organization of information is the student most comfortable: inductive – where facts and observations are given, and underlying principles are inferred, or deductive – where principles are given, and consequences and applications are deduced?
  4. How does the student prefer to process information: actively – through engagement in physical activity or discussion, or reflectively – through introspection?
  5. How does the student progress toward understanding: sequentially – in continual steps, or globally – in large jumps, holistically?

The Five Questions that Define Teaching Style
Felder and Silverman (1988) propose that teaching style may be defined by the answers to five questions (p. 675):

  1. What type of information does the instructor emphasize: concrete – factual, or abstract – conceptual or theoretical?
  2. What mode of presentation is stressed: visual – pictures, diagrams, films, demonstrations, or verbal – lectures, readings, and discussions?
  3. How does the instructor organize the presentation: inductively – phenomena leading to principles, or deductively – principles leading to phenomena?
  4. What mode of student participation is facilitated by the presentation: active – students talk, move, reflect, or passive – students watch and listen?
  5. What type of perspective does the instructor provide on the information presented: sequential – step-by-step progression (the trees), or, global – context and relevance (the forest)?

The Felder-Solomon Index of Learning Styles
The Felder-Solomon Index of Learning Styles (ILS) determines an individual’s preferred dimensions of the learning style model by asking 11 forced-choice items for each of the four dimensions (for a total of 44 questions). Each item has a possible a or b response that corresponds to either one of the categories related to the dimension - for example - the active or reflective dimension. The b responses are subtracted from the a responses to obtain a score that is an odd number between -11 to +11 (Felder & Spurlin, 2005, p.104).

Felder (1993) points out that each of the learning style dimensions are continua and not either/or categories. Therefore, an individual’s preference on a given scale (e.g. for sequential or global tendencies) may be strong, moderate, or almost nonexistent, may change with time, and may vary from one subject or learning environment to another (n.p.).

To view the ILS, click here

References

Felder, R.M. (2002). Author’s preface to learning and teaching styles in engineering education [Electronic Version]. Engr. Education, 78(7), 674-681 (1988). Retrieved on July 24, 2009 from: http://www4.ncsu.edu./unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/LS- 1988.pdf

Felder, R.M. (1996). Matters of style [Electronic Version]. ASEE Prism 6(4), 18-23. Retrieved on August 28, 2009 from: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/LS- Prism.htm

Felder, R.M. (1993). Reaching the second tier: Learning and teaching styles in college science education. Retrieved on August 28, 2009 from: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/Seco ndtier.html

Felder, R.M., & Silverman, L.K. (1988). Learning and teaching styles in engineering education [Electronic Version]. Engr. Education, 78(7), 674-681. Retrieved on July 24, 2009 from: http://www4.ncsu.edu./unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/LS- 1988.pdf

Felder, R.M., & Spurlin, J. (2005). Applications, reliability, and validity of the index of learning styles [Electronic Version]. Int. J. Engng Ed. Vol.21, No.1, pp.103-112. Retrieved on August 28, 2009 from: http://www4.ncsu.edu./unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/ILSdir/ILS_ Validation(IJEE).pdf

Litzinger, T.A., Sang, H.L., Wise, J.C., & Felder, R.M. (2007). A psychometric study of the index of learning styles [Electronic Version]. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(4), 309-319. Retrieved on August 28, 2009 from: http://www4.ncsu.edu./unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/ILSdir/ILS_ Validation(JEE-2007).pdf