QNRF Newsletter Archive

Qatar-based learning styles study sheds light on key gaps

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The learning styles research team, (L to R) Tracey Lemke-Westcott, Naeema Khan, Yasser El-Agami, Shyma Nouh, Dr. Brad Johnson and Buthaina Al Naqeeb
Time for a lecture. The professor enters the room, sets down her folders and speaks to a hall full of students who are navigating the web, falling asleep, messaging friends on their mobile devices or doodling in their notebooks. The class is expensive and the information will impact their future. But somehow the students can’t focus. The professor, frustrated, leaves the lecture hall wondering why ‘kids today’ are so distracted, why they don’t care. But is youth and modern distraction really the problem? A team of researchers based in Doha says ‘not necessarily,’ and they’ve been sharing evidence to this effect around the region and Europe.

“As teachers from the West, we are expecting university students to prefer more critical thinking, analysis and abstract conceptualization,” said Tracey Lemke-Westcott, English for Academic Purposes Instructor at the Univesity of Calgary, Qatar, (UCQ) and lead investigator on a study into learning style differences among students in the Middle East and faculty from North America. “If you have that assumption going into it, your lessons may fall flat and students may not understand or know how to cope.”

Abstract Conceptualization (AC, or “thinking”), is one of the four main categories of learning styles framed by a research mechanism known as the Kolb Learning Style Inventory. This inventory involves distributing a set of questions to a cohort, the answers of which help an investigator see the type of learning style the person prefers. The other Kolb categories are Concrete Experience (CE or “feeling”), Reflective Observation (RO or “watching”), and Active Experimentation (AE or “doing”).

Lemke-Westcott and her team—faculty mentor Brad Johnson, Ph.D., and four UCQ student researchers, Buthaina Al Naqeeb, Yasser El-Agami, Naeema Khan and Shyma Nouh—distributed the Kolb test to students throughout UCQ, and given an 80 percent response rate (61 completed tests) asked the participants to fill in a more detailed learning-style questionnaire known as the Vermunt Inventory of Learning Styles. As a comparison, 90 percent, or 25, instructors completed the Kolb test. Their work spanned a year and a half's time and was supported by a Qatar National Research Fund, Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP) grant.

“After an extensive literature review, we chose two assessment tools that we thought would be applicable here but also internationally recognized,” Lemke-Westcott said. “Kolb, more known in America, is a very straightforward test and it has a lot of international comparisons. Vermunt is from Europe and has been used in a lot of cross-cultural comparisons with Asian and European students, and was highly-acclaimed in Britain when they performed a critical, 16 month review of learning-style models.”

Since so many of the students at UCQ participated in the inventories, the team was able to look at learning style differences among students at different stages in their academic careers. Lemke-Westcott said that most students in the early stage of their academic careers at UCQ are AE (doing) types, who prefer hands-on experience, concrete examples and ideas that have a direct impact on their lives. As the students gain experience and work through materials, they tend to become more RO, (watching) types, eventually moving into the AC (thinking) mode toward graduation.

These results positively showed the progress students make through their careers at UCQ, Lemke-Westcott explained. “When they enter the program, they have a certain set of skills and knowledge knowledge and they like to do things,” she said. “When they graduate as nurses they get to do things, certainly, but they need to have those critical thinking skills, and they need to take a thoughtful approach to practice. That’s where we want them to be.”

Taking the research one step further, the team asked the faculty to participate in the inventories. The resulting snapshot of the differences between student learning styles and their professors’ shines a higher-definition light on a missing link in effective teaching methods.

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Kolb results including students, faculty and other groups (click image to enlarge)
“It was interesting to see the faculty way off on one spectrum, and the students on the other. To students, it’s more about doing and watching and for faculty it’s more about thinking,” she said. “There’s quite a gap.”

Knowing of this difference, the researchers say, presents a big opportunity.

“There’s a huge distance between first-year students and faculty,” Dr. Johnson said. “There’s an awareness piece that lets both students and faculty know that there’s a big difference between how we see the world and approach things. The question changes from ‘what is the matter?’ to ‘how can we bridge this gap?’”

By understanding the styles, the teachers might renew their approach to pedagogy and perhaps observe their students more, where they’re coming from or how they are learning, Lemke-Westcott said. “For instance, I know one of my students is very aural in my class so I said ‘why don’t you read aloud, say your essays aloud, discuss with your friends your essay ideas.’ Just by catching that one strength, she actually has improved in her other areas.

The facets of a classroom increase in a place like Qatar, Lemke-Westcott said, and language and cultural differences can present challenges to new faculty. Yet the findings of this study help to boil everything down: “This research just highlights the ways we are different, so that it’s easier to see how to offer students some tools that they can translate into their preferred learning style.”

The student researchers on the learning-style project directly experienced an evolution in their own approaches over the course of the project. Having been engaged according to their hands-on AE (doing) styles through the distribution of inventories and tabulation of results, they moved into a mode of analyzing the results that they gathered.

“I’ve had a chance to work with all of these students since they made their way through the UREP project, and from faculty feedback and certainly what I’ve observed, they’ve grown so much,” Dr. Johnson said. “When they go into other classes, they’ve got a much better idea of how to work with problems.”

The team has presented their findings in Europe, UAE and Qatar, engaging the students fully as eager and proud presenters. The team hopes that the research can be duplicated on a larger scale throughout educational institutions in Qatar, which would mean a greater sample size and increased illumination of how to make the educational process more efficient.

UREP: 07 - 057 - 6 - 008
International learning styles and post-secondary students in Qatar
LPI Name: Tracey Lemke-Westcott, University of Calgary - Qatar
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