Barbara Prashnig explains the importance of understanding the role of learning styles in studying and exam preparation.

Students studying for exams in schools all over the country suffer from anxiety, frustration and despair because they know they are fighting a losing battle. There is strong consensus among educators that, no matter how we teach our students, they ultimately need to be capable of taking tests and sitting exams successfully. I do not contest these aspirations for a minute, particularly for as long as we have education systems that measure students’ learning success mainly in prescribed tests, assessments and exams.

To be successful in such a system based on assessment for learning like that used in the US and UK (in other words, dependent on testing), students need to be well-prepared and confident if they are to achieve the desired outcomes. Wherever there are such systems in place, teachers and parents will do their utmost to help these youngsters achieve the best possible results, but unfortunately not always results they had hoped for. Despite study skills courses, exam preparation techniques and expensive private tuition, many students still do not achieve the exam outcomes proportionate to their efforts. But finally, true help on is the horizon: a well-understood learning styles (LS) approach and personalised study techniques can change that for the better.

Since learning styles and personalised learning have been introduced on a large scale in various countries, I have met many progressive teachers who have embraced the diversity concept whole-heartedly and with great success. Initially, this happened more in primary schools, but now more and more secondary schools assess their students’ learning styles to prevent underachievement and school failure. However, even if educators are very much in favour of learning styles and personalised instructions, many of them (particularly in secondary schools) cannot see how LS would be beneficial for test-taking as it is impossible to accommodate individual learning needs during such activities. I fully agree, but have to point out that such reasoning contains a profound misconception about LS. It needs to be clarified under which circumstances learning style approaches are most beneficial for students and how that affects their performance during exams.

Considering the complexity of learning processes, we have to distinguish between information intake and information output. Curriculum delivery, skills acquisition and increased understanding of subject areas are all variations of information intake for the brain, during which personalising learning through LS applications can make all the difference between learning success and failure. This is particularly the case when students have to learn something new and/or difficult.

Exams and tests on the other hand, are situa-tions where information output is required, during which students show what they know, what they have learned and how well they understand curriculum content. They are not taking in new information, but have to demonstrate their knowledge under time pressure, and generally students find such situations quite stressful. It is a well-known fact that human beings find it very difficult to perform well under severe pressure; if they could, most students would avoid exams and tests altogether. As this is unfortunately not possible, strategies are needed for these often unpleasant and even threatening situations.

Educators need to understand that when students have to participate in learning processes (information intake) that don’t match their personal learning style, their concentration, memory and understanding will be impaired, resulting in poor exam results (information output) and often failure. Considering learning styles in the context of information intake and output, our research over the last ten years shows that the points of difference are this:

  • During the presentation of new and/or difficult information in class, learning styles need to be accommodated to ensure understanding, long-term memory and the best possible learning.
  • When students study and prepare for exams they need to be made aware of their personal learning styles and should be allowed to learn in their own way, in the right environment, and with the most appropriate study techniques for their own style.
  • During tests and exams, learning styles are not so crucial because most students have enough flexibility to cope with adverse situations; this is especially true when the learning process preceding the exam has been accomplished with teaching methods matching their personal learning styles. When students are allowed to learn in their best way, they understand and remember better and are much more confident in showing what they know in an exam situation, even when their personal learning styles are not being matched during the exam. Yet they are less prone to failure or having memory lapses because with LS based study techniques, curriculum content is more readily available, even under pressure.

Therefore this important conclusion can be drawn: Exam results improve when students have been allowed to learn and prepare themselves in their own way, based on their personal learning style. TEX

Barbara Prashnig’s book, Learning Styles in Action, contains answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding LS as well as practical tips for implementation and reports from educators who have successfully worked with LS in their classrooms. The book and LSA assessment instruments are available at: www.networkpress.co.uk , For more articles on learning styles, please visit Barbara’s website: www.creativelearningcentre.com.

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