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Learning Styles in a College Japanese Class

 

Masako Hamada, Villanova University

 

Hamada, Ed.D., is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies Program, Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies

 

Abstract

Different students have different styles of learning foreign languages. This paper reports on a study to determine the learning styles of individual students in a college-level Japanese class over one year and also to see if there were any changes in their learning styles. The results showed that the survey itself gave the students a greater awareness and understanding of their own learning style(s). It led them to consider how their styles affected them and (in some cases) to try new learning styles in order to learn Japanese more efficiently and more effectively.

 

Introduction

Each of us learns in different ways and we often choose to use what is called our “preferred learning style” (Pritchard, 2005). Different students also have different styles of learning foreign languages. Dornyei (2005) defines learning styles as “a profile of the individual’s approach to learning, a blueprint of the habitual or preferred way the individual perceives interacts with and responds to the learning environment” (p.122). Bailey et al (2000) mention that Cornett (1983) believes that “each individual is born with certain tendencies toward particular learning styles that are subsequently influenced by culture, personal experiences, maturation, and development” (p.116). Also Furuhata (2002) and (Xiao, 2006) remark that cultural forces influence linguistic factors and Furuhata (2002) notes that the Japanese language is quite different from Indo-European languages, especially its syntactic, lexical and orthographic characteristics.

 

Understanding language learners is a matter of examining a variety of evidence, both observable and unobservable, about their ways of learning language (Wesely, 2012, p. S98). Some people learn foreign and second languages without much difficulty, while others have problems due to various factors, such as phonological processing difficulties in foreign language learning (Downey, Snyder & Hill, 2000) and deficits in first language learning (Sparks & Ganschow, 1993). Castro and Peck (2005) state that there are also some other elements (besides language learning deficits) that prevent students’ success in foreign language learning, including 1) linguistic deficits; 2) anxiety; 3) social and personal issues, and also 4) students’ learning styles.

 

Teaching a class which is composed of a diverse of group of people as a group without ignoring the students’ individual learning styles is a key issue since people learn differently according to their preferred learning styles (Smith & Kolb, 1986; Pritchard, 2005). Dornyei (2005) notes that four factors in individual differences have received special attention in past second language research: the students’ 1) motivation; 2) language aptitude; 3) learning styles; and 4) learning strategies.

 

Classroom assessment helps teachers obtain useful information on how well their students are learning and this information helps teachers to refocus their teaching to help students make their learning more efficient and effective (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Nilson (2010) stresses the importance of the selection of appropriate teaching methods, which is critical to the students’ learning, and that assessment of students’ learning styles is crucial for designing the curriculum of the course. Nilson also says that “your course design is your skeleton, your methods are the muscles on the bones” (p.103).

 

As Bailey et al (2000) pointed out, “research into the role of learning styles in foreign language achievement could serve to help a significant number of students improve their foreign language study habits, their learning flexibility, and ultimately their performance” (p.117).

 

This paper reports on a study of the learning styles of individual students in a college-level Japanese class over one year to ascertain their preferred learning styles and also to see if there were any changes in their learning styles over the course of the year. The study applied Faggella and Horowitz’s “Seven Styles of Learning” (1990) to determine individual student’s learning styles and also to see if they continued to use the same learning styles or if there were any changes in their learning styles over the course of the two semesters of the study period.

 

The results showed that the survey itself gave the students a greater awareness and understanding of their own learning style(s). It led them to consider how their styles affected them in the process of learning the foreign language and (in some cases) to try new learning styles to see if doing so helped them learn the foreign language even more efficiently and effectively.

 

Learning and Teaching Styles

Learning styles are general approaches used by learners in order to learn a new subject or to cope with a new problem (Oxford, Ehrman & Lavine, 1991).

 

There are certainly many ways of learning, but there are also some general learning styles, including: by visualizing, hearing, reading, memorizing, categorizing, acting, playing music, reflecting, reasoning logically and intuitively, reading, etc.

 

Learning styles have been extensively discussed in the educational field, and Reid (1998) notes that “successful students often have multi-style preferences and adapt their learning styles with experimentation and practice (p. xi).”

 

Teachers have their own tendencies to teach foreign languages using the approaches and methods they feel most comfortable with. (Smith & Kolb, 1986) Problems arise, however, when there is a conflict between the teacher’s teaching style and students’ learning styles. As Kara (2009) notes:

 

Teachers’ classroom behaviors impact on many different areas of the process such as preparation, classroom presentation, activities and approaches (Masse & Popovich, 2006)…. Reid (1987) stated that mismatches between learning and teaching styles often occurred and this mismatch resulted in bad effects on students’ learning and attitudes to English. Wallace and Oxford (1992) stated that students and teachers experienced style conflicts 82% of the time (p. 80).

 

Ehrman (1996) in Bailey et al. (2000) said that if “mismatches exist between learners’ styles and curriculum or teaching style, problems for learners will result” (p. 117).

 

Sprenger (2003) points out that teachers should assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods and approaches to best suit each student’s learning style. Reid (1998) suggests “rais[ing] learning styles awareness in both teachers and students,” recommending that teachers develop teaching techniques that address the broad needs of most learners and teach students to experiment with extending their preferred styles.

 

It is also important for teachers to help students gain cognitive awareness of their own learning styles because students are more likely to work harder and benefit much more from their classes when there is a match between their teacher’s teaching style and their own learning styles. (Peacock, 2001) Suinn (2006) emphasizes the importance of matching teaching methods to a student’s learning style: using the appropriate teaching style can enhance the student’s ability to grasp the information and to remember the material.

 

However, as Draper (2012) notes:

 

Finally learning styles are just one part of a more fundamental issue. Should teachers adapt to learners, or learners to teachers?
The answer is “both”; and the concept to think of is that of learning communities. (p. 40)

 

One issue to keep in mind is that most Japanese instructors in the U.S. are native Japanese, and it is likely that their teaching styles reflect their earlier Japanese education at school (Furuhata 2002), which is somehow different from how American college students learned in school. Specifically, the native Japanese teachers were educated in schools that featured teacher-centered teaching, book-centered learning, the grammar-translation method of learning foreign languages, and an emphasis on rote memory.

 

Research Questions and Method

 

Research Questions

The questions that this research attempted to answer were:

 

1. What learning styles were favored by the individual students in the class?

 

2. Would their learning style stay the same or would they make any changes or adjustments in their learning styles over one academic year?

 

3. Did the results of the survey give the students any awareness of their own learning styles?

 

Participants

Participants in this study were 15 undergraduate students in an introductory Japanese class in a first-year college-level Japanese language class in the 2010-2011 academic year at a large private university on the East Coast of the United States. They all took the class for two semesters. Their mean age was 19. Most of the students had taken other foreign languages, such as Spanish, French, German or Latin, in high schools, but this was the first time for the students to study Japanese at the college level, so they might have had some concerns and anxiety about studying an unfamiliar foreign language (Hamada, 2008).

 

Based on their responses to a question on the first survey they filled out, their motivations for taking the course were as follows: 1) an interest in Japanese culture, especially, anime, manga, video games, etc., 2) having friends in Japan, 3) studying abroad, 4) teaching English in Japan, 5) working in international corporations, etc.; 6) an academic interest in fulfilling the college’s foreign language requirement; or 7) a combination of the above.

 

Instruments

In order to understand the students’ learning styles, this study applied Faggella and Horowitz’s (1990) “Seven Styles of Learning”: (1) Linguistic learner, (2) Logical/Mathematical learner, (3) Spatial learner, (4) Musical learner, (5) Bodily/Kinesthetic learner, (6) Interpersonal learner, and (7) Intrapersonal learner.

 

Method: Survey to Identify Learning Styles

Prior to the beginning of the class for the first semester, the teacher had the students fill out a survey about their learning styles. The teacher also assessed her own preferred learning style. This exercise gave both students and the teacher the opportunity to better understand their own learning styles.

 

The students were asked to fill out the survey two more times during the fall semester and three times during the spring semester.

 

Results of the Surveys

Here are the learning styles the students chose as their own learning styles.

 

First Research Question

What learning styles were favored by the individual students in the class?

The results show that the students in the class chose a variety of learning styles, with every one of the seven learning styles chosen by at least one student.

 

Note: The teacher’s learning style in both fall and spring semesters was Logical and Mathematical Learner “The Questioner” (#2)

 

The results showed that they typically use more than one learning style, and successful students often have multi-style preferences (Reid, 1998).

The results show that some students are “Linguistic Learners,” who are good at memorization, saying, hearing and seeing words. Some students are “Logical/Mathematical Learners,” who are good at reasoning, categorizing the materials. Some students are “Spatial Learner,” who are good at visualizing, working with picture. Some students are “ Musical Learners,” who are good at learning through rhythm and music. Some students are “Bodily/Kinesthetic Learners,” who are good at learning through moving, interacting with classmates. Some students are “Interpersonal Learners,” who are good at sharing and cooperating with classmates. Some students are “Intrapersonal Learners,” who are good at learning through their own self-paced instruction.

 

Second Research Question

Would their learning style stay the same or would they make any changes or adjustments in their learning styles over one academic year?

 

Most of them continued using the same learning style they had developed, which they believed was effective for their learning. However, five students, after recognized their own learning styles in the fall semester, tried in the spring to apply another style to improve and enhance their learning (for example, combining memorization with music, memorization with visualization, practicing with group members and classmates and learning from each other’s mistakes, and categorizing with visualization in the process of learning.) They commented after trying another learning style that it helped them improve their learning.

 

The students also commented that the act of taking the survey was a source of good conversation with their teacher and classmates, which created a more productive classroom environment. Regardless of their learning styles, most of the students pointed out that learning and working together with their classmates were enjoyable and helped their learning process in class.

 

Third Research Question

Did the results of the survey give the students any awareness of their own learning

styles?

The survey gave the students some cognitive awareness of their learning styles. As shown in tables 2 and 3, most of them continued to use the same learning styles they have developed, which they believed were effective for their learning, but five students tried new learning styles. However, as their comments show, all of them gained an awareness of their own learning style. In particular, several mentioned that studying together with other students in groups was helpful.

 

Discussion

The results of the study show that the students used all of the seven learning styles, though, of course, some learning styles were more common than others.

 

By filling in the questionnaire in the fall semester, the students came to recognize their own learning styles. However, in the spring some of them tried to apply another style to improve and enhance their learning. Some commented after trying another learning style that it helped them improve their learning.

 

Here are some comments from the teacher who taught the course:

 

The survey helped me acknowledge again that there are various learning styles in class.

 

It is necessary to teach the same material creatively through different approaches. For example, it seems that the students enjoy learning and feel comfortable such as grammar practice through music, songs and games.

 

Some students prefer to visualize the phrases written on the board hearing them simultaneously. The students tried to write the phrases and sentences in their notes to stimulate their memory.

 

For oral practice through pair work, changing their partners occasionally is important, so students can keep getting stimulation from new partners.

 

So, by participating in this survey, both teacher and students gained a greater awareness of their teaching and learning styles. For her part, the teacher became aware of a mismatch between her own teaching styles and the learning styles of her students and she realized that the mismatch affected the quality of the students’ learning and had an impact on their attitudes toward the class and the subject (Felder & Henriques, 1995).

 

In addition, this survey became a conversation piece among students, encouraging them to share their learning styles and to try to apply other learning styles, which created a positive and motivating learning environment in class. They shared their styles with their classmates and suggested to each other that they try different styles to see if they would work for them, and there were indeed changes in some students’ learning styles over the academic year. Perhaps the regularly-administered surveys encouraged them to improve their learning styles by trying other styles. It seems that responding to the surveys gave students opportunities to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses and on ways to make improvements in their learning through understanding their own learning styles and trying new ones.

 

This suggests that we teachers need to train ourselves to include “a wide variety of teaching styles as part of our pedagogical repertoire to make sure we address the learning styles of the majority of students” (Castro & Peck, 2005, p. 407), to adjust our teaching if it does not match our students’ learning styles, and to try to help reduce students’ learning-style conflicts so they will not lose their desire to learn the foreign language (Ueno, 2005). Of course, it may be difficult for some teachers to change their teaching styles based on their students’ learning styles (Felder & Henriques, 1995), but they should do their best proactively to try to accommodate students’ learning styles as well as they can through self-practicing or role-playing with their colleagues.

 

Conclusion

This paper reported on the results of a study of the learning styles of individual students in a college-level Japanese class over one year to ascertain their preferred learning styles and also to see if there were any changes in their learning styles over the course of the year.

 

The result showed that the students in the class chose a variety of learning styles, with every one of the seven learning styles chosen by at least one student. By asking them to review their learning styles, the survey gave the students some cognitive awareness of what methods and strategies they use to learn a foreign language.

 

This study suggests that it would be worthwhile for teachers to not only discuss the issue of learning styles with their students and to examine their own learning styles but also to try to make an effort to discover the preferred learning styles of the students and then try to better match their own teaching style to their students’ preferred learning styles, and also design lessons, teaching methods, classroom procedures and classroom activities to match their students’ learning styles.

 

Teachers can employ instruments such as the “seven styles of learning” identified by Faggella and Horowitz’s (1990) that were used in this research to identify their students’ learning styles and use various means of instruction to address individual learning differences.

 

Teachers should also remind the students that the classroom is a safe environment to try another learning style to see if it helps them. We have a saying in our classes: “Enjoy mistakes, nobody is perfect. We learn from mistakes.”

 

It may also be “instructive” for teachers to share their own experiences learning foreign languages.

 

By doing all of the above, we can assist our students in becoming more effective language learners in a more comfortable learning environment.

 

It is hoped that this study will help Japanese teachers better understand their students’ learning styles and give them some ideas on how to adjust and adapt their teaching styles to their students’ learning styles in order to teach any level of a language more practically and effectively.

 

Most of the students in the survey continued to study Japanese language in the intermediate class and the advanced class, and four of them studied abroad in Japan. According to the students who took this survey, the survey stimulated their awareness of their own learning styles and the effectiveness of their learning and stimulated their motivation to learn further as well as being a good conversation topic with their classmates.

 

One limitation of this study was that the sample number was small, and a large number of respondents would be needed for further research which would enable us to more fully understand students’ learning styles and teachers’ teaching styles and how the two mutually influence each other in a classroom environment.

 

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