An Investigation of Learning Styles with a view to making Instrumental Teaching Methods more effective and pupils into better musicians

Nicola Shorland - May 2005

My aim in this dissertation is to create a resource for teachers to help them identify individual pupils’ learning styles and to give suggestions as to how they can initially modify their teaching so that the pupil learns quickly and easily. This should lead to teachers guiding pupils to awareness of his/her and others’ learning styles and to develop areas essential to musical practice. The final goal is to help students to a better understanding of material learnt and to equip them for learning on their own. I will use case studies of my own experience of two pupils.

I do not think that it is useful for pupils to be made aware of their and others learning styles until they are twelve. Research suggests that children’s ability for reasoning and applying knowledge to new situations has developed sufficiently by age twelve to make this knowledge useful to them. (footnote 1) Also they have a lot of basic learning to do in school, socially and at home, where it is easier to learn without self-analysis. Before age twelve they may not be emotionally developed enough to understanding and therefore be able to use the concept. (footnote 2) Childhood learning should be made as fun and as easy as possible.

I will be using, primarily the Felder/Silverman Learning Styles model and relating it to Visual-Spatial/Auditory-Sequential, Kolb’s learning cycle, Myers/Briggs personality types and Visual, Auditory & Kinaesthetic learning styles research. (footnote 3) I have chosen the Felder/Silverman model as a basis because I feel that it goes beyond the traditional Left-Brain, Right Brain ideas to become more practical, but still incorporates them. My experience with this model gave it personal validation.

The Felder/Silverman model consists of four pairs of Learning Styles, Sensing/Intuiting, Visual/Verbal, Active/Reflective and Sequential/Global. These were determined by asking these four questions of the student;

    1. What type of information do you prefer: sensory (sights, sounds and physical sensations), or intuitive (memories, ideas, and insights)?

    2. How do you receive information: visually (pictures, demonstrations etc.), or verbally (sounds, written and spoken words and formulas)?

    3. How do you process information: actively (through engagement in physical activity or discussion), or reflectively (through introspection)?

    4. How do you proceed from not-knowing to knowing: sequentially (in small logical steps), or globally (in irregular, large jumps)? (footnote 4)

Sensory learners like details, problem solving by known methods, practical work and learning facts. They are very careful, practical and good at memorising information. They dislike complications and surprises and have trouble learning abstractions that do not seem to be connected to the real world: they are Kinaesthetic. This kind of processing takes place in the left cerebral region of the brain (footnote 5) therefore is associated with auditory-sequential learning.

Intuitive learners are good at grasping new concepts and are more comfortable with abstractions and maths formulae. They like discovering possibilities and relationships and are innovative. They dislike repetition, memorisation and routine. They like to work fast which relates to visual dominance. This is related to the right cerebral region of the brain (footnote 6) and therefore visual-spatial activity.

Visual learners remember pictures and graphs etc. and tend to forget what is said about them. Like intuitive learners they often have visual dominance, think quickly, use the right cerebral region of the brain and are visual-spatial. If this is a particularly strong area there is a good possibility that the student is dyslexic.

Verbal learners on the other hand much prefer words and are likely to remember wordy explanations of a picture rather than the picture its self. This processing take place in the right limbic region of the brain but these learners are more likely to be auditory-sequential learners because of the way that they think, i.e. in words not pictures. (footnote 7) They will often have auditory dominance and like to read aloud.

Active learners remember information best by doing it, applying it, discussing it and seeing how it works. They work well in groups where ideas must be communicated physically. (footnote 8) Students who are strongly biased towards active learning are likely to be Kinaesthetic learners and need external stimuli. Also related to right brain and visual-spatial activity.

Reflective learners like to think about something before they do it and remember things better if they have had a chance to think them through; these internal conversations relate to auditory dominance. Also related to left brain and auditory-sequential activity.

Sequential learners gain understanding in linear steps that follow on logically. They find answers by following a stepwise path and are therefore slower in gaining understanding; this corresponds with auditory dominance. This processing takes place in the left limbic region of the brain and relates to auditory-sequential learning.

Global learners gain understanding in large jumps, they store away any information that is given to them then later, when they have all the pieces, they put it together very quickly. They can often see the answer to a question immediately but do not know the steps to get to it logically. This is a right cerebral process that relates to visual-spatial learning.

There are two main angles to my study, identifying pupils’ learning style and helping their learning by teaching in their style.

To help the teacher identify pupils’ learning style I will set out the typical characteristics of the different styles. Because everyone has differing tendencies the teacher needs to know the styles and characteristics in depth in order to identify each students style. Some characteristics may look like one style but are actually another because they often overlap and combine.

To help teachers improve their pupils’ understanding I will suggest ideas to make pupils more comfortable in their learning and to develop weaker areas that are essential to musical development. It is important to note that the theoretical examples are mainly concerned with students who have a strong bias to the one of each pair being discussed therefore they may need to be modified to suit students with differing tendencies.

I shall follow with examples and feedback from my case studies.

Sensory and Intuitive learners:

Characteristics -

If you ask a pupil, for example, to learn some Italian terms a sensory learner will remember them accurately including the meaning: an intuitive learner is more likely to remember the meaning but forget the actual word. When learning a new piece a sensory learner will steadily learn all the notes and details on the page and play it very accurately: an intuitive learner will learn the whole piece more quickly and relate it to other pieces they have already learnt; they are likely not to play entirely accurately.

If you ask "how do we do this?" a sensory learner will describe what it feels and sounds like and a intuitive learner will relate it previously learnt material with modifications, i.e. it’s like playing forte but using a smaller embouchure hole.

Learning scales will be easier for intuitive learners because once they have learnt the scale in one key they can easily transfer it to every other key, for sensory learners it will be a new challenge every time.

Ideas -

Sensory learners prefer you to talk about new material for its own sake. They learn quicker, more easily and enjoy it more when you demonstrate things for them to listen to and when they physically try it out for themselves, it can also help them to talk about the way something physically feels to execute. They are happy to work on details in a piece, for example, tone colours. They will be happy to learn scales although the process is slow, if they are not presented as boring, because they like to learn facts that they can get right.

Sensory learners need to be encouraged to make relationship between new and old material, for example spotting passages that are the same in two different pieces and more importantly relating scales to one-another to accelerate learning. Sensory learners tend to be lacking in imagination and spontaneity so this needs to be encouraged in performance. They are not good at abstract relationships, for example "playing with a purple tone" and need real world images to evoke expression. Their performances are often the same every time; they need to be encouraged to experiment and to find new ways to play the same piece.

Sensory learners dislike changes in structure so you can avoid this disorientation by not having a rigid structure to lessons. This also suits intuitive learners as they do not like repetition.

Intuitive learners will get bored with perfecting pieces if you do not encourage new ways of playing them. However, you need to make them consciously aware of details so that their practice is effective. They work fast and are always in a hurry to move on so you need to slow them down a little and give them a technical focus each week so they do not end up knowing lots of pieces but having a very poor technique. However, it is important not to dwell on pieces they can play because they get bored easily; they tend to move quickly through similar repertoire as they are good at transferring skills.

It is useful to them to point out relationships with other pieces, for example when learning their first minor scale it will help them to relate it to the major scales they already know. Learning completely new scales, for example a diminished arpeggio, will be more of a challenge; they will easily understand the concept but have nothing previously learnt to relate it to and will find the repetition to get to know it boring. It may seem strange that they find F# major easier than C diminished arpeggio to start with.

They have a hard time learning facts but abstract associations may help, for example the expression marking "cantabile" you could try "tin can", "tar on the road", "gas bill" and "a" the first letter of the alphabet.

Visual and Verbal Learners:

Characteristics -

When you ask a student to play a new passage from memory a visual learner will want to look at the music first and a verbal learner will want talk it through before playing it. If you ask them to describe a picture of the piece, visual learners will have clear pictures in their heads, but only say a few words with gestures; verbal learners will describe in words a simpler picture.

Visual learners are quick thinkers and workers and good at imagining actual physical things as well as things they have not seen.

Verbal learners think slower which makes it easier for them to answer any questions you ask them because they can speak as fast as they think. They also tend to talk a lot.

Ideas -

Visual learners learn well when you give them physical demonstrations and sights to remember. They tend to forget words so these representations are very important. They respond well to picture stimuli to evoke emotive performances, even if you use abstract pictures. To help them remember Italian terms it is useful to associate them with pictures, for example "dolce", soft feather pillows.

They learn quickly and easily when reading music. Unfortunately this leads to a lack of listening: a fundamental of music practice. When teaching a hand position it is good to relate the shape to something in the real world. For example you could use the image of "banana fingers" for teaching the right hand position for playing the flute, this is also good for verbal learners as they remember the word which leads them to the "banana" shape.

If you have a highly dyslexic pupil you need to find a very specific way of getting through to them, every case is different.

Remembering words is no problem for verbal learners, they learn quickly from verbal instructions. The more words you can find to explain things the better. Learning Italian terms will be no problem, they will remember the sound of the word, if not the word perfectly, and have a go at saying it. They like you to play a lot to them so they can hear the sound they a striving for. It is very useful for them to explain back to you what you have just taught them because they get to hear it in their own voice; it is useful to you because you then know they understand it. Visual learners will find this explaining very difficult even if they understand the material. Verbal learners are good listeners which gives them the initial advantage in the field of music, however, they rely greatly on the left hemi-sphere of the brain and need a lot of encouragement to stimulate the right hemi-sphere to be creative.

‘Everyone learns more when information is presented both visually and verbally’, quotes R Felder, (footnote 9) it would be difficult to teach a music lesson using only one of these mediums but it‘s important to remember they are both important. The more points of reference a learner has the easier the learning.

Active and Reflective Learners:

Characteristics -

Reflective learners may seem slower then active ones because of all the thinking/processing time that they take. If you ask "how do you think we do this?" an active learner will discuss it freely with you and find their way to an answer. A reflective learner will pause to think about it then almost certainly give you the right answer, if they know it, or find something similar in their memory banks to relate it to - careful not to confuse this with intuitive learners. An active learner’s immediate talking maybe confused with a verbal learner’s agility with words - it is the pause before they speak that is the defining factor. When you ask a pupil to play a passage an active learner will jump in and play it, then think and probably play it better the second time; a reflective learner pauses to think then does it to the best of their ability. An active learner’s mistake making could easily be confused with an intuitive learner’s inaccurate learning. If you explain a technical point an active learner will play it straight away, discuss it with you or explain it back to you, a reflective learner thinks, then may summarise what you said before they play.

Active learners like working in groups and discussing ideas with everyone whereas reflective learners prefer working in pairs or individually. (footnote 10) When working in groups reflective learners often want everyone to come up with their own ideas before they discuss them as a group.

Active learners often have lots of friends and are extroverts, they tend to jump into things and therefore get in trouble more often. They are likely to make more mistakes before they get it right.

Reflective learners tend to have fewer friends and are introverts. They think more than they talk, so may be perceived as quiet or shy; everything they say is relevant. They take a long time to do anything but the result is nearly always correct first time.

Ideas -

Active learners like to physically try things out all the time; they need lots of time to play and talk to gain understanding. They respond well to simile of movement, for example "make the shape of the note like a brush stroke" or "imagine in this phrase you are walking through mud in wellingtons". To help them learn a piece or memorise it, it could be useful to copy and cut a piece into four bar phrases and to have them put it back together. It can be a problem that they make a lot of mistakes; every time you play something wrong you are teaching yourself to play it wrongly, then this needs to be unlearnt before the correct version starts to be remembered. This needs to be brought to their attention from the beginning, a conscious effort is needed to think before they play.

Reflective learners need time to think to gain understanding, it is easy to rush them into playing especially if you are not a reflective learner yourself. To give them thinking time but to avoid an awkward silence you could specifically ask them to think through the piece or technique before they play.

Active learners talking maybe confused with verbal learners and the contrary with reflective and visual learners.

Pupils with a strong active bias may often jump in and play before you have finished explaining. Reflective learners are likely to keep you waiting while they think. Reflective learners maybe perceived as "naturals" at their instrument simply because they think through actions before they play and come to understanding before they put anything into practice; therefore their first try is often very good. Active learners on the other hand need encouragement from the teacher as they may not get it from anywhere else because "they keep getting it wrong."

Sequential and Global Learners:

Characteristics -

If a pupil makes a mistake when playing a piece a sequential learner will normally go back to the beginning of the piece or line whereas a global learner is more likely to skip the difficult bar and move on. When sequential learners are learning a new piece they will learn each bar and then put them together, this methodical work maybe confused with sensory learners. The defining point is that sequential learners do not have a sense of how the piece works until they have learnt every bar. Global learners on the other hand may have a sense of the whole piece but not know the details of the individual bars. This could be mistaken for active or intuitive learners’ inaccuracies.

Sequential learners tend to be more organised and remember everything they need, whereas global learners will remember the music lesson but may forget details, i.e. to bring their instrument.

Ideas -

Sequential learners need material to be given to them in the order that they need to learn it. They also need to learn every bar in a piece to understand it as a complete work. They need to be helped to focus in on bars towards the end of pieces as they like to start from the beginning.

Sequential learning is related to auditory dominance. If the pupil is auditory they will benefit from you playing to them a lot. It may seem to take a long time to learn a piece; seeming not to be getting anywhere at the start with a swift realisation at the end. This usually means they have learnt the piece very well and are not likely to forget it. With this step-by-step long process of learning it can be hard to keep young pupils motivated, it is good to listen to the piece so that the pupil knows what they are aiming for and gets a better sense of the whole.

If a pupil is auditory dominant this does not automatically mean they are good at listening in a musical sense. They have a head start because they like to use their ears and find using them natural but they still need to be aware a new way of using them when they are playing and to know what they are listening out for.

Global learners need patience. They take in all the information you give them no matter whether it is in logical order or not; this makes teaching easier as you can tell them things as you think of them and this will not interfere with their learning. They will not gain complete understanding until they have all the information so it might look like they are getting nowhere.

They understand the general idea of a piece or technique very quickly and attempt to do it before they completely understand it. With technique this is a good quality as trying it out for yourself is a good way of discovering how it works and understanding it better. With pieces however this maybe less advantageous as pupils can appear to have learnt a piece but do not understand it properly and have not learnt it accurately. The teacher needs to recognise this, not move on too quickly and encourage careful and accurate learning in steps as a sequential learner would do. If you ask a global learner "can you explain to me how you change your embouchure from a loud to a quiet sound?" they are likely to tell you the two positions but not how to move in-between them.

Music appears on the surface to be a left brain function because it is auditory (auditory-sequential). However, it is a right brain experience as it is heavily involved with creativity and the emotions. The explanation of this is simple, as with the limbs the ears are connected to the opposite half of the brain: right ear to left brain etc. The right ear works with the left brain on higher frequencies which control verbal and sequential ability. The left ear works with the right brain receiving lower frequencies which control intonation, rhythm and emotion: the elements of music. Music is auditory but it is received and processed in the right brain. (footnote 11) If a pupil is strongly left brained, sensory, verbal, reflective and/or sequential, it is essential to stimulate the right brain from the beginning.

Case Studies -

I taught two students for six half-hour lessons, I had taught neither of them before. My aim was to observe their behavioural characteristics to determine their individual learning style and to adapt my teaching accordingly. I used the first lesson simply to get to know them and gain their confidence; the following four to focus on each of the pairs of styles; and the remaining one to bring everything together. As a tool for checking my findings I have adapted R Felder and L Silverman’s Learning Styles Questionnaire for them to answer. (footnote 12)

Lucy Brocklehurst is eight and has been learning the flute for nearly one year, she has a lot of support from her mother.

Nathan Flannery is ten and has been learning just longer than one year. He is self-motivated and practises a lot.

Lucy Brocklehurst:

As a warm-up exercise I asked Lucy to copy the note(s) I played. When I played a B and she followed with an A, she wasn’t demoralised just went on to find the right note. This indicates that she is an intuitive learner; so do the following examples.

    Ÿ I asked her to describe pieces in shapes and colours, after the initial confusion and thinking I was crazy she was very creative. She came up with ‘diamonds’ for a staccato passage and made differences between the different colours I asked her to represent.

    Ÿ I used picking a card from a pack to determine the number of times she should repeat something; she was happy the to accept the 10 repeats but needed variety in them.

    Ÿ She was very good at playing Mary had a Little Lamb in the style of Amaryllis.

I found Lucy was always keen to read the music but needed to change the visual of a note into a phonic to play it. When she was copying the notes I played in another warm-up session (more difficult then the one previously mentioned) she tried to used her eyes to watch my fingers to find the note but couldn’t seem to put a name to it. This combined with her reflective nature meant she was reluctant to have a go after she initially got it wrong. The only solution was to verbalise the name of the note she was having trouble with to regain her confidence. In the next lesson I created a ‘safe’ environment for her to have a go at listening to copy. These shows both visual and verbal activity:

Visual -

    · She liked to spot repetitions and similarities in the written music and she was very good at it.

    · To improve her posture we ‘attached a string to her head and pulled it up to the ceiling’. I only had to indicate the top of my head and she would pull herself up.

Verbal -

    · I found I had to use lots of words to describe pictures to her, then she responded well: playing a piece called Amaryllis we used words to imagine a big red flower with a trumpet.

    · She answered questions I asked easily.

    · I asked Lucy "Can you play Honeybee from memory?", she answered "No" immediately but found it easy once she had verbalised all the notes she had to play.

The questionnaire showed Lucy to be strongly verbal. This slightly conflicts with my observations as I notice both visual and verbal traits.

Lucy is a very reflective learner, no doubt about it. She waited after I gave an instructions before she played. She needed time to think and talk through things in lessons and a lot of encouragement to have a go.

Lucy is a strongly global learner: this was particularly noticeable when reviewing piece, it was clear she had the overall sound and structure of the piece in her head and when she made mistakes she found the right way and carried on.

When she repeated a phrase for me 10 times (as mentioned earlier) she seemed not to be learning very quickly whereas we learnt the next phrase as a larger chunk and it seemed to click straight away. My explanation for this is that she was learning both times but her global nature didn’t like the repetitions. I needed to encourage her to practise more carefully at home. Another time she seemed less than comfortable was when learning a new bit of music and paying attention to the patterns on the page: she learnt it really well and thoroughly though. I think it is important to have a balance of things they enjoy and find difficult in a lesson.

Nathan Flannery:

I found that Nathan uses both sensory and intuitive learning.

Sensory -

    Ÿ He wasn’t used to bowing at the beginning of the lesson (traditional in Suzuki Method lessons) so he wasn’t very comfortable with the change of routine.

    Ÿ He likes to learn facts and is accurate with them.

    Ÿ Once he has practised a piece one way he finds it hard to change it, for example, make the notes shorter.

Intuitive -

    Ÿ He found playing different colours easy and quickly related ‘red’ to loud and ‘yellow’ to quiet, this shows he is good at forming links between apparently unrelated subjects.

    Ÿ He gets enthused when he has a story to go with a piece and it greatly improved the emotional content of his playing.

    Ÿ While looking at the music he noticed straight away that the dynamics in one piece were the same as another piece.

Nathan did well with all things visual. He was good at imagining the shape of a note, "A cross between a rectangle and a circle" and when I asked him to make it more like a circle he got it just right. In describing a zombie story to go with a spooky piece he used few words but obviously had a clear picture in his head as it changed his performance miraculously. When I was talking about the size of the stream of air he was blowing I likened it to a straw and asked if he could blow like spaghetti instead: the result was perfect.

I found that he relied a lot on reading the music, not listening, so when he mis-read a note he would practise it wrong: in the lesson we practised reading the notes carefully and I pointed out his mistake. I think more listening to a recording of the piece would help a lot. In retrospect I should have done this in the lesson.

In one lesson, to help a difficult fingering co-ordination, we looked at our fingers and gave them verbal instructions as to how to get to the next note. This really didn’t work, he hated it.

Nathan is slightly biased towards active learning. In a warm-up he was playing back to me what I played: he would jump in to try it out and often not get it first time. When we were working on the interpretation of a piece he just wanted to play and copy how I played it, not to think about it for himself. Sometimes he jumped in before I’d finished talking. When I asked him to play the D minor scale he’d been practising he dived in and had to have a few attempts before he got it right. In one lesson, to improve his blowing, we played ‘jet whistles’ and because he an active learner he had a go without any shyness and really tried to make the ‘funny noise’.

I found that Nathan uses both sequential and global learning.

Sequential - He is very good at spotting patterns on the written page. When he was playing a piece to me with, and more so without, the music, he always wanted to go back and start from the beginning when he made a mistake. I think this made learning pieces slower for him because in his practice I assume he always started at the beginning so the bars at the end and therefore the whole piece took a long time to understand. We worked in lessons starting at different points in the piece and were more focused with the practice. To help him know where he was when playing from memory we worked at remembering the first notes of bars or phrases and finding patterns in them, he found this difficult. I think this lack of understanding was related to lack of listening to a recording of the piece.

Global - He would often know the rhythms and phrase shapes of a piece but not be sure of the actual notes or how many times things repeated.

The results of the questionnaires supported all of the above findings, except where mentioned.

    "If professors teach exclusively in a manner that favours their students' less preferred learning style modes, the students' discomfort level may be great enough to interfere with their learning. On the other hand, if professors teach exclusively in their students' preferred modes, the students may not develop the mental dexterity they need to reach their potential for achievement in school and as professionals." (footnote 13)

The overall development of the child is the main concern. Young children need to be nurtured and taught in a style that they are comfortable with but later on it is essential that they learn to use and appreciate the others. All children like to be right because it makes them feel more secure.

In composing the reports of the case studies I used to results of the questionnaire to interpret my observations. My initial thoughts as to their bias were not always correct. For example I would focus on one piece of information and not consider all the data. It is important not to jump to conclusions a pupil may behave differently in different situations. Also it is important to know one’s own style of learning so that one can understand every pupil, appreciate their individuality and not give pupils similar to themselves an unfair advantage.

It is stated in the section to help identify pupils styles that active learners are extroverts and reflective learners introverts. I found in my study the opposite of this. I think this is because Nathan, an introvert and active learner, is visual-spatial and therefore may have had bad experiences of being asked a question and his mind going blank under pressure. (footnote 14) Lucy, a extrovert and reflective learner, has auditory dominance and therefore likes to talk. More research would be necessary to draw a conclusion as to whether this is typical.

I found I gave a better lesson when I was not thinking about the learning styles and my dissertation. This shows that you need to know all this information instinctively and probably only think about it between lessons: if you are thinking too much in a lesson the pupil picks up on the tension and therefore they are less comfortable.

There are so many individuals it makes it impossible to fit them all into one system. I think this model works well but there is no definitive stereotype for any of the styles.

A further research project would explore the vast area of group teaching.



    1  Meadows, S. The Child as Thinker, (London, 1993), 71 (research of Levinson and Carpenter 1974)

    2  Meadows, S. The Child as Thinker, (London, 1993), 127

    3  See appendix A

    4  Wirz, D, ‘Students’ Learning Styles vs. Professors’ Teaching Styles’, Inquiry, Volume 9, Number 1, 2004

    5  Hermann, N, The Creative Brain, (USA, 1988)

    6  Hermann, N, The Creative Brain, (USA, 1988)

    7  Silverman, L, Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, (Denver, 2002), 72 &73

    8  Felder, R., ‘Learning Styles and Strategies’,

    9  Felder, R., ‘Learning Styles and Strategies’,

    10 Felder, R., ‘Learning Styles and Strategies’,

    11 Silverman, L, Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, (Denver, 2002), 38

    12 Felder, R., ‘Index of Learning Styles’,

      see Appendix B for my version

    13 Felder, R., ‘Matters of Style’,

    14 Silverman, L, Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, (Denver, 2002), 3