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Effects of learning-style strategies on special education students.


This article describes the effects of research concerned with identifying the learning styles of Special Education (SPED) students and then teaching them globally, tactually, and/or kinesthetically with instructional resources that complement their perceptual strengths. It documents statistically higher achievement- and attitude-test scores when such treatments are provided, as well as behavioral and lateness improvements.


Educators have been quick to classify students who require special attention with a variety of negative labels--Learning Disabled (LD), Emotionally Handicapped (EH), Emotionally Disturbed (ED), Educationally Disadvantaged (ED), Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR), and so forth. Even positive nomenclature, like Special Education (SPED) or Gifted Education (GE), has taken on a negative aura because children so categorized require more attention from teachers than their Regular Education (REGED) counterparts.

Do SPED Students Learn Differently From Regular Ed Students? When considering why these youngsters require more attention, it becomes evident that they do not learn traditionally. Most SPED students are global processors with tactual- and kinesthetic-perceptual strengths (Kyriacou & Dunn, 1994) and most teachers teach analytically by either talking--which requires auditory skills, or by having their students read--which requires visual-print skills.

Do SPED Students Learn Differently From Each Other? Early correlational research examined the learning styles of LD students (Madison (1984), compared them with those of EMR students (Dean, 1982) and the gifted (Pederson & Askins, 1983), and found significant differences between those groups. Later, Brand (1999), Cowie (1987), Glaser (1994), Greb (1999), and Kyriacou and Dunn (1994) also synthesized the differences between SPED and Regular Ed (REGED) students. Later, Ignelzi-Ferraro (1989) and Snider (1985) contrasted the styles among various SPED classifications. Sinatra, Primavera, and Waked (1986) described the learning styles of reading-disabled youngsters. However, even after extensive differences in learning style had been widely documented, Lux (1987) reported that SPED teachers, who had not been taught to use learning-style approaches in the Teacher Education Programs they had attended, resisted using tactual, kinesthetic instructional approaches. More recently, Brand, Dunn, & Greb (2002) reported the unique learning styles of ADHD elementary and secondary medically diagnosed children.

Do Learning-Style Responsive Strategies Improve SPED Students' Grades? Despite the negativism associated with children who learn differently from their same-aged counterparts, practitioners have documented that many officially-classified LD, EH, and SPED students significantly improved their achievement after they were taught with approaches and resources that complemented their learning styles (Andrews, 1990; Bauer, 1987; Brunner & Majewski, 1990, Klavas, 1992; Perrin, 1990; Quinn, 1994; Stone, 1992). For example, after only two years of learning-style-based instruction, SPED students in New York State's Buffalo City Schools achieved statistically higher standardized achievement test scores than their counterparts who had not experienced learning-style-responsive teaching. Some achieved as well as the regular high-school students (Dunn & DeBello, 1999; Kyriacou & Dunn, 1994; Quinn, 1994).

Federal Government, Practitioners' and Researchers' Reports

According to the Center for Research in Education (CRE), the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model contributed to statistically higher standardized achievement test scores for LD and EH SPED students across the nation during the 20-year period (1970-1990) covered by its investigations (Alberg, et al., 1992). Significantly higher gains were documented for multiple grade levels of poorly-achieving SPED students in urban (Braio, Dunn, Beasley, Quinn, & Buchanan, 1997; Brunner & Majewski, 1990; Dunn & DeBello, 1999; Quinn, 1994), suburban (Andrews, 1990; Dunn & DeBello, 1999; Elliot, 1991; Gadwa & Griggs, 1985; Klavas, 1993; Lemmon, 1986; Perrin, 1990; Orsak, 1990; Neely & Aim 1992, 1993), and rural schools (Koshuta & Koshuta 1993; Stone, 1992).

Effects on high-school SPED students. In June, 1987, prior to the implementation of learning styles, only 25 percent of the officially classified LD students in Frontier's Central High School District in Hamburg, New York passed the State Competency Tests and received diplomas. During 1987-1988, the first year that learning style-based instruction was introduced, that number increased to 66 percent. During 1988-1989, the second year, 91 percent were successful. That year, a greater ratio of handicapped students passed the State Competency Tests than regular education students (Brunner & Majewski, 1990). In February of 2001, during the first year of increased Standards imposed by the New York State Education Department, Hamburg's Director of Special Education, Dorothy Robertson was notified that, of the district's students with disabilities:

* 89% had passed the State's Regents Comprehensive Language Exam;

* 100% had passed the State's Regents English Exam;

* 90% had passed the State's Regents History and Government Exam;

* 96% had passed the State's Regents 1 Math Course;

* 77% had passed the State's Regents Biology Exam;

* 73.3% had passed the State's Regents Global Studies Exam; and

* 20% had passed the State's Regents Math Course 111 (Dunn, 2001).

More recently, Fine (2002) compared the effects of learning-style responsive teaching strategies on the short- and long-term science achievement, attitudes, and behaviors of SPED adolescents. Initially he taught them traditionally. Then, during each following week, he added one more learning-style responsive strategy such as soft lighting, informal seating, tactual followed by kinesthetic resources as their primary instructional method, and global (anecdotal) introductions to each new and difficult lesson that related the subject matter content to the students' lives and experiences, At the end of a series of eight experimental treatments, Fine returned to traditional teaching to determine its relative effects on short and long-term achievement. Each set of pretest and posttest data documented the statistically higher (p=.001) (a) short-and long-term achievement gained and (b) positive attitudes evidenced with learning styles in contrast with traditional teaching. The most noteworthy effect was the contrast in behaviors of these adolescents. In the traditional setting, lateness, absences, and unruly acts were everyday occurrences and the complaints of teachers throughout the school. As each of the learning-style strategies was introduced, achievement-test scores increased, lateness gradually disappeared, absences were reduced, and students' behaviors became appropriate and polite!

Effects on elementary-school SPED students. Braio, Dunn, Beasley, Quinn, and Buchanan (1997) gradually increased the number of learning-style strategies implemented with elementary SPED and REGED students' in comparison with when those same students were taught traditionally. Both groups performed statistically better with learning-style rather than with conventional approaches, but the SPED students suffered reduced scores when the learning-style strategies were withdrawn for the experiment. In 2002, Woods taught third-through sixth-grade SPED students mathematics traditionally and then, in a counterbalanced design, equally difficult mathematics skills tactually and kinesthetically. She reported impressive across-the-board effect sizes in each of two different learning-style lessons versus those obtained in the two different traditional lessons.

Effects on multiply-handicapped SPED students. Sulner (2001), former principal of New York City's largest SPED school district for severely challenged students, experimented with learning-style instructional approaches with multiply handicapped SPED students (K-12). She reported that across-the-board, students achieved significantly better, and enjoyed schooling significantly more, when taught with their learning-style strengths. Many also performed well on standardized achievement tests.

Synthesis of the Research

The logical conclusion of these correlational and experimental studies appears to be that:

* teachers inappropriately classify underachievers as SPED because these students do not learn conventionally;

* students who learn differently can achieve, and do with learning-style responsive instruction;

* teachers should experiment with learning-style responsive instruction before recommending students for SPD; and

* it is immoral, and should be illegal, to classify children who learn differently as SPED instead of teaching them the way they learn (Dunn, Shea, Evans, & MacMurren, 1991).

What is Learning Style?

According to Dunn and Dunn (1993), learning style is the way individuals begin to concentrate on, process, internalize, and remember new and difficult academic information. Thies of Yale University (1979, 1999-2000) theorized that learning style is comprised of both biological and developmental characteristics that make the identical instructional environments, methods, and resources effective for some learners and ineffective for others. Most people have learning-style preferences, but individuals' preferences differ significantly. To capitalize on their learning style, students need to be made aware of their:

1. reactions to the immediate instructional environment--sound versus silence; bright versus soft lighting; warm versus cool temperatures, and formal versus informal seating;

2. own emotionality--motivation, persistence, responsibility (conformity versus nonconformity), and preference for structure versus choices;

3. sociological preferences for learning--alone, with peers, with either a collegial or authoritative adult, and/or in a variety of ways as opposed to patterns or routines;

4. physiological characteristics--perceptual strengths (auditory, visual, tactual, and/or kinesthetic strengths), time-of-day energy levels, intake (snacking while concentrating), and/or mobility needs; and global versus analytic versus integrated processing styles (Dunn, Thies, & Honigsfeld, 2001). For Table 1, see issue's website <>

The Track Record on Learning-Style Based Instruction

Researchers at more than 117 institutions of higher education have conducted more than 800 studies with the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model (Research on the Dunn and Dunn Model, 2002; One meta-analysis of research conducted between 1980-1990 with 42 experimental studies conducted at 13 different universities with this model, revealed that eight variables coded for each study produced 65 individual effect sizes (Dunn, Griggs, Olson, Gorman, & Beasley, 1995). The overall, unweighted group effect size value (r) was .384 and the weighted effect size value was .353 with a mean difference (d) of .755. Referring to the standard normal curve, this suggested These data indicated that matching students' learning-style preferences with educational interventions compatible with those preferences was beneficial to their academic achievement. A second meta-analysis of experimental studies (Lovelace, 2002) was conducted with experimental studies conducted at 18 different universities. The total sample size (N) was 7196 and the total number of individual effect sizes was 168. Those results paralleled closely those of the first meta-analysis. Most effect sizes ranged from medium to large. Apparently, regardless of the institution at which the research was conducted or the age of the students, individuals whose learning styles were accommodated, could be expected to achieve 75% of a standard deviation higher than students who had not had their learning styles accommodated.

Why Isn't Everybody Teaching To Students' Styles?

Successful supervisors throughout the United States have described how SPED and other academically failing students reversed their poor academic patterns and evidenced statistically higher standardized achievement- and attitude-tests scores within one year of using learning-style strategies (Dunn & DeBello, 1999). Despite hundreds of published research studies and practitioners' schools have yet to experiment with learning-style approaches. Even after State Education Departments urge that students' learning styles be addressed, they neglect to require Teacher Education professors to teach prospective teachers through their learning style strengths as a means of demonstration and inculcation. Nevertheless, the research is public and available. Table 1 references experimental studies in which SPED students at multiple grade levels evidenced significantly higher standardized achievement test scores only one year after exposure to learning-style strategies. In the Fine (2002) study, reduced lateness was documented on a daily basis by both the teacher and the administration. Educators adopt many non-research-based fads every decade. We now have the opportunity to experiment with a construct that has benefited from both national and international research (DePaula, 2002; Hlawaty, 2002; Honigsfeld, 2000, 2001; Pengiren-Jadid, 1988). We crucially need administrative leaders to prompt us in that direction! See issue's website <>


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Rita Dunn, St. John's University, NY

Dr. Rita Dunn is Professor St. John's University's Division of Administrative and Instructional Leadership, coordinator, Instructional Leadership Doctoral Program, and director, Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching Styles.
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Author:Dunn, Rita
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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