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Application of Learning Theories to Teaching


Learning Styles

Learning styles impact on every aspect of our lives: how we gather information, how we use it and how we link it together are all determined by our learning style.

Nicholls & Le Versha 2003, p. 57

Learning styles, or cognitive styles, refer to how individuals learn in different ways and are of particular importance to teachers who wishes to create inclusive and effective learning situation. Learning styles are divided primarily, but not exclusively, into the three groups of visual learners, aural learners and kinesthetic learners. Whilst the first group learns best by seeing information, such as on the board or visually demonstrated, the second group takes in information aurally and needs to hear what is happening. The third group understands best in a hands-on, tactile manner such as holding the materials or practicing working with them. The importance of catering for learning styles links to the importance of understanding how best to cater for cognitive development. Learning style research has its roots in the humanistic social constructivism generated by Vygotsky and his follows. Here the stress is on the interaction of socio-cultural factors in the development of the individual and it is easy to see how necessary it is to make information available to students at a number of levels and thereby take into account their individual approach to learning.


Motivation is a complex area and can have a huge impact on learner achievement and behavior which means that motivational teaching strategies need to be carefully considered. Extrinsic motivation is essentially a behaviourist concept in that certain behaviours are encouraged by rewards, ranging from praise to money. The use of extrinsic motivation in teaching corresponds to Pavlov and Skinner’s early work in that the reward is used to induce certain behaviours, such as praise for completing a test resulting in a positive approach to the next text. Intrinsic motivation is more of an internal driving force that may come from factors as diverse as curiosity to enjoyment. It could be argued that promotion of the former concept tends towards competition whilst the latter is more focused on individual achievement through improvement. Competition is often seen as a negative and seen as ‘undermining student motivation’ (p. 275) in that it de-motivates those who consistently fail as well as providing little incentive for those who already make the grade. Therefore, to encourage and inclusive approach means providing sources of motivation that best suit the student but always aim to achieve intrinsic, progress based achievement.

Low Literacy

At a more pragmatic level, the impact of low literacy (and numeracy) upon student’s confidence and learning can be enormous. Whatever the cause, be it students with English as a second language, or those struggling with work that is beyond their emotional age or cognitive stage, it is essential for the teacher to assess literacy levels through a diagnostic assessment and plan accordingly. It may be that students metalinguistic (how language works) awareness can be built up using the subject, such as working through an understanding of acids and alkali’s as they relate to beauty treatment. The use of IT as well as text to develop literacy has also stimulated a vast body of research (e.g. Larson & Marsh 2005). This area deserves far more attention than the brief mention given here, but it is also an area that may benefit from an action research approach whereby the literacy strategies of the class are assessed, observed, analysed and acted upon in an ongoing reflective cycle.

Classroom Environment

The learning environment and its impact upon students have also generated a considerable body of literature. Whilst Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (1970) looked at a generic sequence of responses to environments, a more holistic understanding of the environments that affect a student’s learning have been studied by those such as Bronfenbrenner (1998) who conceptualized a variety of ecological systems, from the micro to the macro. The microsystem involves the individual’s direct interactions with other individuals whilst the macrosystems take into account the socio-cultural values and ‘norms’ (Krause et al. 2003, p. 264) . The classroom environment not only needs to provide a safe, secure and supportive atmosphere, it also needs to provide an inclusive setting for all individuals which means taking factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, age and stage etc into consideration. Alongside these runs the teachers own teaching styles – permissive, authoritative or authoritarian (Whitton et al. 2004, 185) – and how they respond to the students.

Effective Planning and Intelligence

If the goal of teaching is to provide learning environments that work for all students, then clearly planning is an integral element. To take one part of the teaching cycle, planning, is to look at one aspect of this vast area. In a constructivist paradigm, planning needs to both develop knowledge and play to students strengths. Rather than look at this structurally, as in planning using cooperative groups, whole class or individual working, this section considers interpretations of intelligence such as Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Krause et al 2003, p. 201) and Sternberg’s triarchic model of intelligence (ibid p. 202). As with learning styles, failure to plan effectively in order to encourage a range of cognitive strengths may act as disincentive. Sternberg differentiated between analytic, creative and practical intelligences and suggested applying these to the curriculum. They provide a useful strategy for inclusive teaching.

Engagement Theory

Whilst this has its roots in distance learning and the use of IT (Kearlsey & Shneiderman 1999), the premises upon which it is based appear particularly useful to effective, inclusive planning. One of the primary principles is to plan for authentic learning through student interaction and provision of meaningful tasks. Secondly, this is essentially a constructivist approach aimed at enabling the individual’s translation and internalization of knowledge through guided progression to various zones of proximal development. Thirdly, in common with situated learning, engagement theory is underpinned by a wish to create learning experiences that intrinsically motivate through exposing students to real-world problem solving situations. The levels of engagement also relates to inclusive planning for learning styles and multiple intelligences.

With regard to planning for engagement, lessons need to include a range of teaching strategies such as questioning, reasoning, analysing, creating and judging. This involves creating practical, curriculum linked situations and designing the lesson around them. For example, one lesson may involve a scenario, analysis of that scenario, role play of the events, creating alternatives and assessing final comprehension. This methodology allows for an inclusive approach designed to allow information to be made available to students in a variety of ways and formats.

Principles of Empowerment

This is also a somewhat generic principle yet it applies to teaching very successfully. One of the underlying goals is to set students up for success by ensuring the tasks are age and stage appropriate and that they stretch the student towards their zones of proximal development whilst ensuring successful outcomes. Another aspect of this principle is that students take responsibility for their learning. Ownership of one’s development has been shown to be a powerful motivator and motivation is recognised a key element to learning.

Motivation resides entirely in the person motivated. It can be inspired and encouraged by others but not given.

Leamnson 1999, p. 54

A third element of this principle refers to student choice. Whilst the learning requirements remain the same, the choice of learning strategy, resource use and methodology may be used to allow students to choose their favored approach.

Planning to empower students and therefore engage them in their learning once again means catering for all learning styles and planning for choice. Working in the area of Beauty therapy allows for considerable choice of approach and lends itself to practical training. This does mean that resources and activities have to be well structured and planned before implementation but it also means students can find a number of ways of achieving the required learning. A criticism is that students will not be required to use their less favoured approach and thereby develop areas they feel less confident in.


I find that catering for all learning styles is a far more complex area that needs more consideration. For example, at one level catering for learning styles means providing information in a way that an individual can take in. However, at another level, it also requires a more holistic overview that takes into consideration the students socio-cultural values and ‘norms’. Therefore, integrating this overview within my planning cycle requires several considerations. For example, it requires the allowing of space and consideration for analysing and assessing the student’s background knowledge, understandings and value systems. This will strengthen my understanding of how best to communicate with individual students and support their own sense of value and security within the classroom. It is anticipated that this approach will allow for a better consideration of student comfort and perceptions of security through providing familiar formats and establishing a comfort zone. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs showed, it is difficult for students to function psychologically at a higher level if they do not feel safe and secure within their environment. Therefore, when planning, I intend to not only cover the various learning styles but to integrate this with socio-culturally and linguistically inclusive practice. Depending on the situation, this can be as diverse as providing materials in more than one language or selecting cooperative groups with common understandings. This is not to say that the expectations will be lessened. These need to be clearly established and provide the working format for the students. For example, they will be expected to achieve certain goals and be able to effectively communicate or demonstrate their learning.

Catering for learning styles is an inclusive strategy as is that of catering for different students cognitive strengths. Consideration of practical application of strategies that include the diversity of multiple intelligences appears to be somewhat over-whelming. Sternberg’s triarchic model (Krause et al. 2003, p. 202) simplifies this into a planning procedure that endows each subject with an analytic, creative and practical component. This is particularly helpful for the beauty industry as it encourages an all round interaction both with the information, the practice and the people concerned. As a practical vocation, beauty requires strong communication and practical skills and the tendency is to stress this practical element. However, Sternberg reminds us that a triarchic approach is more inclusive and works better for a wider range of people. I would like to bear this in mind when planning my lessons and appreciate that this will demand constant assessment and reflection in order to be at its most effective.

Professional development

The following is a professional development plan involving some of the primary issues looked at in this essay. It is very much an overview and the course titles are purely to provide direction rather than actual titles. It is anticipated that this will change as the reality of working within specific scenarios provides the benefit of experience. This table is also specific to the area of inclusivity and its associated planning. There are many other areas that would also benefit my practice.

Professional Development Plan






Improve Instructional Process

Theory into Practice

Learning styles
Engagement and Motivation

Improve inclusive planning

Cultural inclusivity
Curriculum links

How to Apply Theory to Improved Practice

Catering for Learning Styles

How to Empower and Motivate Students

Planning to include cultural diversity – setting expectations and treating diversity positively

Assessment for Planning

Curriculum correspondence with inclusive teaching practice



Vygotsky’s social constructivism

Piaget’s age and stage theories

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences

Sternberg’s triarchic model of intelligence

Weiner’s attribution theory

Bandura’s behavioural theories of learning

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory

Erikson’s psychosocial development stages

NB there is considerable interaction between the theories/principles listed here and the list is by no means exclusive.


Bronfenbrenner, U. & Morris, P (1998) ‘The ecology of developmental processes’ in R M Lerner (Ed) Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 1. Theoretical models of human development, 5th Ed., pp. 535-584, Wiley: New York

Kearsley, G. & Shneiderman, B (1999) ‘Engagement Theory: A framework for technology-based teaching and learning’, accessed 28th September 2008,

Krause, K-L., Bochner, S. & Duchesne, S (2003) Educational Psychology for teaching and learning, Thomson: Southbank, VIC.

Larson, J. & Marsh, J (2005) Making Literacy Real: Theories and Practices for Learning and Teaching, Sage: London

Leamnson, R (1999) Thinking about Teaching and Learning, Stylus

Maslow, A (1970) Motivation and Personality, 2nd Ed., Harper & Row: New York

Nicholls, G. & Le Versha, L (2003) Teaching at Post-16: Effective Teaching in the A-Level, AS and GNVQ Curriculum, Kogan Page: London

Pressley, M. & McCormick, C (2007) Child and Adolescent Development for Educators, Guildford Press: New York

Whitton, D., Sinclair, C., Barker, K., Nanlohy, P. & Nosworthy, M (2004) Learning for Teaching, Teaching for Learning, Thomson: Southbank, VIC.


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