D. Duffin1, G. Gray2

1National Learning Network (IRELAND)
2Institute of Technology Blanchardstown (IRELAND)
The past decade of social policy making and legislative change in Ireland has enabled greater access by individuals to higher education. The resulting class groups incorporate a greater range of diversity of learning behaviours, requiring the third level education sector to respond in a pro-active way to enabling all students achieve their learning potential, and support an individual’s rights to lifelong education.
This submission reports on a collaborative project aimed at promoting awareness of diversity in learning with a view to developing a sustainable model of optimal access and performance for both learners and teachers. The project, entitled SIF:Learning Styles, is a strand of the ContinueIT project funded under the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) administered for the Department of Education by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Partners include three Institutes of Technology (Blanchardstown, Tallaght and Carlow) and the National Learning Network.
The task of accurately capturing and recording learning behaviour for a group of learners is enormous and cannot be achieved by the application of a single learning styles model. The assertion of this paper is that, from the perspective of module and content delivery in the classroom, it is more important to understand that diversity exists than to identify individual learning styles and behaviour. Methodologies employed in teaching and learning must reflect awareness and understanding of the range and scope of these differences rather than placing a focus on individuals with atypical learning behaviour. This teaching approach would work in tandem with the need for individual assessment and support for students with specific learning difficulties.
The focus of the project is to initiate a process of institutional change, where the learning needs and profiles of students were understood by all, and catered for as common practice in the classroom. We identified three key components to achieve this:
1.Facilitate the active support of management and faculty in project activities to ensure sustainable and widespread adoption of differential teaching methodologies catering for diversity.
2.Through learning styles profiling and training sessions, raise awareness of individual learning styles and behaviour amongst staff and students, both in terms of learning styles, and specific learning difficulties.
3.Support academic staff through Continuing Professional Development focusing on adapting module content and delivery to cater for learner diversity.
Initial data collected shows increased student engagement, increased attendance levels, and a reduction in failure rates. Although this project is onging, it is possible to draw a number of conclusions on its findings to date: Recognition and understanding that diversity of cognitive processing across society is the norm is more important than attaching weight to any particular model of learning styles identification; It is pointless to identify individual or group learning styles without examining the relevance to teaching and lecturing practice; Theoretical and awareness raising CPD is far more effective with additional pragmatic follow up in group and individual settings; Student involvement and feedback has been shown to be essential to their engagement in the learning process and was noted by all participating lecturers, whom also noted a shift in their own mindset in respect to teaching practice.