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Exploring the dominant learning styles of adult learners in higher education

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In today’s complex and knowledge-driven world, the quest to pursue and acquire information and skills to enable one to be useful in society is not limited to young learners; many older adults also actively seek to acquire new knowledge and skills. The study presented in this article aims to establish the characteristics and dominant learning styles of adults enrolled in a diploma programme at an institution of higher education in Ghana. In a qualitative case study approach using a homogenous sampling technique, 21 students (aged 27–54, 10 female, 11 male) were asked to fill in a learning styles questionnaire and to participate in focus group interviews. Based on these participants’ responses, the study found three learning styles to be dominant: pragmatist, reflector and theorist. An interesting finding was the absence of a fourth type among participants, the activist learning style. Since it is clear that not all adult learners engage well with the typical theoretical and conceptual content that is taught in higher education institutions, understanding these four adult learning styles should inform higher education policies in order to make learning equally enjoyable and maximise effective learning for all four types of adult learners. Other significant findings of this study open up avenues for further research on how an understanding of learning styles can be used to enhance learning by adults.


Examen des styles d’apprentissage dominants chez les apprenants adultes dans le domaine de l’enseignement supérieur – Dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, complexe et fondé sur la connaissance, la quête d’informations et de compétences permettant d’être utiles à la société n’est pas exclusivement le fait de jeunes apprenants; les adultes plus âgés sont eux aussi nombreux à chercher activement à s’instruire et à acquérir de nouvelles compétences. L’étude présentée dans cet article a pour objectif de déterminer les caractéristiques et styles d’apprentissage dominants chez les adultes inscrits à un programme diplômant dans un établissement d’enseignement supérieur au Ghana. Dans une étude de cas qualitative s’appuyant sur une technique d’échantillonnage homogène, il a été demandé à 21 étudiants (âgés de 27 à 54 ans, dont dix femmes et onze hommes) de remplir un questionnaire sur le style d’apprentissage et de prendre part à des entretiens dans le cadre de groupes de discussion. S’appuyant sur les réponses des participants, l’étude a déterminé trois styles d’apprentissage dominants : pragmatique, réfléchi et théoricien. Parmi ses résultats, il est intéressant de noter l’absence d’un quatrième type chez les participants : le style d’apprentissage actif. Étant donné qu’il est clair que les apprenants adultes ne sont pas tous à l’aise avec les contenus théoriques et conceptuels enseignés dans les établissements d’enseignement supérieur, comprendre ces quatre styles d’apprentissage devrait servir à alimenter les politiques de l’enseignement supérieur pour permettre aux quatre types d’apprenants adultes d’apprendre avec le même plaisir et de maximiser l’efficacité de l’apprentissage. Des résultats importants de cette étude ouvrent aussi de nouvelles voies pour approfondir la recherche sur la façon de comprendre comment on peut tirer profit des styles d’apprentissage pour améliorer l’apprentissage des adultes.

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  1. Constructivism refers to a learner’s experience of finding out how elements of knowledge are “constructed” and how they are related to items of knowledge s/he is already familiar with.

  2. Within Mezirow’s theoretical framework, a “disorienting dilemma” is the first of a number of phases learners go through on their trajectory of transformative learning. It prompts them to question knowledge they already had in the face of new information they encounter.

  3. Diploma Two refers to the second year of a two-year higher education programme in Ghana. Students graduate with a diploma certificate upon successful completion of their curse work and project work.

  4. I refer to them simply as Participant A, Participant B etc.

  5. This period was “sandwiched” between the first week of June and the last week of July, when regular students were away and classrooms are available for other purposes – hence the name. Until the 2017/2018 academic year, all diploma students had to be engaged on a sandwich basis, but this has meanwhile been changed to distance learning mode. Since many diploma students are employed in regular jobs, this means they no longer have to take two months of study leave in the summer, and can instead study in the evenings and at weekends throughout the year.

  6. Since filling in the questionnaire was voluntary, I did not probe why only a third of the class completed the form. One of the reasons might have been that it was a first-time exposure to research for most of them, and they might have been worried that their data could be used for other purposes. Another reason might have been that some students were also afraid of their presence at school being exposed, since their bosses were not aware of their having enrolled for the course.

  7. NVIVO 11 is a software package which helps researchers to organise and analyse non-numerical or unstructured data.

  8. In a research context, the term “member checking” refers to the process of making the participants of the study validate the data collected from them. The transcribed data are presented to the participants for review so they can ascertain whether or not the contents reflect what they shared during the focus group interviews.


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Correspondence to Samuel Amponsah.

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Amponsah, S. Exploring the dominant learning styles of adult learners in higher education. Int Rev Educ 66, 531–550 (2020).

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