Understanding the learning styles of undergraduate physiotherapy students
Physiotherapy, University of the Western Cape, Bellville,
Background. Undergraduate students at universities have different learning styles. To perform optimally, both they and their educators should be made aware of their preferred learning styles and problem-solving abilities. Students have different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, interests, ambitions, levels of motivation and approaches to studying and educators should therefore aim to become more aware of the diverse approaches to learning.
Objective. To identify the various learning styles and problem-solving abilities of physiotherapy students at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.
Methods. Undergraduate physiotherapy students (N=246) who were registered for the 2012 academic year participated in the study. Three valid and reliable questionnaires, including the Index of Learning Styles (ILS), the Problem-Solving Style Questionnaire (PSSQ) and the Learning Style Questionnaire (LSQ), were used. Responses were analysed statistically to establish the association between learning styles and problem-solving ability.
Results. A response rate of 72% was reported (n=177). For first-, second-, third- and fourth-year students the response rates were 65/85 (76%), 53/67 (79%), 31/58 (53%) and 28/36 (78%), respectively. Forty-five (25%) participants were male, 124 (70%) were female and 8 (0.04%) did not indicate their gender. The prominent learning styles were feeling (PSSQ), kinaesthetic (LSQ) and visual-verbal (ILS). Males were prone to using the kinaesthetic learning style and females to a more visual learning style. The feeling group constituted 47% of the sample (39% males and 43% females).
Conclusion. The majority of students
seem to learn by doing, although facts are important to them. It
therefore might be important to first teach physiotherapy
students concepts and then assist them to apply these in
Learning styles or preferences are multifaceted ways in which learners perceive, process, store and recall what they are trying to learn.4 Studies on preferred learning styles among physiotherapy students were primarily conducted abroad in developed countries such as Canada and Australia.2 , 5 The Canadian study determined the learning styles and problem-solving abilities of physiotherapy students from their second to fourth year of a physiotherapy programme.2 Results revealed that the preferred style of learning among students in the 4-year undergraduate physiotherapy programme was to study the theory and then reflect on or experiment with it. Their perceived problem-solving ability was similar to that of other undergraduate students, and was not related to their learning style.2 The Australian study determined the learning style preferences among occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech pathology students.5 The authors reported that optimal learning environments should take into consideration how students learn. Although a consistent learning profile among this group of students could not be determined, the findings suggested that each profession attracts students with a range of learning styles. They highlighted the need to investigate correlations between learning styles, instructional methods, and academic performance of students in the health professions.
In the present study the learning styles of a group of
physiotherapy students at the University of the Western Cape,
South Africa were investigated. However, according to Felder and
it is not possible to tailor one’s teaching to suit every
learning style or to teach with a one-size-fits-all approach,
expecting all learners to benefit.
The study employed a quantitative, cross-sectional research design. Cross-sectional studies are mostly used to determine prevalence; therefore this design was deemed appropriate.6
All registered undergraduate physiotherapy students (N=246) for the 2012 academic year at
the University of the Western Cape were invited to participate
Three questionnaires were used to collect the data, including
the Index of Learning Styles (ILS), the Problem-Solving Style
Questionnaire (PSSQ) and the Learning-Style Questionnaire (LSQ).
The ILS was developed in 1991 and is based on the learning style
model formulated by Felder and Silverman.1 This
questionnaire assesses preferences on four dimensions:
active-reflective, sensing-intuitive, visual-verbal and
sequential-global. The PSSQ places the student in one of four
categories, i.e. sensing, intuitive, feeling or thinking.7 In
addition, the LSQ classifies the student into three possible
groups, i.e. visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learning styles.8 All the
questionnaires have been used in studies with similar population
groups as the current study.
The data collected were captured and analysed using the
Statistical Package for Social Science (SPSS) version 19.0.
Descriptive statistics were used to summarise the
frequencies of students in each learning style category and to
determine whether the distribution of learning styles was
different across the four years of the programme. Predominant
race and gender were also determined. Inferential statistics
using the independent sample test were employed to
compare learning style scores across the four years of the
programme and to analyse the association between learning styles
and problem-solving ability.
A response rate of 72% (n=177)
was reported. For first-, second-, third- and fourth-year
students the response rates were 65/85 (76%), 53/67 (79%),
31/58 (53%) and 28/36 (78%), respectively. Of the respondents,
45 (25%) were male, 124 (70%) were female and 8 (0.04%) did
not indicate their gender. Of all participants who responded,
107 (60%) were coloured, 31 (18%) were white, and 26 (15%)
were black. Thirteen students (7.3%) were grouped as ‘other’
and included Indians, Asians, and those who did not indicate
An overview of the learning styles of the participants is
presented in Table 2. Based on the results of the LSQ, more
students were found to have a kinaesthetic learning style,
followed by a visual learning style. Males seemed to
prefer a kinaesthetic learning style (p<0.05),
while females had a more visual learning style. There was no
significant association between race and year of study and the
In the ILS questionnaire, the visual-verbal aspect of the students’ learning styles was more common (31%). In this category, females were more prone to this style of learning (p=0.00), and in the sequential-global category more males expressed a preference for this style (p=0.00). No significant gender and race differences were found between the other categories. In addition, there was a significant difference between senior-level (third- and fourth-year) and junior-level (first- and second-year) students, the former being more active-reflective learners.
The PSQ highlighted that the majority of students 75/177 (42%)
were classified in the feeling group. However, there was no
significant association with gender and year of study. Within
the thinking group, there was a significant association between
gender and thinking, with males being more inclined to think
matters through than females (p<0.005).
Although there was no significant association found between the
learning styles and the problem-solving ability of the
participants, there was an association between the kinaesthetic
type of learning style and the problem-solving method of feeling
The current study assessed the learning styles and problem-solving approaches of undergraduate physiotherapy students registered at the University of the Western Cape. The students who were registered for the programme came from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, as indicated in the results. In addition, they were found to be more practically orientated, but still needed both visual and verbal cues. Gender influenced the learning style, with males seeming to process information in different ways than females. Males seemed to use more of a thinking process. This differed from another study, which focused on the learning styles of entry-level physiotherapy students. The results showed that these students preferred to learn new material by reviewing, observing or thinking as opposed to actively doing or planning.9
In another survey, where gender and learning styles were assessed, there was a significant difference between the learning styles and gender.10 The results of this study showed that styles leaning towards didactic teaching appealed more to males, as these are primarily abstract and reflective. It was also reported that females learned better in hands-on and practical settings, emphasising the sphere of the affective and doing. Therefore, the results of the study by Philbin et al. 10 show that when females are watching and feeling or doing and thinking they learn best, and when males are thinking and watching they learn best. Similarly, the current study reported that males tended to lean more towards thinking than females, who tended to be more visual. This indicates that females wanted to be stimulated visually by watching.
Kolb’s theory states that a preferred learning style influences the problem-solving ability of a person.2 Wessel et al. 2 further state that for students to make the most of their learning opportunity educators should be aware of their learning style and ability to solve problems. The study also assessed the learning style and problem-solving ability of students, and the results showed that there was no association between learning style and perceived problem-solving ability. The results from the current study were the same, even though more than one learning style questionnaire was used.
Similarly to what was found in the present study, the learning
style preferences of first-year undergraduate occupational
therapy students in Australia demonstrated a greater preference
for kinaesthetic learning.11 This may indicate a
preference for learning through practice or simulation. Even
though a range of learning styles were found in the Australian
study, instructional approaches seem to be required.11 In
contrast, Mountford et al.
found that entry-level physiotherapy students preferred to
learn new material by reviewing, observing or thinking as
opposed to actively doing.
Based on the three questionnaires used it was demonstrated that
the majority of the students learn by doing, although facts are
important to them. Therefore, physiotherapy students may learn
better if the concepts they are taught in theory are applied in
practice. This is supported by the fact that the highest number
of students fell in the kinaesthetic learning style category. To
effectively utilise this learning style, the educator should
provide the learner with real-life experiences and simulations.
Implications for practice
Lecturers should be aware of the different learning styles of
students and address this either by changing their teaching
practices or ensuring that their learning styles are used to
their full effect. It is important to understand students and to
be aware that they have different attitudes to learning. This
should be used to create a teaching experience that will impact
positively on the students’ learning experiences and for finding
a balance between the extremes in each learning dimension.1
learning style preferences cannot always be accommodated but
awareness can help to enhance methods of teaching and thus
methods of learning.
It must be emphasised that these results are an indication of
the students’ learning preferences and an even better indication
of the preference profile of a group of students (e.g. a class),
but should not be over-interpreted.
Acknowledgements. The authors would
like to thank the National Research Foundation (NRF) for funding
that allowed the first author to participate in a staff
development programme and conduct an educational project.
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