New technology has changed instruction techniques in plant materials courses. Technology used in plant materials courses includes graphically based interactive systems using dichotomous keys (Shaw, 1993), database management software (Boufford, 1994), interactive online tools for instruction (Campbell et al., 2011), and web-based courses (Teolis et al., 2007). Web-based courses are becoming more common, and even in site-based courses, students are using more online resources. These technological changes may challenge traditional methods of teaching landscape plant identification courses. For instance, students may spend substantial amounts of time studying digital resources that may not help them become more familiar with the actual identification characters of the plants. Therefore, we should examine how students prefer to learn and how students are actually spending their study time in horticulture courses. The results may provide valuable insight, as we seek to develop engaging and interactive coursework delivered in classroom, hybrid, or web-based learning environments.
To address this issue, our study focused on student learning styles. The theories and research surrounding learning styles are confusing. Cassidy (2004) voiced a similar viewpoint and believed that researchers should enter the area of learning styles with a sense of trepidation because of the volume of different theories relating to learning styles. De Bello (1990) reiterated the confusion surrounding learning styles by noting there are almost as many definitions as there are theories, and yet emphasized that operationalizing of learning style was a necessary but highly problematic endeavor.
Keefe (1979), in association with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, attempted to formulate a comprehensive definition by addressing learning style as a mix between the cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that influence how learners perceive, react with, and respond to the learning environment. Dunn et al. (1989) believed that learning style is shaped by both biological and developmental factors, and as a result, some teaching methods may be effective for some and ineffective for others.
As we designed this study, we focused on identifying student learning style preferences along three domains: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (VAK). Once the learning styles were identified, we provided students the opportunity to use a variety of study methods in an attempt to respect the diverse ways of learning of our students. Within the context of horticulture classes, we considered the unique aspects of the curriculum and the inherently hands-on applied components. Unlike other subject areas, the study of landscape plants lends itself to all three domains depending on the teaching strategies of the instructor. In this study, the instructor presented the material to address all three learning style areas. PowerPoint® (version 14.2.4; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA) lectures included images of plants to be observed, and the instructor verbally described key identification characters, which provided both auditory and visual instruction. Students were then led on a landscape tour of the plants, and the instructor reiterated those identification characters, pointed out visual characters, and gave students opportunities to touch and smell plants in situ, which provided VAK learning opportunities. Students were allowed to pick the study methods they preferred independent of their learning style identified using the VAK instrument described below. This means even if a student was identified as a strong auditory learner based on the instrument, they were free to select a kinesthetic study method.
Our study was designed to determine if different study techniques affected student performance in woody landscape plant materials courses. The specific objectives of this study were to determine the relationships among study technique, overall grade point average (GPA), learning style, and performance. To assess these relationships, we determined the characteristics of the participants and their preferred study method throughout the duration of the term as well as correlations between 1) preferred learning styles and performance, 2) preferred learning styles and preferred study method, and 3) performance and preferred study method.
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