Some Thoughts on Holtbrügge and Mohr’s paper “Cultural determinants of learning style preferences”

4 02 2015

A new teaching term has started at the University of Liverpool Management School and I thought I would mark it by sharing some thoughts about an article that has influenced my thinking about teaching. It’s Dirk Holtbrügge and Alexander T. Mohr’s 2010 paper  “Cultural determinants of learning style preferences.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 9, no. 4 (2010): 622-637. The authors are based at universities in Germany and the UK.

This is an important article to me because I teach a culturally diverse group of students in the Management School. I wanted to see how my own experiences fit with the findings of the research on management-school teaching and learning.  I was drawn to this paper because I saw from the abstract that it was based on an extensive cross-national study of nearly a thousand individuals studying business and management at universities in the USA, China, the United Arab Emirates, and seven European countries. This paper is, therefore, more empirically robust than many of the other articles that appear in the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal. (This isn’t to criticize the other articles, which are still worth reading. I’m just making an observation)

The most interesting aspect of the paper was the authors’ application of Geert Hofstede’s system for measuring cultural differences to the question of learning styles. Hofstede developed various indices for scoring cultures. For instance, his Power Distance Index (PDI) measures the degree of deference to hierarchy displayed by individuals from a given culture.  The authors’ use of the PDI to understand dynamics within the lecture theatre struck me as particularly innovative. Moreover, it was congruent with my own observation that East Asian students are more deferential to authority figures than Western students.

The authors hypothesised that students from high PDI cultures have a preference for learning abstract concepts that can then be applied to individual cases. In contrast, students from low PDI cultures are more comfortable with teaching styles that involve the presentation of concrete examples from which the student is supposed to generate their own conclusions. Although the authors’ regression analysis of their survey results found only weak support for this hypothesis, the hypothesis nevertheless seems very plausible to me. My gut instinct is that other studies using a larger array of data points would likely confirm this hypothesis.

The authors also conclude that students from cultures that rank highly on Hofstede’s index of Individualism would tend to prefer a learning style that involves active experimentation and active abstract conceptualization. This finding was particularly interesting to me as I am about to start teaching a course that revolves around the case study method. Sessions devoted to debates about case studies necessarily involve a learning style that corresponds to what the authors called active experimentation. I need to find a way of encouraging students from cultures with low scores on Hofstede’s Individualism index  to participate in these debates. The Holtbrügge and Mohr suggests that I should ask the class to think about abstract principles that can be applied to the cases in a deductive fashion. Doing so may encourage participation by students from Collectivist cultures.

My major criticism of the authors’ methodology is that the research was based on a questionnaire that was returned by only some of the students to whom it was sent. The students who returned the questionnaires are, therefore, a self-selected group. Moreover, the fact a significant number of the questionnaires were excluded from the analysis because the students were unable to complete them correctly, perhaps due to poor English, also undermines the robustness of this analysis. Additional research is clearly required. Despite its limitations, this stimulating paper will provide a good starting point for future research and debate.

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