June 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Preferred Learning Styles of Florida Association for Family and Community Education Volunteers: Implications for Professional Development

The Florida Association for Family and Community Education (FAFCE) is a volunteer group that works with the Family and Consumer Science program area of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. A demographic questionnaire and learning style assessment were administered to volunteers. The mean age of volunteers was 71 years, and the majority were Caucasian females. Forty-two percent reported they have received some form of professional development as a volunteer. As a group FAFCE volunteers were field dependent. The median GEFT score was 2.0, with scores ranging from 0 to 18. Findings from this study provided useful insight and baseline data on the FAFCE volunteer program.

Tracy Hoover
Associate Professor
Agricultural and Extension Education
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address: tsh102@psu.edu

Noelle J. Connor
Extension Agent/Volunteer Coordinator, Duval County
Jacksonville, Florida
Internet Address: nconnor@coj.net


Volunteers are used in all areas of Extension, including Family and Consumer Science, 4-H, Horticulture, and Agriculture, with the majority of volunteers working in the 4-H Youth Development program area. Florida county Extension agents and state Extension specialists work directly with volunteers and are responsible for a myriad of volunteer training and management programs. Therefore, an effective volunteer-management training program needs to address both principles of volunteer management and how to effectively deliver instruction or educate clientele.


Over the years, researchers of volunteerism have come up with some core competencies necessary to ensure a successful volunteer program. From these core competencies and theories, certain individuals have developed models for implementing a successful volunteer program. One of the main components of volunteerism is orientation and training, which in turn helps volunteers provide quality educational programming to their clientele (Brudney, 1990; Campbell & Ellis, 1995; Culp & Schwartz, 1999; Naylor, 1973; Penrod, 1991; Rauner, 1980; Scheier, 1985; Smith & Bigler, 1985; Vinyard, 1981; Wilson, 1976).

Brudney (1990) feels that volunteers need training and supervision in order to do their job effectively. Training gives volunteers the skills and knowledge needed to perform their work well and effectively (Culp, 1997; Cumming, 1998; Wilson, 1976). Wilson is of the belief that orientation is only the beginning of training for the volunteer, although too many agencies think that orientation is the only training needed for volunteers. Rauner (1980) describes three types of training for the volunteer. Pre-service, or orientation training, prepares the volunteer to begin the job. In-service training provides for a better understanding of the scope of their job. And continuing education includes training not related to a specific subject or job.

Training for volunteer leaders will allow them to increase their skills and thus offer more potent training to the volunteers (Rauner, 1980). It is important that volunteers receive effective training because poor training can harm the organization by decreased productivity in volunteers, a possible loss of volunteers, and by decreasing the image of the organization (Naylor, 1973).

Naylor (1973) notes that traditionally, training primarily included instruction solely on skills necessary to perform the specific task or job, but educators have disagreed, because this type of training lacks provision for individual volunteer learning needs. It is important to break down the content information into teachable parts, so the volunteers are able to comprehend all aspects of the training. To be successful, volunteers need to use a variety of teaching techniques and methods when delivering professional development to clientele.

If learning is a positive experience, then an individual strives to learn more, because they are motivated to further their learning. Research shows that knowing about yourself and your audience will help you in your teaching and working with others. Learning styles are "characteristic cognitive, affective and physiological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment" (Keefe, 1987).

This supports the premise that educators should select a variety of strategies to assist the learning styles of the audience. This will result in a multifaceted and effective program that will appeal to more than one learning style at a time (Sarasin, 1998). The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (2000) notes that it is important to match the learning styles of volunteers with appropriate training methods in the volunteer management process.

In the 1940s, Witkin initiated research on cognitive style, studying the perceptions of individuals in different spatial orientations. He found that people differed by how they use orientation tasks (Witkin & Goodenough, 1981). Witkin (1976) later characterized these perceptual characteristics among individuals as field dependent or field independent. His basic premise is that individuals differ in their learning styles and that individuals tend to teach according to their learning style. By recognizing these differences in learning styles, one can adapt instruction to meet the needs of all learners (Witkin, Oltman, Raskin, & Karp, 1971).

Field-dependent learners are global learners who prefer structured educational settings. They tend to have highly developed social skills and are aware of their social environment (Garger & Guild, 1984). Field-independent learners are more likely to be analytical and perceptual learners who prefer to structure their own educational settings. They may have less developed social skills and are interested in concept attainment, with the ability to distinguish differences among concepts (Garger & Guild).

Witkin et al. (1971) find consistent gender differences by field dependence, with women tending to be more field dependent then men. This is supported by many research studies (Cairns, Malone, Johnston, & Cammock, 1985; DeRussey & Futch, 1971; Morf, Kavanaugh, & McConville, 1971; Parlee & Rajogopal, 1974; Saarni, 1973; Sherman, 1974; Takigami, 1975; Torres & Cano, 1994). However, current research by Rudd, Baker, and Hoover (1998) and Baker, Rudd, Hoover, and Grant (1997) disputes this finding. Demick (1991) believes further study is needed in this area, due to the argument that many of these studies supporting gender differences by field dependence show only a low statistical significant effect.

There is some evidence of a relationship between age and field dependence. Comalli (1965) and Schwartz and Karp (1967) find that older individuals tend to be more field dependent. They find that, after the late 30s, individuals tend to lean toward field dependence.

Later research disputes this finding (Panek, 1985; Takigami, 1975). Panek (1982), who utilized the GEFT and a personality test on women age 60-81, suggests increasing age may have an effect on personality relationships. Knox (1981) notes that the transfer of learning tends to decline with age.

Baker et al. (1997) find that Extension professionals tend to be field dependent learners. The researchers recommend that any training delivered to this group include techniques to appeal to field-dependent learners such as the opportunity for social exchange, and a structured learning environment.

Because Florida Extension volunteers have such an impact on the state of Florida, it is imperative that volunteers are successfully delivering their educational programs. This reinforces the need to provide volunteers with instructional techniques and teaching strategies. Snow and Yallow (1982) note that the success of education is dependent on the adaptation of teaching to the learning differences among learners. Therefore, an effective volunteer management-training program not only should address the principles of volunteer management but also how volunteers in turn can effectively educate clientele.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the study reported here was to determine learning styles of Florida Association for Family and Community Education (FAFCE) volunteers. The objectives were to do the following.

  1. Determine the demographic characteristics of FAFCE volunteers,
  2. Identify current informal and formal volunteer training programs for FAFCE volunteers and,
  3. Determine the learning styles of FAFCE volunteers.

Materials and Methods

The sample consisted of a select group of FAFCE volunteers in Florida, along with the county Extension agents who work with FAFCE volunteers. There are approximately 3,200 FAFCE volunteers in Florida located throughout five regional districts. A purposeful sample of volunteers was taken from those attending Districts II, III, and IV meetings. The total sample was 273 FAFCE volunteers.

Two survey instruments were used, a researcher-developed questionnaire and the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) (Witkin et al., 1971). The researcher-developed questionnaire was used to collect demographic information pertaining to FAFCE volunteers. The GEFT was used to determine the learning styles of the FAFCE volunteers in the study. Faculty in Agricultural Education and Communication, Family, Youth and Community Sciences, and Program Development and Evaluation reviewed the researcher-developed instrument for content and face validity.

Learning styles were measured by the GEFT (Witkin et al., 1971). The GEFT was designed to allow for a large number of individuals to be tested in one testing session. The national mean score for the GEFT is 11.4, with those scoring below 11.4 considered field-dependent, while those scoring above 11.4 considered field-independent.

The GEFT was based upon the Embedded Figures Test (EFT); the EFT reliability estimates are favorable with a reported reliability coefficient of .82 for both males and females (Witkin et al, 1971). The questionnaire and GEFT were administered to the sample between January and April of 1999.

Data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences for Windows Release 9.0 (SPSS«, 1999). Percentages and frequencies were calculated to develop a descriptive profile of the population. GEFT scores were measured with age of the selected sample through bivariate correlation. An alpha level of .05 was set a priori.


Demographic Characteristics of FAFCE Volunteers

Two hundred seventy-three FAFCE volunteers participated in this study. An additional 34 individuals completed the survey and reported their role as something other than an FAFCE volunteer or Extension agent. These individuals were not included in the analysis.

Eighty-seven percent (87.2%) of FAFCE volunteer respondents were female, while 7% were male, and 12 % did not identify their gender. Nine out of ten (90%) volunteer respondents were Caucasian/White, 6% were African American, and 4% were Native American. One individual in the study was Hispanic, one individual was West Indian, and one individual did not respond. The mean age of these FAFCE volunteers was 71 years of age, with a range from 49 to 90 years of age. Twenty-four volunteers failed to report their age.

Individuals in the sample were asked to identify their educational level. Of the 268 volunteers who responded to the question, "Please indicate your highest degree completed," 6% said some high school, 44% had a high school degree, 31% attended some college, 3% had earned an associates degree, 8% earned a bachelors degree, and 6% of volunteers surveyed had a graduate degree.

FAFCE volunteers involved in the study represented three of the five regional Extension districts in the state of Florida, Districts II, IV, and V. The FAFCE volunteers represented 24 of the 67 counties in Florida.

Current Informal and Formal Volunteer Training Programs for FAFCE Volunteers

The FAFCE volunteers were asked, "Have you received training as a member of FAFCE?" Less than half (42%) of volunteers reported they have received training. Twenty percent of the volunteers did not respond to this question. Those who participated in training noted they participated in a variety of trainings (10%), leadership training (8%), educational/specific topic training (7%), Family Community Leadership (FCL) (6%), officer training (3%), monthly training (1%), and working with youth (1%). County-level training was mentioned by one participant.

Respondents were asked to report the individual or group who hosted the training. Sixty-five percent of FAFCE volunteers did not respond to this question. Twenty percent of training was reported as given by county-level agents (19%). Other trainers included FAFCE member (4%), University of Florida (3%), a variety of trainers (3%), state specialists (2%), leader trainer (2%), FCL staff (1%), and volunteers (1%). The following trainers were also mentioned: club president, community leaders, and both national and state officers.

Learning Styles of FAFCE Volunteers

As a group, FAFCE volunteers were found to be field dependent. The median GEFT score for FAFCE volunteers was 2.0, with GEFT scores ranging from 0 to 18.

Correlational analyses were conducted with the variables of GEFT score and age. The correlation for the dependent variable, GEFT score, with the independent variable, age, can be observed in Table 1. A significant low negative correlation was found between age and GEFT score (r=-.17, p=.008). The effect of age on GEFT score can only attribute to 3% of the variance (r_=.029). Two additional correlations were run to see if the age of volunteer above and below the mean age could predict GEFT scores. FAFCE volunteers were separated into two groups for this analysis. There were no significant correlations between age and GEFT score for FAFCE volunteers who were 71 years of age and younger (n=108), and those above 71 years of age (n=132).

Table 1.
Correlation for the Dependent Variable (GEFT Score) and the Independent Variable (Age)
Age < 71 and Age > 71

Variable N Correlation1 r_ p-value
Age 240 -.17a .029 .008
Age < 71 108 -.02 .001 .818
Age >71 132 -.14 .018 .121
aSignificant at p<.01
1Pearson product moment correlation


Results of the demographic portion of the survey indicate that the typical FAFCE volunteer is a Caucasian female 71 years of age who does not work outside the home. Almost half of the volunteers earned a high school degree, and almost one-third attended some college.

Forty-two percent of volunteers noted they received training as a member of FAFCE. Major training received included: a variety of training (10%), leadership training (8%), educational/specific topic training (7%), and Family Community Leadership (6%). The respondents reported the individual responsible for the training to include county Extension agents (19%), Family and Consumer Educator (4%), University of Florida (3%), a variety of trainers (3%), state specialists (2%), and leader trainer (2%).

Brudney (1990) believes that training coordinates the motives and needs of the volunteers, the organization, and clientele. Rouse and Clawson (1992) finds older volunteers identified learning new things and using skills they perform well as their most important achievements motivators. Naylor (1973) notes that lack of training can decrease productivity in volunteers, decrease the image of the organization, and cost the organization volunteers as a result. Thus, not only is it important to provide current technical content to volunteers, it is equally important that trainers use a number of methods and teaching techniques in training.

The assessment of learning styles indicated that the median GEFT score of FAFCE volunteers was 2.0. This indicates that FAFCE volunteers are field-dependent learners. There was a low negative correlation (r = -.171, p = .008), between age and GEFT score for FAFCE volunteers. As age increases, scores go down. The direction of the relationship is consistent with literature; however, the relationship observed is very weak and does not explain a great deal of variation in the model. The findings of this study do not contribute substantially to the research by Comalli (1965) and Schwartz & Karp (1967) that show as individuals age, they tend to exhibit increasing field dependence.

The majority of individuals in this study were field-dependent women, which supports findings that show a relationship between field dependence and gender (Cairns, et al., 1985; DeRussey & Futch, 1971; Morf, et al., 1971; Parlee & Rajogopal, 1974; Saarni, 1973; Sherman, 1974; Takigami, 1975; Torres & Cano, 1994). However, an equivalent comparison group of males was not available for analysis. Therefore, we can not attribute the field dependence of the group solely on gender.


The results of this study affect FAFCE volunteers, Extension agents, state specialists, and the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. The findings suggest specific volunteer leadership and training issues that should be addressed in relation to FAFCE.

For example, less than half of FAFCE volunteers (42%) reported they received training, and 20% did not even respond to this question. For volunteers to carry out the mission, analyze and comprehend subject matter, and educate individuals in the community, they must receive adequate training. Efforts should be made to increase training and workshops for FAFCE volunteers. This reaffirms the need and rationale that FAFCE volunteers are a viable constituent group that should be served by UF/IFAS, Florida Cooperative Extension Service faculty, both at the county and state level. There is a continued need for agents to deliver educational programs and training to volunteers. Agents must be conscientious and understanding of learning styles in an effort to deliver effective programs.

Given the value and importance of FAFCE volunteers representing UF/IFAS Florida Cooperative Extension Service, the effort and input focused on professional development for volunteers can enhance their effectiveness in delivering programs to the clients in Florida. Therefore, it is imperative to offer professional development to both our agents and subsequently our volunteers, in an effort to deliver effective programs to Florida. By recognizing that individuals differ in their learning styles and tend to teach according to their learning style, trainers can adapt their instruction to meet the needs of all learners.

Additionally, training in teaching, including recognizing differences in learning styles, should be addressed, because these volunteers, in turn, educate and teach in their communities. It is vital for them to understand and appreciate different learning styles and use a variety of teaching methods in their volunteer programs.

Training efforts for both volunteers and agents must appeal to field-dependent and field-independent learners. Field-dependent learners prefer a structured learning environment and social interaction. They learn best when material is relevant to their own experience and use the spectator approach for concept attainment. Field-dependent learners make broad general distinctions among concepts and perceive globally. They need externally defined goals and reinforcements, and need organization provided.

Field-independent learners perceive analytically and are able to self-impose structure or restrictions. They make specific concept distinctions with little overlap and learn social material only as an intentional task. Field-independent learners are interested in new concepts for their own sake, have self-defined goals and reinforcement, and are able to self-structure situations. Field-independent learners use a hypothesis-testing approach to attain concepts (Garger & Guild, 1984).

Accommodating the unique learning styles of all learners will greatly increase the successful transfer of information. This effort will provide volunteers, county faculty, and state specialists with a variety of instructional strategies and guidelines for program delivery. The ultimate goal is to make the volunteers better educators and trainers within their communities and consequently enhance the effectiveness and image of UF/IFAS.


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