A learning style
is an educating
method, particular to an individual that is presumed to allow that individual to learn best. It is commonly believed that most people favor some particular method of interacting with, taking in, and processing stimuli
. Based on this concept, the idea of individualized "learning styles" originated in the 1970s, and has gained popularity in recent years. It has been proposed that teachers should assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student's learning style.
Models and theories
Over 80 learning
style models have been proposed, each consisting of at least two different styles.
Kolb / Experiential Learning Theory Model
The Kolb learning styles model is based on Experiential Learning Theory, as explained in David A Kolb
's book Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development
(1984). The ELT model outlines two related approaches toward grasping experience: Concrete Experience
and Abstract Conceptualization
, as well as two related approaches toward transforming experience: Reflective Observation
and Active Experimentation
. According to Kolb’s model, the learning process engages all four of these modes in response to situational demands.
The Learning Style Inventory is the assessment born of this model. An individual may exhibit a preference for one of the four styles – Accommodating, Converging, Diverging and Assimilating – depending on his approach to learning via the experience learning theory model.
Aiming to explain why aptitude tests, school grades, and classroom performance often fail to identify real ability, Robert J. Sternberg listed various cognitive dimensions in his book Thinking Styles
(1997). Several other models are also often used when researching learning styles. This includes the Myers Briggs Type Indicator
(MBTI), Howard Gardner
's Multiple Intelligence Model and the DISC assessment
Jackson's neuropsychological hybrid model of learning in personality argues Sensation Seeking provides a core biological drive of curiosity, learning and exploration. A high drive to explore leads to dysfunctional learning consequences unless cognitions such as goal orientation, conscientiousness, deep learning and emotional intelligence re-express it in more complex ways to achieve functional outcomes such as high work performance. Evidence for this model is allegedly impressive (Jackson, 2005; Jackson, 2008; Jackson, Hobman, Jimmieson & Martin, 2008; O'Connor & Jackson, 2008). It is a new model of learning and therefore remains in need of verification by independent research. Siadaty & Taghiyareh (2007) report that training based on Conscientious Achievement increases performance but that training based on Sensation Seeking does not. These results strongly support Jackson's model since the model proposes that Conscientious Achievement will respond to intervention whereas Sensation Seeking (with its biological basis) will not.
Instruments (usually questionnaires) used to identify learning styles include Kolb's
Learning Styles Inventory, Fleming's VARK Learning Style Test, Jackson's Learning Styles Profiler (LSP), and the NLP meta programs
based iWAM questionnaire. Many other tests have gathered popularity and various levels of credibility among students and teachers.
Evidence or lack of evidence?
Learning-styles theories have been criticized by many. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for these models and the theories on which they are based. Many educational psychologists
believe that there is little evidence for the efficacy of most learning style models, and furthermore, that the models often rest on dubious theoretical grounds. According to Stahl, there has been an "utter failure to find that assessing children's learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning."
The critique of Coffield, et al.
A non-peer-reviewed literature review by authors from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne
identified 71 different theories of learning style. This report, published in 2004, criticized most of the main instruments used to identify an individual's learning style. In conducting the review, Coffield and his colleagues selected 13 of the most influential models for closer study, including most of the models cited on this page. They examined the theoretical origins and terms of each model, and the instrument that was purported to assess types of learning style defined by the model. They analyzed the claims made by the author(s), external studies of these claims, and independent empirical evidence of the relationship between the 'learning style' identified by the instrument and students' actual learning. Coffield's team found that none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research, leading to the conclusion that the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles were all "highly questionable."
One of the most widely-known theories assessed by Coffield's team was the learning styles model of Dunn and Dunn, a VAK model. This model is widely used in schools in the United States, and 177 articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals referring to this model . The conclusion of Coffield et al. was as follows:
Despite a large and evolving research programme, forceful claims made for impact are questionable because of limitations in many of the supporting studies and the lack of independent research on the model.
In contrast, a 2005 report provided evidence confirming the validity of Dunn and Dunn's model, concluding that "matching students’ learning-style preferences with complementary instruction improved academic achievement and student attitudes toward learning." This meta-analysis, made by one of Rita Dunn's students, does not take account of the previous criticism on the research.
Coffield's critique of Gregorc's Style Delineator
Coffield's team claimed that another model, Gregorc's Style Delineator (GSD), was "theoretically and psychometrically flawed" and "not suitable for the assessment of individuals."
Other critiques of learning styles models
Coffield and colleagues are not alone in their judgement. Demos
, a UK think tank, published a report on learning styles prepared by a group chaired by David Hargreaves
that included Usha Goswami from Cambridge University
and David Wood from the University of Nottingham
. The Demos report said that the evidence for learning styles was "highly variable", and that practitioners were "not by any means frank about the evidence for their work."
Cautioning against interpreting neuropsychological research as supporting the applicability of learning style theory, John Geake, Professor of Education at the UK's Oxford Brookes University, and a research collaborator with Oxford University's Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain, commented that
We need to take extreme care when moving from the lab to the classroom. We do remember things visually and aurally, but information isn't defined by how it was received.
Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine (27th July 2007), Susan Greenfield said that "from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense".
Jackson, C. J. (2005). An applied neuropsychological model of functional and dysfunctional learning: Applications for business, education, training and clinical psychology. Cymeon: Australia
Jackson, C. J. (2008). Measurement issues concerning a personality model spanning temperament, character and experience. In Boyle, G., Matthews, G. & Saklofske, D. Handbook of Personality and Testing. Sage Publishers. (pp. 73 – 93).
Jackson, C. J., Hobman, E., Jimmieson, N., and Martin. R. (2008). Comparing Different Approach and Avoidance Models of Learning and Personality in the Prediction of Work, University and Leadership Outcomes. British Journal of Psychology, 1-30. Preprint. DOI: 10.1348/000712608X322900
O’Connor, P. C. & Jackson, C. J. (2008). Learning to be Saints or Sinners: The Indirect Pathway from Sensation Seeking to Behavior through Mastery Orientation. Journal of Personality, 76, 1 - 20.
Siadaty, M. & Taghiyareh, F. (2007). PALS2: Pedagogically Adaptive Learning System based on Learning Styles. Seventh IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT 2007)