Learning style

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This article can be used to find models. It's overall organization has to be improved some day - Daniel K. Schneider 15:45, 27 June 2007 (MEST)

Introduction and some definitions

“Theories of learning styles suggest that individuals think and learn best in different ways. These are not differences of ability but rather preferences for processing certain types of information or for processing information in certain types of way. If accurate,learning styles theories could have important implications for instruction because student achievement would be a product of the interaction of instruction and the student’s style. There is reason to think that people view learning styles theories as broadly accurate, but, in fact, scientific support for these theories is lacking. We suggest that educators’ time and energy are better spent on other theories that might aid instruction.” (Willingham et al., 2015).

According to Willingham et al. (2015), quotation|belief in learning styles theories is widespread. A recent review (Howard-Jones, 2014) showed that over 90% of teachers in five countries (the United Kingdom, the Nether-lands, Turkey, Greece, and China) agreed that individuals learn better when they receive information tailored to their preferred learning styles}}. But is there solid evidence that learning styles do exists and if they do, should educators adapt their teaching strategies ?

According to Wikipedia: “Learning styles are different ways that a person can learn. It's commonly believed that most people favor some particular method of interacting with, taking in, and processing stimuli or information. Psychologists have proposed several complementary taxonomies of learning styles. But other psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for some learning style theories. A major report published in 2004 cast doubt on most of the main tests used to identify an individual's learning style.”

Here are a few definitions found in Internet glossaries:

  • The manner in which a learner perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment. Components of learning style are the cognitive, affective and physiological elements, all of which may be strongly influenced by a person's cultural background. [1]
  • A preferential mode, through which a subject likes to master learning, solve problems, thinks or simply react in a pedagogical situation. [2]
  • A consistent pattern of behavior and performance by which an individual approaches educational experiences; learning style is derived from cultural socialization and individual personality as well as from the broader influence of human development. [3]
  • Learning styles can be defined as a set of cognitive, emotional, characteristic and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how a learner perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment (Keefe, 1979) according to [4]


Learning style research is related to research on cognitive styles, interaction styles, brain science, etc. Most popular learning style "models" do have very shaky foundations and most meta analysis show that popular learning style models are not based on serious research.

“Conflicting assumptions about learning underpin mainstream ideas about learning and the best-known models of learning styles. For example, some theories discussed in this report derive from research into brain functioning, where claims are made that specific neural activity related to learning can be identified in different areas of the brain. Other influential ideas derive from established psychological theories, such as personality traits, intellectual abilities and fixed traits which are said to form learning styles.” (Coffield, Moseley, Hall and Ecclestone, 2004)

According to critical reports like Coffield, Moseley, Hall and Ecclestone (2004), many models popular with practitioners do not meet academic standards. Many learning style models seem to have rather weak academic foundations and are grounded on dubious methodology at worst or do not provide reliable measurement instruments at best. (Stahl, 1999). In addition, customization of instruction to improve learning outcomes has proven to be very difficult, except for a few very precise questions.

“Our findings indicate that cognitive style is a complex variable with multiple dimensions. Although many of the measures seem to overlap conceptually, we found no simple, strong, interrelationships among them” ((Leonard et al., 1999: 418)

“Psychologists have made some impressive contributions to education. When it comes to learning styles, however,the most we deserve is credit for effort and for persistence. Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.” (Willingham et al. 2015)

Rogowsky (2015:77), “found that when participants were categorized by their preferred learning style, either auditory or visual word, those who were classified as visual word learners performed better, compared with auditory learners, on verbal comprehension measures.” This implies that teachers should try to strengthen visual skills of all learners. Also, since most testing is done with words, “to give students as much experience with written material as possible to help them build these skills, regardless of their preferred learning style.”

Kirschner, (2017), in the abstract of his Stop propagating the learning styles myth article summarizes: “First, there is quite a difference between the way that someone prefers to learn and that which actually leads to effective and efficient learning. Second, a preference for how one studies is not a learning style. Most so-called learning styles are based on types; they classify people into distinct groups. The assumption that people cluster into distinct groups, however, receives very little support from objective studies. Finally, nearly all studies that report evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy just about all of the key criteria for scientific validity.”

Kinds of learning style research and practise

There are many learning style models, e.g. Coffield et al. (2004) reviewed over 800 texts and studied 13 models in depth. The authors of this critical report identify five major families:

  1. Constitutionally-based learning styles and preferences
    • These models claim that styles are fixed or at least difficult to change. “To defend these beliefs, theorists refer to genetically influenced personality traits, or to the dominance of particular sensory or perceptual channels, or to the dominance of certain functions linked with the left or right halves of the brain.” (Coffield et al., 2004: 22)
  2. Cognitive structure
    • These models see learning styles as structural properties of the cognitive system itself and deeply embedded in personality structure.
  3. Stable personality type
    • “The instruments and models grouped in this family have a common focus upon learning style as one part of the observable expression of a relatively stable personality type, a theory primarily influenced by the work of Jung [..] the theorists in this family are concerned with constructing instruments which embed learning styles within an understanding of the personality traits that shape all aspects of an individual\u2019s interaction with the world.” (Coffield et al., 2004: 55)
    • Example: Myers-Briggs
  4. Flexibly stable learning preferences
    • “For Kolb and for those who have followed in his tradition, a learning style is not a fixed trait, but 'a differential preference for learning, which changes slightly from situation to situation. At the same time, there is some long-term stability in learning style' (2000, 8).” (Coffield et al., 2004: 69)
    • Other example: Honey and Mumford.
  5. Learning approaches and strategies.
    • “During the 1970s, a body of research on learning explored a holistic, active view of approaches and strategies - as opposed to styles - that takes into account the effects of previous experiences and contextual influences. This body of work has been led for over 25 years in the UK by Noel Entwistle at the University of Edinburgh.” (Coffield et al., 2004: 99)

There are other attempts to categorize various learning style models:

McLoughlin (1991), provides a definition table of similar terms relating to learning styles

Learning preferencefavouring one method of teaching over another
Learning strategyadopting a plan action in the acquisition of knowledge, skills or attitudes
Learning styleadopting a habitual and distinct mode of acquiring knowledge
Cognitive strategyadopting a plan of action in the process of organising and processing information
Cognitive stylea systematic and habitual mode of organising and processing information

Acharaya (2002)suggests that many theories of learning styles can be condensed and examined in four dimensions as follows:

  1. Personality of the Learners
    • Field dependence/independence, i.e. some look at patterns or relationships between parts first before looking at the at a whole picture / some look at the whole picture first and isolate or break it down into smaller parts after (Witkin & Goodenough, 1981)
    • Impulsive vs. reflective learners, i.e. quick response vs. thinking before acting (Schmeck, 1988)
  2. Information Processing
    • Cognitive styles, i.e. typical modes of perceiving, thinking, remembering, and problem-solving (see Kolb)
    • How people construct their views (related to the way he uses metacognition / learning strategy (Deci, Vallerand, Pellertier & Ryan, 1991).
  3. Social and Situational Interaction Among Learners
    • E.g. independent/dependent, collaborative/competitive, and participant/avoidant (Reichmann and Grasha, 1974)
  4. Instructional Methods

Santally and Senteni (2005) list the following Criteria

  • Cognitive Styles
    • Information Organizing (Serial/holist)
    • Information Gathering (Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic)
  • Cognitive Controls
    • Field dependence/independence
    • Cognitive Flexibility v/s Cognitive Constriction
  • Learning Style preferences
    • E.g. the Honey & Mumford model

Curry (1983, 1987), categorized different research approaches with an onion metaphor, working from the center outwards (from the most to the least stable):

  1. Cognitive personality style: most stable and therefore less easily modified -
  2. Information processing style: the way new learning is used as defined for example by Kolb's experiential learning model (to accomodate, converge, assimilate, diverge)
  3. Social interaction style (added later): individual preference for social interaction while learning
  4. Instructional preferences: (least stable and dependent on cognitive style (Sadler-Smith & Riding, 1999) ): learners' comfort and ability to gain knowledge through particular instructional methods and materials

Rayner and Riding (1997, in Cassidy 2004) define three categories from which to approach learning styles:

  1. Cognitive-centred: focus on the differences in cognitive and perceptual functioning of individual learners (this incorporates Rayner & Riding's CSA)
  2. Learning (activity)-centred: focus on process-based (information perceiving and processing models - e.g. Kolb's Experiential learning model and learning styles), preference-based (individual preferences for learning situations), and cognitive skills-based (application of cognitive style to learning situations) models
  3. Personality-centred
Taxonomy of learning style models

An extensive taxonomy of many of the learning style models described here and some others was put together by Cassidy (2004).

Cassidy (2004) learning style models taxonomy

To conclude (provisionally) we think that an educational technologist should make a distinction between (1) models that are based on serious research on personality differences (including "stable" cognitive styles), (2) models that describe behavior patterns and subjective preferences that can be measured in a given educational context and are often related to intention and motivation, and (3) models popular with practitioners that allow to think about pedagogic strategies and that are somehow related to various learning levels and learning types

A list of rather cognitive style models

Pask’s Information Processing Styles and Strategies

In a series of experiments in the 70's, Pask observed the way students worked complex acedemic subject matter. He observered that learners tended to use one of two approaches to greater or lesser extents. Pask (in from Ford, 2000) categorized learners as

serialist holist
local, procedure building global, description building
concentrates on simple chains of logical argument seeks patterns of interrelationships including analogies
improvidence pathology — fragmented understanding Globetrotting pathology — overgeneralization
operation learners comprehension learners

Kolb's learning styles

David Kolb's taxonomy is grounded in his experiential learning theory and it is based on the idea that a given learning style is shaped by the transaction between people and their environment (e.g. education, career, job role). According to Susan Santo [5], Kolb states that learners have two preferred ways to deal with information:

  1. Concreteness or Abstractness
  2. Activity or Reflection

However, Kolb also states that the learning process itself always engages these 4 components in a cyclical fashion.

  1. Events we are involved with (concreteness)
  2. .. lead to reflection and information collection (reflexion)
  3. .. that let us develop ideas (abstractness)
  4. .. that lead to decisions that in turn create events (activity)

To each of these four steps of the learning process we can associated four learning modes:

  1. Concrete Experience (CE) - learning by feeling (involvement in an experience)
  2. Reflective Observation (RO) - learning by reflection, watching, and listening
  3. Abstract Conceptualization (AC) - learning by thinking
  4. Active Experimentation (AE) - learning by doing

In other words, he argues that all people apply these four processes but some people tend to engage in some learning modes more than in others.

His learning styles typology [6] is based on a combination of these learning modes according to 2 dimensions

  1. Abstract conceptualization (thinking, AC) vs. concrete experience (experiencing, CE)
  2. Reflective Observation (reflecting, RO) vs. active experimentation (doing, AE)

Or to look at it in another way: they prefer either steps 1-2, 2-3, 3-4 or 4-1.

This leads to four types of learning style preference:

  • Diverging: combines preferences for experiencing (CE) and reflecting (RO)
  • Assimilating: combines preferences for reflecting (AC) and thinking (RO)
  • Converging: combines preferences for thinking (AC) and doing (AE)
  • Accommodating: combines preferences for doing (AE) and experiencing (CE)

The figure summarizes: Kolb-learning-style.png

Honey and Mumford's Typology of Learners

Based on Kolb's (1982) experiential learning model, Honey and Mumford proposed a similar categorization of individual learning styles and which seems to be popular in management education:

  1. Activists, prefer to act and are well equipped to experiment (experiencing)
  2. Reflectors, prefer to study data and are well equipped to review (reviewing)
  3. Theorists, need to tidy up and have answers, are well equipped for concluding (concluding)
  4. Pragmatists, like things practical, are well equipped for planning (planning)

According to various practionners' websites (e.g. [7] [8] [9] ) there are important consequences for instructional designers:

  • Activists:
    • learn best when: they can immediately do something, when they are exposed to new experiences and problems, work with others in task teams
    • learn least when: they have to listen to long explanations, absorb a lot of data, follow precise instructions, read, write and think a lot on their own, ...
    • Pedagogical activities: brainstorms, problem solving, group discussions, role plays, competitions, etc.
  • Reflectors:
    • learn best when: they can observe, review and think about what is happening
    • learn least when: they are rushed, have to act as leaders,
    • Pedagogical activities: observing activities, paired discussions, coached activities, questionnaires, interviews, ...
  • Theorists:
    • learn best when: they can study theories, models, concepts, stories etc. behind, they can ask questions and engage in analysis and synthesis.
    • learn least when: the activity is ill structured, no principles are taught, ...
    • Pedagogical activities: Provide models, background information, ...
  • Pragmatists
    • learn best when: they can apply new information to a real world problem, etc.
    • learn least when: "everything is theory", the isn't an immediate benefit, etc.
    • Pedagogical activities: Case studies, discussion, problem solving

Myers-Briggs (MBTI)

According to Felder (1996), this model classifies students according to their preferences on scales derived from psychologist Carl Jung's theory of psychological types. Students may be:

  1. Extraverts (try things out, focus on the outer world of people) or introverts (think things through, focus on the inner world of ideas);
  2. Sensors (practical, detail-oriented, focus on facts and procedures) or intuitors (imaginative, concept-oriented, focus on meanings and possibilities);
  3. Thinkers (skeptical, tend to make decisions based on logic and rules) or feelers (appreciative, tend to make decisions based on personal and humanistic considerations);
  4. Judgers (set and follow agendas, seek closure even with incomplete data) or perceivers (adapt to changing circumstances, resist closure to obtain more data).

The MBTI type preferences can be combined to form 16 different learning style types. For example, one student may be an ESTJ (extravert, sensor, thinker, perceiver) and another may be an INFJ (introvert, intuitor, feeler, judger).

Myer-Briggs types do have similar practical implications for education to the Honey-Mumford approach.

Jonassen and Grabowski

Jonassen and Grabowski provide the following criteria - grouped in two families - to identify a learning style.

Cognitive Style - Information Gathering
Visual / Haptic
Visualiser / Verbaliser: preference for either graphics, diagrams, illustrations or words
Levelling / Sharpening:
Cognitive Style - Information Organising
Serialist / Holist
Conceptual Style (Analytical / Relational)

These authors base their work on several theories, including the popular visual/verbal distinction that we will address in the multimedia articles.

Field dependence

1) Field Dependence: the individuals are considered to have a more social orientation than Field Independent persons since they are more likely to make use of externallydeveloped social frameworks. They tend to seek out external referents for processingand structuring their information, are better at learning material with human con-tent, are more readily influenced by the opinions of others, and are affected by the approval or disapproval of authority figures (Witkinet al, 1977).

1) Field Independence: the individuals tend to exhibit more individualistic behaviourssince they are not in need of external referents to aide in the processing of informa-tion. They are more capable of developing their own internal referents and restructuring their knowledge, are better at learning impersonal abstract material, are not easily influenced by others, and are not overly affected by the approval or disapproval of superiors (Witkinet al, 1977)

(Chen, 2002: 451)


Entwistle is known for a relatively clear concept of quality distinction in student learning styles. According to Mockford & Denton (1998) the model distinguishes three styles strongly related to students' intentions, each of which can be dominant:

  • Deep learning: based on high levels of intrinsic motivation, pursuing new ideas and materials through a variety of strategies in the search for understanding. This is a powerful way of learning, but does not necessarily lead to best grades.
  • Surface apathetic: students put in a minimal effort and focus on assessment requirements.
  • Deep, non-apathetic (strategic): students focus on the product of learning rather than the process and the achievement of high grade.

“If students move towards surface and strategic learning styles in reaction to assessment systems, there can be a degradation in the learning experience. Opportunities for creative thinking can be reduced or even lost if the focus of learning moves towards assessment and attainment is measured only against stated performance criteria. What can emerge is a student who seeks to please staff by judging what is the preferred design style or practical outcome required. In this learning framework students are unlikely to engage their minds deeply in an active, yet considered, reflective exploration for new ways of doing things: they will stay within the guidelines of what output is required to satisfy the instructor and the stated assessment criteria. In the search for more effective design and technology teaching, assessment strategies that encourage students towards the opposite of this characteristic, namely a deep approach to learning, can offer considerable gains in learning.” (Mockford & Denton , 1998)

In later research, Entwistle also created more sophisticated constructs. E.g. in honor of Gordon Pask's contribution to higher education he presented in 1991 a model that combine students intentions with their dominant learning approach / style.

table in png format (Access restricted) ?

An earlier Typology (??)
  • Non-committers (cautious, anxious, disinclined to take risks)
  • Hustlers (competitive, dynamic, but insensitive)
  • Plungers (emotional, impulsive and individualistic).
  • Reasonable adventurers who combines curiosity and the ability to be critical and reflective

Cognitive Styles Analysis

Richard Riding (1991) proposed a two-dimensional distinction of learners and learning styles:

  • wholist-analytic - the structure and ordering of the content of instruction ( global, random vs. explicit order, high structure)
  • verbaliser-imager - corresponds to the presentation of instructional material (textual vs. graphic)

Riding (1994) further associates learning style with personality traits:

  • verbalisers>extroverts, imagers>introverts,

and social behaviour:

  • wholists>dependent and gregarious, analytics>isolated and self-reliant

Perceptual Learning Style Preferece

Joy Reid (1987) defined learning styles according to perceptual preferences.

  • visual - written or visual information
  • auditory - verbal
  • kinesthetic - physical activity
  • tactile - working with materials
  • social group
  • social individual

These were further qualified as beign strong, minor or negligible.

More models

  • Inventory of Learning Styles (Vermunt, 1994) - meaning-directed, application-directed, reproduction-directed, undirected.
  • Cognitive Styles Index (Allinson and Hayes, 1996) - intuition/analysis
  • Adaptor-Innovator Theory (Kirton, 1994) - adaptation/innovation
  • A-E Inventory: (Kauffmann, 1994) - assimilator/explorer

A list of rather instructional style models

Gregorc Learning Styles

Anthony Gregorc's learning styles are based on brain hemisphere research. One's learning style can be measured through the use of the Gregorc Style Delineator that places ones learning style on a continuum of polar extremes. There are two dimensions of learning preferences:

  • Perceptual preference: abstract (reason and intuition) or concrete (sensing)
  • Ordering preference: sequential or random
AS - prefer analytical approaches, structured written and verbal instruction that is organized and authoritative CS - highly structured, linear, hands-on activities
AR - prefer visual instruction, group discussions and opportunity to reflect CR - prefer experimentation, trial-and-error and materials that provide opportunity for 'play'.
  • For details on instructional focus and strategies that can be used to match the Gregorc learning style see the chart at Tennesee Technological University.

NOTE: Harasym, PH et al (1996) found a strong relationship between #Myers-briggs Type Indicator and Gregorc Style Delineator:

  • CS exhibited sensing and judging traits
  • CR exhibited intuition and perceiving traits
  • AS exhibited thinking (vs feeling) traits
  • AR exhibited feeling traits

Sadler-Smith instructional preferences

Sadler-Smith (1996) identify three instructional style preferences (individual's preference for particular instructional methods, techniques and materials):

  1. dependent learners: prefer teacher-directed, highly structured programmes with explicit assignments set and assessed by the teacher;
  2. collaborative learners: are discussion-oriented and favour group projects, collaborative assignments and social interaction;
  3. independent learners: prefer to exercise an influence on the content and structure of learning programmes within which the teacher or instructor is a resource.

General implications for instructional design

There are a number of approaches to acknowledging and accommodating individual differences in preference and style:

  1. matching learners’ preferences with the intention that this will have some beneficial effect on learning performance;
  2. mismatching learners preferences in order that they may become more ‘rounded’ as learners (as suggested by Honey & Mumford, 1992)
  3. selecting instructional methods and media on the basis of their intended purpose without reference to learner preferences.
The second of these approaches assumes some malleability (Sadler-Smith & Riding, 1999)

Papanikoloaou et al. (2006) derived three general categories for the ways in which learning style assessments are used in instructional systems design.

  1. to inform the design the content of instruction: select the type and sequence of educational material based on proposed frameworks or research on learning styles and preferences in type and sequencing instructional material. E.g.: the Felder design model,
  2. to design tools/representations that support the learners’ orientation and navigation within an instructional environment, focussing on the type of cognitive activity in which the learner is engaged.
  3. to design specific functionalities: provide learners with multiple representations of the domain or the learner model in order “promote reflection by learners about their knowledge and learning, by externalising the contents of their learner model to them” (Papanikoloaou et al. 2006, p. 359

The literature on learning styles suggests that an instructional design should look at several issues related to cognitive styles, learning styles, etc. Of particular interest is the question on how to match or not to match cognitive and instructional styles.

  • When to use examples and practice vs. exposure to theory
  • Levels and mixture of concreteness/abstraction or visual/verbal etc. in learning materials and lecturing.
  • Various forms of collaboration and cooperation between students
  • Level of learner control (related to their learning strategies and metacognitive abilities and the question on how to favor higher order learning)

As for the general value regarding learning style models, Merril (2002) argues that “Learning style is secondary in selecting the fundamental components of instructional strategy appropriate for and consistent with a given learning goal. However, learning style should be considered in selecting instructional style and adjusting the parameters of a given instructional strategy.”. His bottom line is that “Appropriate, consistent instructional strategies are determined first on the basis of the type of content to be taught or the goals of the instruction (the content-by-strategy interactions) and secondarily, learner style determines the value of the parameters that adjust or fine-tune these fundamental learning strategies (learning-style-by-strategy interactions). Finally, content-by-strategy interactions take precedence over learning-style-by-strategy interactions regardless of the instructional style or philosophy of the instructional situation.”

As an example on how to take into account learning styles, Merril (2002) presents some possible learning-style-by-strategy interactions. However, he insists that each type of learner always should engage with various strategies and content types.

  • Content sequence. Cognitive-restricted and serialist learners learn better from content arranged in a logical sequence and prefer to learn each topic in order. Cognitive-flexible or holist learners learn better when they are able to select which topic to study next and to review each topic to get a whole picture before studying each topic in detail. Note however, that when the detail study comes each type of learner must engage in the instructional strategy that is appropriate for and consistent with the instructional goal. (Merril, 2002:3)
  • Transaction Sequence. Holist learners prefer an inductive-sequence where they are presented examples and demonstrations first prior to figuring out a definition or seeing the steps listed. Serialist learners prefer a deductive-sequence where they see the definition or list of steps first prior to seeing examples or a demonstration. Nevertheless, both the inductive and deductive sequence of transaction components must still contain all the components of the appropriate and consistent strategy or there will be a decrement in learning. (Merril, 2002:3)
  • Transaction Configuration. Instruction is characterized by the representation of the content information included and by the addition of information, directions, and learner guidance that enhances the students ability to acquire the information presented. It is in the area of learner guidance where learning-style-by-strategy interactions may also play a significant role. Visual learners learn best when information is presented in graphic form. Verbal learners prefer textual presentations or lectures. Haptic learners prefer information they can manipulate. Nevertheless visual, verbal or haptic learners must still have all the components of an appropriate and consistent instructional strategy even though these components may have different forms of representation. (Merril, 2002:3)
  • Concept Instruction. In learning a concept all learners need to see examples and non-examples. However, holist learners tend to have a problem with undergeneralization, they need to see more divergent examples to promote generalization. Serialist learners tend to have a problem with overgeneralization, they need to see more matched example non-example pairs to facilitate their ability to discriminate among examples and non-examples. Both of these types of learners need examples and nonexamples as these are essential components of a concept instruction strategy. However, each type of learner requires a different emphasis in the relationships among these instances. (Merril, 2002:3)

Felder (1996) argues in a similar direction: “A learning style model is useful if balancing instruction on each of the model dimensions meets the learning needs of essentially all students in a class. [...] Which model educators choose is almost immaterial, since the instructional approaches that teach around the cycle for each of the models are essentially identical.” In other words, a good pedagogical design includes several strategies to present information and engages students in different kinds of information processing. Felder (1996) then presents a list of strategies that ensure that a course appeals to a wide range of learning styles. These suggestions are based on the Felder-Silverman model. See the Felder design model.

According to Becta, also Sadler-Smith and Smith (2004) offer the following recommendations for accommodating learners' cognitive styles:

  • give a structured route through learning
  • provide a global perspective of the content
  • present information both visually and verbally (written or spoken)
  • make the structure and scope of content, as well as its relationship to other topic areas, as explicit as possible

Entwistle (1991) argues that teachers should: take account of the range of learning styles their students will inevitably exhibit, recognise that their own learning style is likely to be reflected in their teaching and acknowledge the dangers of allowing one particular approach to teaching to exclude the voice of others.

To present apposing view to that of the few authors we reviewed, some researchers in fields like Adaptive hypertext seem to claim that different learning modes and learning path should be proposed to each learner. Papanikolaou et al. (2006, p. 358) suggest that “it is more useful to recommend educational interactions based on the learner’s observable behaviour, allowing learners to make the final choice, selecting amongst alternative approaches”. The system should adapt to the learner's actual behaviour rather than the what is inferred from learning style evaluations. The system should be designed to accomodate a variety of learning styles, but should propose interactions based on user behaviour within the system to select the appropriate approach for the context. This information can be made explicit to learners so that they can gain awareness of their cognitive styles and strategies. The style and form of content presented can be varied to match or mismatch content and learning style accordingly.

Such an appoach:

  • is very costly
  • may inhibit to large extent most sorts of collaborative learning (which does seem to have a positive effect on learning outcomes)
  • may be counter-productive, since every learner should at some point be able to deal with differents sorts of input and he also should be trained to produce knowledge and output requiring a wide range of cognitive processing.
  • may lead to "labelling", i.e. confine students to initial behavior patterns as show or perceived by an instructor (like "this person can never grasp the principle behind a word processor and can only repeat demonstrated procedures").
  • may be cognitively couterproductive. I.e. Solomon (1986) reported that learners learners presented with material in their preferred format tend to exhibit overconfidence and consequently invest less effort and perform finally more poorly.
( this needs verification / elaboration )
  • learning styles may be mutable, changing in time or according to the task at hand. From David Robotham (1999) [10]

“Messick (1984) and Streufert & Nogami (1989) found evidence learners adapt their learning style based on perceptions of the requirements of a learning task. A contention supported by Talbot (1985) who suggests that learning style varies according to the learning task being undertaken, while Barris, Kielhofner & Bauer (1985) argue that it is possible for learning to change during the duration of a course of study.” To deal with the seemingly boundless combinations of learning styles in learners and instructors and their effects on learning and teaching, Robotham further suggests a paradigm shift that focusses not on learning styles but on enabling learners to direct their learning: “Higher education teaching should seek to move beyond the enhancement of performance within a narrow spectrum of activities, and consider the development of foundation skills, such as self-directed learning. An able self-directed learner may still choose to use a particular learning style that is relatively narrow in nature, but they are consciously taking that decision, in view of their perception of the needs of a particular situation.”

Teaching about learning styles

Overall, the existence and the usefulness of learning styles is disputed by most research. The debate is not over, since there always differences between learner behaviors that somehow can be interpreted as differences in learning preferences (styles) or even abilities, e.g. Kraemer et al. (2009) found “a pattern of activity in modality-specific cortex that distinguished visual from verbal cognitive styles”, i.e. self-reported visualizers did more visualizing and self-reported verbalizers did more verbalizing. However, they did not find significant relationship between cognitive style and cognitive ability.

Anyhow, Willingham, Hughes & Doboly (2015) suggest two class activity scenarios to teach challenges around the matter of learning styles to students in psychology.

Willingham (2015:258) scenario I excerpt: “the teacher might create a learning activity that requires students to identify their own best learning styles and then attempt to learn new material(e.g., new vocabulary) via (a) their primary learning style or (b)a different learning style.For example,visual learners and auditory learners in the class might be presented with new vocabulary. Students in each learning style group would be randomly assigned to a learning condition, resulting in some visual learners and auditory learners accessing the new vocabulary visually (e.g., reading it in text) and some visual learners and auditory learners accessing the new vocabulary auditorily (e.g., listening to a recording). All students would be assessed on the new vocabulary they learned, and class data would be graphed and analyzed”.

Willingham (2015:258), in scenario II, suggest to explore the reliability of the assessment of learning styles by linking selecting of a method to a prior positive or negative experience. “for example, if someone recently listened to an audible Global Positioning System (GPS) to find a location, would that person be more likely to select an audible method of delivery for directions over using a map,even if they consider themselves to be a visual learner?”


Comment: Kalli Benetos questions the validity of some tests based on learners' subjective self-assessment of their preferences as these may project a learner's value system or reflect an erroneous self-perception rather than actual learning style. In addition, their perception of the conditions under which they learn more effectively may be a projection of what they perceive as optimal conditions (best results for the smallest effort) and may not be directly linked to improved learning.

Sadler-Smith & Riding (1999) found “students’ overall preferences were for dependent methods (lectures, tutorial and surgeries) using print-based media (handouts, workbooks, textbooks and journal articles) and assessed by informal methods (individual and group assignments and multiple choice and short answertype questions)." This seems to show that students had motives other than true learning. They perhaps expressed preferences for the instructional style they perceived would allow them to acheive the best grades.”

Felder & Spurlin (2005) try to remedy the potential misuse of learning styles by pointing out that:

  • Learning style dimensions are scales, mild, moderate or extreme tendencies can be exhibited.
  • Learning style profiles are indicative of tendencies and individuals at one time or another will exhibit tendencies of the opposing characteristic.
  • Learning style preferences do not indicate a learner's strengths and weaknesses, only the preferred activity.
  • Learning style preferences may be subject to a learner's educational experience and 'comfort'.

The most agreed upon use of learning style analysis seems to be to give learners insight into their own learning preferences and learning styles and highlight their potential strengths and weaknesses (Riding, 1999, Felder & Spurlin, 2005, Robotham, 1999, Bull, 2004, Kay, 1997). This points to the emerging literature on the role of learning style assessments in building self-directed learners that are able to engage in metacognitive reflection about their learning processes and engage in learning strategies that will yield the desired learning outcomes. (See Open learner model) -K.Benetos


Tests & practical stuff

The Index of Learning Styles (ILS)

Felder and Spurlin (2005) suggest these principal applications for the ILS:

  1. The first is to provide guidance to instructors on the diversity of learning styles within their student population and to help them design instruction appropriately
  2. The second is to provide insight to students into their possible learning strengths and weaknesses.


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