Learning styles: Demystification


One of the prime objectives of those who want to convey some information (known as knowledge providers) is to maximize learning for those whom they identify as change agents. I think this motivation adds to the importance and attractiveness of the learning styles theory. The meaning of learning styles is explained by the following statement, “Students who know their learning styles are more likely to transfer their knowledge into practice compared with students who do not know their learning styles” (Teddlie 1992 in Manolis et al, 2013, 46).

Another hypothesis reads like this, “Different students have different modes of learning, and their learning could be improved by matching one’s teaching with that preferred learning mode” (Riener and Willingham 2010). So, not only learning about one’s preferred learning style, but tailoring instruction to a learning style represents the main idea of learning styles. It means that learning solutions that take into account learning styles deliver better results. But do they?

I must admit it seems really encouraging to believe that there is a solution for how to think about course design and that the answer actually lies in the way individuals prefer to learn. It also seems relevant for a learning event to make use of learning styles in order to avoid boring sessions with presentations.

However, I wanted to know more and went into research. I started to figure out what learning styles really are by looking at different models and research. I was looking for some evidence that learning styles do work.

In this research I found that:

  • The field of learning styles is not unified. Three areas are interlinked: theoretical, pedagogical, and commercial. Theoretical research about learning styles started at the beginning of the 20th century. Altogether 71 models were identified, 13 of them by Coffield et al (2004) categorized as major models. Pedagogical activity similarly consists of research into teaching and learning. There is also a large commercial area of ventures promoting particular inventories and instruments. I think that commercial activity adds to popularity and extent of usage of certain inventories.
  • The models of learning styles can be categorized into different approaches to learning. According to a model by McCarthy (2010), there exist four approaches to learning: personality, information processing, social interaction, and instructional preferences. Another model used for categorization is the so-called onion metaphor model developed by Curry (1938 in Coffield et al 2004, 8).

Curry's “onion” model of learning styles.

  • Searching for optimal pedagogical methods seems to have sparkled thinking that traditional pedagogical methods do not acknowledge individual differences and that experientally based education is more effective (Manolis et al 2013, 44).
  • Kolb and Joy (2009, 71) describe learning style as a concept that refers to individual differences in approaches to learning, based on an individual’s preference for using a combination of dialectic modes. Kolb distinguishes four basic learning styles: diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating. Kolb constructed learning styles inventory (LSI) back in 1976; in 2013 its fourth version was released.
  • It seems that some researchers / inventory inventors perceive learning styles of individuals as dynamic; that is, not stable or fixed personality trait (Kolb 2000 in Coffield et al 2004, 60). However, the notion of styles tends to imply something fixed and stable over time. Some treat them as flexibly stable, while others claim that styles may vary from context to context (Coffield et al 2004, 3). Kolb additionally argues for integrative development where students become competent in all four learning modes: active, reflective, abstract, and concrete.

One of the conclusions of my research is that the field of learning styles is far from being homogenous, as suggested by mainstream online articles. By looking at some of the questionnaires (many of them are available on purchase only, which means that there is a huge industry behind), my impression is that generally questions ask about the way how individuals prefer to perceive some information. According to Pashler et al (2009, 107–8) these are the so-called type theories that aim to classify people into supposedly distinct groups. Authors call this existence of study preferences, which does not really say anything about what implication this has on learning, but nevertheless often leads to the so-called meshing hypothesis, which claims that presentation should mesh with the learner’s own proclivities. Only a few studies were performed, trying to find evidence to the theory, but no evidence supporting the hypothesis was found (Pashler 2009).

It also seems that the hypothesis of learning styles, as interpreted at the beginning, does not say anything about:

  • content being instructed
  • abilities of individuals
  • motivation
  • prior level of knowledge.

Constructing course design entails much more than tailoring instruction according to learning styles. The whole idea is very encouraging but it seems to provide little evidence. However, I do not want to discourage those who believe in the power of learning styles. Indeed, I have noticed that people do learn differently. I think that we only have to be careful with the implications that this theory might have.

I suggest we take the idea of learning styles as a journey to know more about how we learn as individuals. Tony Buzan, author of several books about learning, has said, “Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.” With the use of learning style theory together with inventories, we could take this journey as lifelong learners and try to enrich the preferred style with practices that are new to us.

 

References:

Coffield et al. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre. Available at http://sxills.nl/lerenlerennu/bronnen/Learning%20styles%20by%20Coffield%20e.a..pdf (25. 11. 2014).

Joy, Simy and David A. Kolb. 2009. Are there cultural differences in learning style? International Journal of Intercultural Relations 33: 69–85. Available at http://learningfromexperience.com/media/2012/02/are-there-cultural-differences-in-learning-style.pdf (25. 11. 2014).

Manolis, et al. 2013. Assessing experiential learning styles: a methodological reconstruction and validation of the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory. Learning and Individual Differences 23: 44–52 . Available at Science Direct.

McCarthy, Mary. 2010. Experiential Learning Theory: From Theory to Practice. Journal of Business and Economic Research 8(5): 131–40.

Pashler et al. 2009. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Association for Psychological Science. Available at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf (25. 11. 2014).

Riener, Cedar and Daniel Willingham. 2010. The Myth of Learning Styles. Available at http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html (25. 11. 2014).

 

Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the CEF.


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About Kaja Jurtela

Kaja works with public accountants and auditors in South East Europe. She designs and develops learning and knowledge initiatives to engage public finance officials in regional sharing of experience and fostering reform processes. She is involved in research of learning theories and different aspects of public financial management. Her current research project focuses on fiscal transparency: how to define, measure and put it into practice at the national level.

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