Learning styles theories – a hotly contested subject
Learning styles theories – a Summary:
There are 4 main theories.
David Kolb’s model – Experiential learning Theory [ELT]
Adaption of Klobs theory Peter Honey and Alan Mumford: The Honey & Mumford stages model
Barbe, Swassing, and Milone: Learning Modalities
Anthony Gregorc’s model
Neil Fleming’s VAK/VARK model
Each has some merit and a degree of intuitive validity, but each has its critics and there is very little empirical evidence to support any of them –
Daniel T. Willingham claims that any good cognitive learning styles theory must have three features:
- It should consistently attribute to a person the same style,
- It should show that people with different abilities think and learn differently,
- It should show that people with different styles do not, on average, differ in ability.
But in his analysis Willingham concludes that there are no theories that have these three crucial characteristics, not necessarily implying that cognitive learning styles don’t exist but rather stating that psychologists are unable to “find them” yet. Many scholars, researchers, psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for, and the theories on which they are based. Indeed Susan Greenfield suggested the practice is “nonsense” from a neuroscientific point of view: “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.”
There is too, a growing belief amongst educational psychologists that there is little evidence for the claims of efficacy of these models, and that they often rest on questionable theoretical grounds. Stahl, even suggested that 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.” Guy Claxton has questioned the extent that learning styles such as VARK are helpful, particularly as they can have a “tendency to label individuals” and therefore restrict learning.
The conclusion seems to be that everyone is different, there are people who profess to know about learning styles… but you are genetically designed to acquire information and make sense of the world around you. You need to think about you and how you learn best – have a read through the main learning styles theories – then try different ways to create the environment where you get the most from the experience – don’t leave it to others or accept being told how you lean as there is weak evidence to back all the theories and remember…
…there is always MoreThan1Answer…
What are learning styles?
Learning styles refer to a range of theories that aim to account for differences in individuals’ learning. These theories propose that all people can be classified according to their ‘style’ of learning, although the various theories present differing views on how the styles should be defined and categorised. A common concept is that individuals differ in how they learn.
When did it first come to prominence?
The idea of individualized learning styles first appeared in the 1970s, and has greatly influenced education where teachers have been encouraged to adapt their classroom teaching styles to best fit each student’s learning style.
Although there is ample evidence that individuals express preferences for how they prefer to receive information, few studies have found any validity in using learning styles in education and indeed critics say there is no evidence that identifying an individual student’s learning style produces better outcomes.
There is evidence of empirical and educational problems where well-designed studies contradict the widespread “meshing hypothesis”, that a student will learn best if taught in a method deemed appropriate for the student’s learning style.
David Kolb’s model – Experiential learning Theory [ELT]
The ELT model outlines two related approaches toward grasping experience: Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization, plus two related approaches toward transforming experience: Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation.
According to Kolb’s model, the ideal learning process engages all four of these modes in response to different situations. In order for learning to be truly effective, all four of these approaches should be incorporated.
Like most of life, we tend to develop strengths in one experience-grasping approach and one experience-transforming approach. The resulting learning styles are combinations of the individual’s preferred approaches. These learning styles are as follows:
David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM)
→ Concrete Experience ↓
Active Experimentation Reflective Observation
↑ Abstract Conceptualization ←
- Accommodators: Concrete Experience + Active Experiment
“Hands-on” and concrete
Wants to do
Asks questions fearlessly
Receive information from others
Gut feeling rather than logic
- Converger: Abstract Conceptualization + Active Experiment
“Hands-on” and theory
Technical over interpersonal
- Diverger: Concrete Experience + Reflective Observation
Real life experience and discussion
More than one possible solution
Brainstorming and groupwork
Observe rather than do
- Assimilator: Abstract Conceptualization + Reflective Observation
Theories and facts
Theoretical models and graphs
Talk about rationale rather than do
Kolb’s model gave rise to the Learning Style Inventory, an assessment method used to determine an individual’s learning style. An individual may exhibit a preference for one of the four styles—Accommodating, Converging, Diverging and Assimilating – depending on their approach to learning via the Experiential Learning Theory model.
Although Kolb’s model is the most widely accepted with substantial empirical support, recent studies suggest the Learning Style Inventory (LSI) “possesses serious weaknesses”
Learning Modalities: Barbe, Swassing, and Milone
“Sensory preferences influence the ways in which students learn … Perceptual preferences affect more than 70 percent of school-age youngsters” (Dunn, Beaudry, & Klavas, 1989, p. 52). There are three Learning Modalities adapted from Barbe, Swassing, and Milone:
- Visualising style
- Auditory style
- Tactile (Kinesthetic) style
Descriptions of Learning Modalities:
Visual Kinesthetic Auditory
Picture Gestures Listening
Shape Body Movements Rhythms
Sculpture Object Manipulation Tone
Paintings Positioning Chants
Learning modalities can occur independently or in combination, changing over time, and becoming integrated with age.
Peter Honey and Alan Mumford’s model
Two adaptations were made to Kolb’s experiential model. Firstly, the stages in the cycle were renamed to accord with managerial experiences of decision making/problem solving.
The Honey & Mumford stages are:
Secondly, the styles were directly aligned to the stages in the cycle and named Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist. These are assumed to be acquired preferences that are adaptable, either at will or through changed circumstances, rather than being fixed personality characteristics. The Honey & Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ) is a self-development tool and differs from Kolb’s Learning Style inventory by inviting managers to complete a checklist of work-related behaviours without directly asking managers how they learn. Having completed the self-assessment, managers are encouraged to focus on strengthening underutilised styles in order to become better equipped to learn from a wide range of everyday experiences.
A MORI survey commissioned by The Campaign for Learning in 1999 found the Honey & Mumford LSQ to be the most widely used system for assessing preferred learning styles in the local government sector in the UK.
Anthony Gregorc’s model
Gregorc and Butler worked to organize a model describing different learning styles rooted in the way individuals acquire and process information differently. This model is based on the existence of perceptions—our evaluation of the world by means of an approach that makes sense to us. These perceptions in turn are the foundation of our specific learning strengths, or learning styles.
In this model, there are two perceptual qualities
and two ordering abilities
Concrete perceptions involve registering information through the five senses, while abstract perceptions involve the understanding of ideas, qualities, and concepts which cannot be seen. In regard to the two ordering abilities, sequential involves the organization of information in a linear, logical way and random involves the organization of information in chunks and in no specific order. Both of the perceptual qualities and both of the ordering abilities are present in each individual, but some qualities and ordering abilities are more dominant within certain individuals.
There are four combinations of perceptual qualities and ordering abilities based on dominance:
Individuals with different combinations learn in different ways—they have different strengths, different things make sense to them, different things are difficult for them, and they ask different questions throughout the learning process.
The validity of the model has been questioned by Reio and Wiswell following experimental trials. Thomas G. Reio Jr. and Albert K. Wiswell (2006). “An Examination of the Factor Structure and Construct Validity of the Gregorc Style Delineator”. Educational and Psychological Measurement 66:
Neil Fleming’s VAK/VARK model
One of the most common and widely used categorizations of the various types of learning styles is Neil D. Fleming’s VARK model (sometimes VAK) which expanded upon earlier Neuro-linguistic programming (VARK) models:
Reading-writing preference learners;
Kinesthetic learners or tactile learners.
Fleming claimed that
Visual learners have a preference for seeing (think in pictures; visual aids that represent ideas using methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, symbols, etc.).
Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.).
Reading –writing learners best learn through reading and re writing (books, lecture notes, transcribing, etc.).
Tactile/kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world; science projects; experiments, etc.). Its use in instruction allows teachers to prepare classes that address each of these areas. Students can also use the model to identify their preferred learning style and, it is claimed, maximize their learning by focusing on the mode that benefits them the most.
Learning style theories have been criticized by many scholars and researchers. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have questioned the scientific basis for and the theories on which they are based. According to Susan Greenfield the practice is “nonsense” from a neuroscientific point of view: “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.”
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.” Guy Claxton has questioned the extent that learning styles such as VARK are helpful, particularly as they can have a tendency to label children and therefore restrict learning.
Critique made by Coffield, et al.
A 2004 non-peer-reviewed literature review by authors from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne 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 of the 71 they identified, including most of the models cited on this page. They examined the theoretical origins and terms of each model, and the instrument that purported to assess individuals against the learning styles defined by the model. They analysed 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.
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.”
Critique of Kolb’s model
Mark K. Smith compiled and reviewed some critiques of Kolb’s model in his article, “David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning”. According to Smith’s research, there are six key issues regarding the model. They are as follows:
- the model doesn’t adequately address the process of reflection;
- the claims it makes about the four learning styles are extravagant;
- it doesn’t sufficiently address the fact of different cultural conditions and experiences;
- the idea of stages/steps doesn’t necessarily match reality;
- it has only weak empirical evidence;
- the relationship between learning processes and knowledge is more complex than Kolb draws it.
Coffield and his colleagues and Mark Smith are not alone in their judgements. 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.
The work of Daniel T. Willingham also holds true to the idea that there is not enough evidence to support a theory describing the differences in learning styles amongst students. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School, he claims that a cognitive styles theory must have three features: “it should consistently attribute to a person the same style, it should show that people with different abilities think and learn differently, and it should show that people with different styles do not, on average, differ in ability.” That being said, he concludes that there are no theories that have these three crucial characteristics, not necessarily implying that cognitive styles don’t exist but rather stating that psychologists are unable to “find them”.