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Learning Styles

The concept of "Learning Styles" began in the late 1970s with David Kolb's studies on Experiental Learning, and gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s as Honey and Mumford, Gregorc, Fleming, and others expanded upon the idea of learning styles.

What are learning styles?

The premise of the idea is that individuals learn differently, and that individuals learn best when the mode of instruction in which the information is presented best matches their individual learning styles.

The process for doing this is an assessment activity (a quiz, an inventory, etc.) that informs students (and educators) of students' best mode(s) of learning.  The "meshing hypothesis," or the application of this information, involves instructors adapting their learning activities to best fit their students' learning styles (Pashler et al). This criteria-match customized education is thought to result in better learning for students.  For example, if the learner is a "visual learner," information should, when possible, be presented visually, so that individual can better learn the material.

Though there are many variations on this, most Learning Style Inventories (LSI) or other assessment activities categorize learners based on Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinesthetic, or Multi-Modal (a combination thereof) preferences for learning.  If you have not taken one of these inventories, many are available online. You can take a 16-question VARK online for free.

(How) Do learning styles work?

As this subtitle implies, the basis and efficacy of using learning styles is under debate:

On the one hand, the concept of learning styles and its "meshing hypothesis" has given rise to many publications devoted to meet students' learning styles in the classroom.  Dunn & Dunn's foundational 1978 book on this subject, Teaching Students through Their Individual Learning Styles, is one such example.  Type in "learning style"s in any discipline-based journal search engine, and you are likely to find articles on teaching that reference Fleming's VARK and other LSIs.    

On the other hand, the preponderance of the most recent publications on learning styles reveals researchers have found problems with the meshing hypothesis.  In the 2000s, two different studies (Constantinidou & Baker's 2002 article in Brain and Language and Massa & Meyer's 2006 article in Learning and Individual Differences) concluded that learners did not learn better with style-matched instruction.  Moreover, some researchers go further: Daniel T. Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, has gone so far as to say that  learning styles do not exist.  He summarizes this well in a video clip on YouTube.  Dr. Willingham concludes: "Good teaching is good teaching, and teachers do not need to adjust their teaching to individual students' learning styles."  He clarifies this further in a follow-up video.  If you listened to our Podcast with Dr. Bill Cerbin, he questioned the concept of learning styles in much the same way, pointing out that much of what we know about learning styles are myths, and in some cases may actually do more harm than good.  See "further reading and research" below for a 40 minute interview with Dr. Willingham by The Psych Files.

It is not surprising, though, that many want to hold on to the idea of learning styles.  And as Richard Felder, Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University points out in On Course Newsletter, there are still potential benefits from learning styles:
  • "The optimal teaching style strikes a balance (not necessarily an equal one) between the poles of each dimension of the chosen learning styles model.When this balance is achieved, all students are taught sometimes in their preferred mode, so they are not too uncomfortable to learn, and sometimes in their less preferred mode, so they are given practice and feedback in critically important skills they might never develop if instruction were perfectly matched to their preferences."
  • "The ideal balance among learning style categories depends on the subject, level, and learning objectives of the course and the backgrounds and skills of the students. Part of the instructor’s job is to attempt to ascertain that ideal and to teach in a manner that comes as close to it as possible."
  • "Acquainting students with their learning styles can enhance their awareness of some of their natural learning strengths, and it can also alert them to learning needs which, if unaddressed, could create academic difficulties for them. The instructor should make clear, however, that learning styles provide no indication of what the students are and are not capable of, nor are they legitimate excuses for poor academic performance."  (Feldman)

Where do we go from here?
The concepts we are discussing in our 2012 Reading Circle on How Learning Works reflect a shift to designing learning around research-based best practices (for any and all "learning styles").

Additionally, the concept of learning styles is finding a new home in applied cognitive science.  Instead of using student preferences or LSIs, researchers are testing how the brain best retains information.  A few examples of recent work are listed here, (though a few of these articles are written for specialists in this field):
Researchers are looking at what practices enhance learning:  retrieval practice (referenced on the podcast with Dr. Bill Cerbin), interleaved practice (the strategy of interweaving previous knowledge with what students have already learned), and the effects of memory tests are a few of the studies that show promise in this area.  As we discover more about how the brain works, our definition of learning styles will likely change. 

For further reading and research:

Read and Reflect

Questions for Reflection
  • What ways of thinking are required by your discipline?
  • What modes of instruction do you most often use?  What is the relationship between the way you teach and the ways of thinking required by your discipline?
  • How do you gauge your students' learning preferences? 
To respond to these questions, select any or all of the following:
  • Post a response (and read others' responses) on this blog. (No login is required.)
  • Email your thoughts to vtlc@uwc.edu

Works Cited:

Dunn, R, & Dunn, K Teaching Students through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company, 1978.

Felder, Richard. "Are Learning Styles Invalid? (Hint: No)On Course Newsletter. Web. 

Kolb, David. Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105–119. Dec. 2008.

Sprenger, M. Differentiation through Learning Styles and Memory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2003.