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3.4.2 Learning Styles

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the basics of a selection of theories connected to learning styles
  • To understand how learning styles might impact positively upon teaching practice
  • To identify that learning styles are contentious, and remain a contested academic area
  • To evaluate the relative merits of differing learning styles theories
  • To be able to discuss with others the value of learning styles as applied to the classroom

1. What are learning styles? Who are the central theorists around this?

At its simplest, a learning style refers to a way of learning which is preferred, or found to be most effective, in a given learner. It perhaps makes sense that if you, as a learner, are aware of how you learn best, then by using techniques, specific kinds of activities and related approaches that favour those learning preferences, you will learn better, be more effective as a student, and have a more positive educational experience. From a teaching perspective, learners who are having more fun, who are engaged, and who can see for themselves the positive ways in which they are engaging with their subject, will be likely to do better, behave better, and achieve more readily to the best of their capabilities. This can only have a positive effect on day-to-day classroom interactions and in the longer term, on learner achievement.

Kolb's Learning Style Model

Kolb's model seeks to assess the extent to which a learner has aptitudes along two paired axes. The first axis is that of abstract conceptualisation against concrete experience, which refers to the preferred mode of absorbing new learning. The second axis is that of reflective observation against active experimentation, which refers to the ways in which that learner might then make sense of that new learning. From the way an individual might be measured against these axes, Kolb suggests that four learning styles may be detected:

  • Type 1: Diverger (concrete + reflective). Uses questions to gain understanding. Looks for reasons "why". Is imaginative and creative. Responds well to contextualisation to self of problems and new learning situations.
  • Type 2: Assimilator (abstract + reflective). Is fact-oriented. Likes logic and order. A focus on procedure prompts "how" questions. Good at reflection, and on using reflective practice to inform learning.
  • Type 3: Converger (abstract + active). Fond of experimentation and asking "how" questions. Adept in practical situations and in problem-solving through technical tasks.
  • Type 4: Accommodator (concrete + abstract). Accommodators are better at imaginative scenarios, and at trying out alternatives. People-centred and intuitive in their learning.

Honey and Mumford: learning styles inventory

For Honey and Mumford (1968) who were writing originally in a business studies context (and were influenced by Kolb), there are four main learning styles, which may be diagnosed through a questionnaire: activist; reflector; theorist; pragmatist.

In this schema, an activist prefers active experimentation, a hands-on approach, group work, and learning by doing. A reflector tends to think before acting, focus on research and preparation, and can be deliberate but definite in their working. A pragmatist works best when they can see the practical end use of new knowledge, and work well in problem-solving contexts. A theorist likes detail and alternative solutions to problems, and prefers reasoned objectivity to opinion or ambiguity. Such traits, and the extent to which an individual might have tendencies towards multiple traits, are assessed through a lengthy learning styles inventory, consisting of yes/no questions which build up into a profile of the learner.

Bloom's taxonomy

US educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives has been very influential since its first incarnation in the 1950s. Bloom sees that learning is associated with three domains; three separate spheres of learning. Each domain is explored in Bloom's full work in respect of a hierarchy of applying new learning in ever more sophisticated ways. Bloom defines three domains:

  1. Affective: linked to emotions, empathy, attitudes, opinions, interpersonal skills, and value systems.
  2. Psychomotor: linked to physical skills and activities, manual dexterity, co-ordination, technical prowess.
  3. Cognitive: linked to knowledge, memory, recall, analysis, synthesis, evaluation skills.

To summarise, Bloom points to three aspects of learning which are akin to learning styles as they are widely understood. Learners may be described as "affective", "cognitive", or "psychomotor" in these terms (Airasian, 2001).

VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)

Visual learners are those who respond well to visual stimuli, as the name suggests. Video, charts, maps, posters and image-based information sources all appeal. Visual learners may, for Pritchard "often use hand movements when describing or recalling events or objects and have a tendency to look upwards when thinking or recalling information" (2009, p. 44).

Auditory learners favour learning through sound. They are good at listening, have keen memory for songs, stories, and other sound-based media. Auditory learners learn best through listening to lectures and through contributing in discussions.

Kinaesthetic learners are more physical in their learning, responding well to hands-on activities and first-hand experiences. Learning activities which might be appropriate to kinaesthetic learners include sports and games, practical making and designing activities, visits and trips. Kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn in short, controlled bursts, and benefit from breaks to assimilate information. 

An extension to the VAK schema which has been widely adopted stems from Fleming (2001), who suggests that an R for "reading" is included, to amend the schema acronym to VARK. Readers learn best at their own pace and from the written word, and may be best suited to essays, examinations, and other text-dependant methods of research and assessment.

Those with strengths across multiple learning styles, or "modalities", as the styles are known within the VAK and allied systems, may be termed multimodal - or MM - learners. Multimodal learners may be Type 1 MM learners, with approximately equal affinities with each of the VARK modalities, or Type 2 MM learners. A Type 2 learner may be slower in their learning, as they tend not to respond positively to be instruction until their threshold level of the learning modality being used at that time has been satisfied (VARK Learn, 2016).  

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Model

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Model, again derived from business rather than from education, is another influential and widely-used approach to learning styles. With a debt to Jungian psychology, this model seeks to diagnose a range of sixteen learning style preferences weighted to the individual across a spectrum of positions:

  • Extrovert: people-focused and open to experimentation and group working. Work well with others, and in seeking colleagues for collaboration. 
  • Introvert: concept-focused and preferring deliberation. Happy to work in private, and work methodically and alone.
  • Sensor: practically-minded, procedural, detailed in their working. Prefers clarity and stage-by-stage instructions.
  • Intuitor: meaning-focused, often imaginative and creative conceptual thinkers. Better with the large scale than the detail.
  • Thinker: logical and ordered, making evidence-based assessments. Responds well to preparedness, clarity, and clear guidelines.
  • Feeler: tend towards subjective assessments, are people-focused and empathetic. Work well with others, particularly friends.
  • Judger: is often logical and procedurally-minded; good at following rules, though may seek order over full understanding. Good at completing projects and meeting outcomes.
  • Perceiver: often seeks a fuller picture, and will juggle deadlines in response to shifting priorities. Prefer flexibility over constraints, and new challenges and learning methods.   

The definitions work in opposed pairs: judger/perceiver, feeler/thinker, intuitor/sensor, introvert/extrovert. A full diagnosis assesses the individual across these four spectrums.

Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

Though not strictly a learning styles diagnostic, psychologist Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences has nevertheless been influential within education in its conceptualisation of how individuals might have different cognitive strands which, in turn, informs their learning style. The eight intelligences found in most versions of Gardner's still-evolving work are:

  1. Linguistic/verbal: prefers language-oriented work. Discussions, reading, language games, linguistics.
  2. Logical/mathematical: prefers numbers and logical patterns. Good at problem-solving, sequencing, discerning relationships and patterns. Good at mathematical work.
  3. Spatial/visual: prefers image-based learning. Creative and visually-stimulated, and in allying mental imagery and the imagined to real-world situations.
  4. Bodily/kinaesthetic: prefers being able to explore the physical environment. Is tactile, inquisitive, exploratory, and good at interrogating the physical world through interacting with artefacts and environments.
  5. Musical: prefers both listening to and creating music, sound, rhythm, and tempo. May be musically creative.  
  6. Interpersonal: prefers learning which is social and which involves empathy. Good with group situations, teamwork, communicating and sharing experiences.     
  7. Intrapersonal: prefers to reflect, to work alone, and to consider one's own interests. Can be instinctive, self-motivating, will work at one's own pace, and with a firm awareness of self.
  8. Naturalistic: prefers learning which is associated with the natural world. Can work well outdoors.

There are overlaps and commonalities between at least some of the different approaches to learning styles summarised above.

2. How can learning styles be considered in the classroom?

Learning styles appear to require some form of diagnosis. Indeed, as the earlier section of this chapter showed, several types of learning styles schemas may involve questionnaires and the like to arrive at a complete assessment. Some institutions will assess incoming learners for an idea of their preferred learning styles as part of induction procedures; if that is done, and the information is available, then this can be a useful resource for the teacher.

With VARK in mind, look at a lesson's worth of material: do the delivery, the activities, the modes of assessment, and the resources being used in that session address a spectrum of learning styles in this schema? The chances are that they do. The new learning for the session may be displayed in a PowerPoint or similar display which is visually stimulating, and may also appeal to those who favour reading. A single activity might involve all four modalities, with aspects of kinaesthetic hands-on working, reading, visual and aural stimuli each being involved. So, think constructively about resources, and give credit where there is a discernible focus on one or more learning styles. Now consider the lesson as a whole; are all styles being catered to? If not, then think about addressing the imbalance where that disparity is significant, or if it does not accord with your understanding of the class's needs in terms of their learning styles.

There are opportunities to reinforce effective and productive engagement in lessons through a curated experience which acknowledges different learning styles. Pritchard (2009) also reminds us that learning styles are to be seen as tendencies only, not absolute facts. On average, it has been asserted that 70% of learners in a given class will respond well to any mode of classroom activity, with 20% engaging only when their dominant learning style is stimulated, and with 10% not being engaged at any particular moment (for reasons not related to learning style). A learning styles-informed stance is of way of addressing this.

3. What evidence is there to suggest that catering learning styles is effective?

There is a common sense in the notion that different people might learn in different ways, and that focusing instruction and learning to privileging those styles can only be of benefit to all. This chapter has explored that same argument. However, the notion of learning styles is contentious, with some researchers believing that there is no such thing as a learning style, and that what is being detected is to do with ability rather than a style. Critics claim that the evidence for learning styles is only partial; that claims made by proponents of such theories often do not stand up to independent scientific scrutiny; and that they are based on inadequate research (Guterl, 2013). A developing consensus is that, rather than a learning styles focus being beneficial, the opposite may be true. The reasoning here is that if a learner is matched well to a kind of activity which allies with their learning preferences, then that learner engages less well with the material being taught because they do not have to work as hard to understand it. The inference from this is that it may be used as an excuse not to engage with materials which the learner does not feel predisposed to.

Kruse (2009) suggests instead that learners, however they might think of their learning, all learn in similar, two-fold ways. Kruse's assertions are that, first, all learners work best when new information and skills build on previously-understood concepts and abilities; and second, that all learners achieve best when learning focuses first on concrete experience, and then moves towards abstract conceptualisation of the ideas and competencies being taught. Anything else on top of this is deemed personal preference rather than a pseudo-scientific "style". For Cassidy (2004), however, the lack of firm agreement about the definition and diagnosis of learning styles, and the associated issues with putting into practice a learning styles-informed pedagogy, is exciting and challenging rather than necessarily a negative.

Conclusion

Though many of these varied theoretical positions have their distinctive qualities and strengths, they also have similarities both at the level of detail, and in their broad attempts to better appreciate the diversity of preferences which learners may have, so that their learning might be enhanced.

Bibliography

Airasian, P.W. (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Edited by Lorin W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl. New York: Addison-Wesley.

BBC (2016) Learning styles. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/tutors/inclusive-learning (Accessed: 19 October 2016).

Cassidy, S. (2004) 'Learning styles: an overview of theories, models, and measures', Educational Psychology, 24(4), pp. 419-444. doi: 10.1080/0144341042000228834.

Fleming, N. (2001) Teaching and learning styles: VARK strategies. Christchurch, N.Z.: Neil D. Fleming.

Guterl, S. (2013) Is teaching to a student's 'Learning Style' a bogus idea? Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-teaching-to-a-students-learning-style-a-bogus-idea/ (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (1986) Manual of learning styles. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

Kolb, D.A. (2014) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. 2nd edn. London: Pearson.

Kruse, J. (2009) 'That's not my style: myths about learning and teaching', Iowa State Teachers' Journal, 36(1), pp. 2-3.

Kwok, M. and Jones, C. (1995) 'Catering for different learning styles', Research in Learning Technology, 3(1), pp. 5-11. doi: 10.3402/rlt.v3i1.9586.

Olsen, J. (2006) The myth of catering to learning styles. Available at: http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=52624 (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

Pritchard, A. (2009) Ways of learning: learning theories and learning styles in the classroom. 2nd edn. London: David Fulton Publishers.

VARK Learn (2016) The VARK Modalities. Available at: http://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/the-vark-modalities/ (Accessed: 19 October 2016).


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