Learning Styles and Strategies

Why is this page here? On a site largely devoted to respectable knowledge about learning? I have already written about it on my more personal site, albeit under the heading of "heterodoxy" (a.k.a. "heresy") but I do actually believe what that page asserts. This is a marginally more respectable treatment of the topic, but it deserves attention (or just "debunking") because of its pernicious strangle-hold on much teacher training nowadays.

No experienced (or even inexperienced) teacher of my acquaintance argues with the proposition that "people learn in different ways" (hard-line behaviourists might do so, but I've never met any!). The assumptions of the "learning styles" movement (if it can be called such) are that:

The problem is that even if the initial premise is true, the second one is very dubious...

Coffield et al (2004) conceded that two approaches to learning styles were reasonably valid and reliable. These were;

...but both of these are principally about learning strategies.

The distinction between styles and strategies is important.

Learning "Style"

A hard line "style" argument suggests that students can only learn in a certain way. In its extreme position it suggests that the style is neurologically determined. If this is accepted, then teachers are clearly obliged to present material tailored to that style.

A softer "style" argument suggests that students have clear preferences for learning in a certain way. This is more problematic for teachers; do they "pander" to the preference, or do they have an obligation to "stretch" students to become more versatile?

On the whole (I believe, but please evaluate the evidence for yourself) the research evidence does not support the notion that there are "hard-wired" styles. Certainly, students may well have preferences; I know what mine are, but;

It is policy in some further education colleges in the UK to administer a learning styles assessment to students at their course induction, and the course leader then gets the results in order to tailor their teaching style to the needs of the students. I have not done any systematic research on this (and I don't know of any, although I confess I don't trawl the journal abstracts like I used to; so if you are looking for a topic for your Master's or even Doctoral dissertation, it's on offer) but the impression I get from my students—who are after all practising teachers—is that regardless of the chosen instrument, the differences are fairly marginal and provide little direction for teaching strategies.

Broadly speaking, this position (whether hard or soft) is associated with schemes such as:

I have deliberately not supplied links for all this stuff here; if you are that keen on it, copy significant phrases and paste them into a search engine; despite the fact that some links would be to this site, it's probably not worth the time.

Learning "Strategies"

The "strategy" argument is that students choose to learn in different ways depending on their motivation, the nature of the course and subject-matter, and a host of other variables. Claxton (1996) suggests that in each class, students make a "cost/benefit analysis" of the best way to approach it. If such choices are made on a situational basis, they are relatively easy to change and there is little reason for teachers to get hung up about them.

However, there is some evidence that this view is a little too sanguine. Surface approaches to learning may be "merely" habitual, but established habits are not that easy to change, particularly if they have "worked" so far. For most students, learning has been their career so far; John Holt suggests that "pleasing the teacher" is a strategy which many pupils adopt in primary/elementary school. For some, college or university study may be a chance to throw off the shackles of school learning and to engage with what they are really interested in; but many are still focused on the:

get to university —> get a good degree  —> get a good job  —> earn a lot of money  —> live happily ever after

process. They are not going to jeopardise that by taking risks; you as teachers may say that deep engagement with the subject will pay off. That's all very well, but can you teachers be trusted?

See "Resistance to Learning" on this site, and relate it to students' established survival strategies.


The major source on this topic must be:

And later, in 2005, the following report from the Demos thinktank made similar points:

(No apologies for repeating this material! The sooner teachers are liberated from the thrall of this notion the better.)

Update 2008-2013

"The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated."
[Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D and Bjork R (2008) "Learning Styles; concepts and evidence" Psychological Science in the Public Interest vol. 9 no.3; available on-line at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf accessed 21 December 2009]

There is an excellent balanced chapter on "neuromyths" from a recent book by the co-ordinator of the Neuroeducational.net site (Howard-Jones P (2009) Introducing Neuroeducational Research London; Routledge). It's not as entertaining as Ben Goldacre's Bad Science but more comprehensive and informative, covering:

  • Multiple intelligences, 
  • Learning styles, 
  • Enriched environments,
  • Brain gym,
  • Water, or "hydration"
  • Omega-3,
  • Sugary snacks and drinks.

—and even a sympathetic discussion about why there are (so many) neuromyths in education—and how to spot one.  (The site was also recommended by Tony Fisher—many thanks. The chapter used to be available as a pdf file for download, but it has disappeared from its original location; if anyone knows where I can find it please get in touch.)

And here is a useful seven-minute video clearly explaining the problems with the VAK model in particular.

Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners? by Guy W. Wallace (eLearn Magazine, November 2011). The title is interesting; a few years ago, it would have implied that the "research" was pointing clearly in favour of learning styles--but read the article and you will see that it argues in exactly the opposite direction.

In the academic arena, the British Journal of Educational Psychology has a special section on recent developments, introduced here. A distinction very similar to that made on this page now has its own acronym! SAP (Styles, Approaches, and Patterns in/of learning) (12 June 2013)

Up-dated 12 June 13

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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