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:
- People do learn in distinctively different ways
- it is possible to develop a relatively simple taxonomy of learning styles;
- and then develop test instruments to ascertain individuals' learning styles and;
- teach to address them. (And, moreover, assess the "quality of teaching" with reference to this dubious chain of inference.)
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;
- the distinction between "deep" and "surface" styles of Entwistle, Marton, Saljo, Biggs, Prosser and Trigwell and others, and
- Vermunt's four learning styles. (Vermunt is not well-served on the web; this paper only considers him alongside the people above but gives an idea about him and references.)
...but both of these are principally about learning strategies.
The distinction between styles and strategies is important.
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;
- they are not as clear-cut as the various "inventories" suggest, and
- motivation over-rides them with no contest.
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:
- learning modalities: visual, aural, [reading], kinaesthetic, often referred to as VAK or VARK and also tied up with multiple intelligences theory and accelerated learning.
- the Dunn and Dunn model: 21 (!) elements grouped under five "stimuli". What on earth would you do with that information about 30 students? (Sorry, my personal evaluation crept in there, but I won't delete it.)
- Gregorc's Learning Styles Delineator
- Witkin: field-dependence and independence
- Kolb and Honey & Mumford; but it does depend on how you read Kolb, in particular
- even Pask's holist/serialist distinction (although he was too tight an experimentalist to speculate about the origins of his findings.)
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.
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.
- The major model here is the distinction between "deep" and "surface" learning. The principal variable is motivation; the greater the intrinsic motivation, the more likely the adoption of a deep learning strategy. This of course is the model which comes out best in the Coffield review (given that Vermunt is principally an elaboration of it).
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?
The major source on this topic must be:
- www.itslifejimbutnotasweknowit.org.uk/files/LSRC_LearningStyles.pdf (note that this paper is no longer available from the former Learning and Skills Network site. It is still a free download) formally;
- COFFIELD F, MOSELEY D, HALL E and ECCLESTONE K (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : a systematic and critical review London; Learning and Skills Network. (It was originally called; Should we be using Learning Styles? What research has to say to practice and published by the Learning and Skills Development Agency)
And later, in 2005, the following report from the Demos thinktank made similar points:
- Hargreaves D (chair) (2005) About Learning: Report of the Learning Working Group London; Demos. available on-line at: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/aboutlearning (see particularly pages 10-12.)
(No apologies for repeating this material! The sooner teachers are liberated from the thrall of this notion the better.)
"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]
- Multiple intelligences,
- Learning styles,
- Enriched environments,
- Brain gym,
- Water, or "hydration"
- 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.)
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