Learning styles

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Learning styles are different ways that a person can learn. It's commonly believed that most people favor some particular method of interacting with, taking in, and processing stimuli or information. Psychologists have proposed several complementary taxonomies of learning styles. But neuroscientists have doubts about the scientific basis for some learning style theories and a major report published in 2004 cast doubt on most of the main tests used to identify an individual's learning style.


Learning Styles Models

The following instruments represent 13 major approaches to learning styles.

  • Allinson and Hayes’ Cognitive Styles Index (CSI)
  • Apter’s Motivational Style Profile (MSP)
  • Dunn and Dunn model and instruments of learning styles
  • Entwistle’s Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students (ASSIST)
  • Gregorc’s Mind Styles Model and Style Delineator (GSD)
  • Herrmann’s Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI)
  • Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ)
  • Jackson’s Learning Styles Profiler (LSP)
  • Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI)
  • Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
  • Riding’s Cognitive Styles Analysis (CSA)
  • Sternberg’s Thinking Styles Inventory (TSI)
  • Vermunt’s Inventory of Learning Styles (ILS).

Next to these 13 instruments, at least 58 other instruments have been developped.

Visual, Aural, Kinesthetic (VAK and VARK)

Although the theorists may disagree on the vocabulary to describe the four basic types of learning style, the following are representative categories:

  • visual (learn by seeing)
  • aural or audial (learn by hearing)
  • reading/writing (learn by processing text) (This category is not always listed.)
  • kinesthetic or practical (learn by doing).

Multi-modal learners are people who have more than one strong learning style.

VARK Assessments

Learning styles can be determined using tools like social psychologist David A. Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory (1974, 1985), Neil Fleming's VARK Learning Style Test, or the NLP meta programs based iWAM questionnaire, among others.

Discussion of Other Models

Aiming to explain why aptitude tests, school grades, and classroom performance often fail to identify real ability, Robert J. Sternberg listed various cognitive dimensions in his book Thinking Styles (1997). Several other models are also often used when researching learning styles. This includes the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Model and the DiSC assessment (Carlson Learning). Individual differences in learning can be determined using the [Learning Orientation Questionnaire] at http://www.trainingplace.com/loq.


A literature review [1] carried out in 2004 in the UK by a team from Newcastle University identified 71 different theories of learning style.

The researchers, led by Prof. Frank Coffield (now at London's Institute of Education), selected 13 of the most influential models for closer study (including most of the models cited on this page). To ensure consistency they applied the same criteria to each: examining theoretical origins, definition of terms, the instrument itself, the claims made by the author(s), external studies of these claims and independent empirical evidence of impact on teaching and learning.

One of the most popular is the learning styles theory advanced by American researchers Rita and Ken Dunn. The Dunn's model is often referred to as the VAK approach, because it focuses on visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles. But others researchers also use VAK.

The Newcastle team's conclusions about the Dunn's model were unequivocal.

"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."

Another model, Gregorc's Style Delineator (GSD), was found to be "theoretically and psychometrically flawed" and "not suitable for the assessment of individuals."

Coffield's team found that none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research; 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'.

The Newcastle team are not alone in their judgement. Demos, a UK think tank, published a report [2] on learning styles in early 2005. The report was prepared by a group chaired by Exeter University's David Hargreaves; contributing academics 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".

The often-quoted statistic that we remember '10% of what we hear, 20% of what we read, 30% of what we see...' is probably fictional. [3]

John Geake is 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.

"We need to take extreme care when moving from the lab to the classroom," he told The Guardian [4] earlier this year. "We do remember things visually and aurally, but information isn't defined by how it was received."

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