Friday, August 29, 2008

Learning styles... again

Clive Shepherd has broached this much visited this subject, and Stephen Downes (among others) has weighed in with his views. My own contribution takes the form of a paper I wrote some time ago, reproduced here verbatim. Apologies - it's a lot longer than my usual offering (it was originally submitted on my MA programme, which required 3000 words give or take 10%):

I am aware that when I state my view on learning styles, I am greeted with consternation that borders on accusations of heresy. Perhaps with this post (an adaptation of a paper I submitted on my MA programme) I can account for myself. I apologise that it is somewhat lengthy, but, if you are at all interested in the topic, I urge you to stick with it to the end. I have also included a list of links and reference in case your curiosity is sufficiently piqued to want to investigate further for yourself (which I hope it is!).

Background - personal stance

I first encountered the Peter Urs Bender personality styles model (original source unknown) in 1990 as a freelance training consultant in South Africa. It had become a popular feature of customer service and management development training programmes, and had been passed from hand to hand so many times that the name and underlying theories had become separated from the model itself. It did not occur to me to question its validity, since it seemed to make sense on an intuitive level. Like many others in my profession, I familiarised myself with the model and its application and jumped on the bandwagon.

I was introduced to the concept of learning styles as a formalised theory when I undertook a City & Guilds Certificate in Further Education Teaching at a further education College in 2000/2001, where it was taught as if it were fact.

The college itself was unswervingly committed to the Dunn and Dunn VAK model (1984), and every new student undertook a test known as QuickScan to identify their preferred learning style. The results were included on every student’s file and tutors were expected to show an awareness of the balance of styles represented in each class. Furthermore, lesson plans and schemes of work had to indicate where provision was being made for each learning style. (Note: at the time of writing, this approach was still in place)

Once again, because I found the material logical and easy to understand, it never occurred to me to question the validity of the theories or the research. I embraced it enthusiastically, to the extent that I developed a resource for my students at the IT learning centre, by means of which they could identify their own learning style and adopt some tactics that would enable them to maximise their learning experience at the centre.

In the intervening years, I have encountered an increasing number of anomalies to both the VAK and Kolb-based models (including Myers-Briggs and Urs Bender). I became concerned at the infallibility which appeared to be imputed to these models, when in fact few people seemed to be a perfect fit on anything more than a superficial level.

It should be known from the outset that my current stance is diametrically opposed to that held up to and somewhat beyond 2001 – although I would be hard pressed to name a single date or incident which marked the reversal.

Situation 1: Cert Ed case studies: deaf student

One of the assignments for the second phase of the C&G certificate involved learning style case studies. Of my four chosen case studies, one was deaf with attendant poor oral communication skills. I was surprised at the time that her QuickScan test showed her to be an auditory learner, and discussed this with the staff member responsible for testing. I was categorically assured that it was impossible for a deaf person to be an auditory learner, since they lack an auditory faculty. The test supervisor ascribed the anomaly to the student’s poor reading skills. It is true to say that, like many deaf people, her reading age was well below her chronological age (Brown and Adams, 1990), however, I was unsatisfied with this explanation, since she had had a reader for the test, who signed the questions to her.

The following is an excerpt from an email exchange between Dr Gemma Calvert[1], and me during July 2007 (Dr Calvert is the Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Bath):

KR: Do deaf people use the same areas of the brain to process sign language as hearing people do to process spoken language?

GC: The answer to the first question is yes, in part. Deaf signing activates some of the same auditory speech areas that hearing people use when listening to speech.

In research conducted by MairĂ©ad MacSweeney, it was found that “the left posterior perisylvian cortex is of fundamental importance to language processing, regardless of the modality in which it is conveyed.” (MacSweeney et al, 2004). If the identification of an individual’s preferred learning style as auditory is an indication of brain area activity rather than of dominance of a sensory organ, this would imply to my (admittedly limited) understanding that a deaf learner is as likely to have an auditory preference as any other learner.

Situation 2: inconsistency of style

By 2001, I had identified myself by means of the QuickScan questionnaire as a primarily kinaesthetic learner, and by means of the various models based upon Kolb’s learning cycle diagram (DeBello 1990) as an activist (Honey and Mumford model – Honey and Mumford, 2000) and an expressive (Peter Urs Bender’s model, year unknown).

Superficially, this would account for my extrovert nature and my tendency to start activities without first taking time to familiarise myself with instructions and constraints. However, this failed to account for the fact that I was able to make perfect sense of the pictorial instructions that came with flatpacks whereas my husband, purportedly a visual learner, was not. Nor did it satisfactorily explain my skill and preference for quietly contemplative, reflective activities such as reading, sudoku and cryptic crossword puzzles.

Niggling doubts

As I see it, the following shortcomings need to be considered:

  1. The very method of test completion immediately disadvantages certain people. For example, is a written test appropriate for a person with severe dyslexia? Even when the services of a scribe are engaged, is there certainty that the introduction of a third party in no way influences the outcome?
  2. The circumstances under which the test is taken may influence the outcome. If the test is taken at the start of what is to be an academic course of study, the learners are likely to be mindful of their approach to classroom based learning as they respond. However, if the test is taken as part of a management development programme, the learners are likely to be mindful of behaviours and habits in the workplace.
  3. A single individual is likely to adopt widely differing approaches to different learning activities – almost certainly within the course of a lifetime, but even possibly within a single day. For example, consider the learning approaches that may be adopted in the following circumstances:
  • Acquiring fluency in a language
  • Learning to drive a car
  • Memorising the highway code
  • Gaining proficiency in the use of a new software application
  • Mastering a new piece of piano music
  • Learning to sing a new song
  • Recognising “what not to wear” as identified in the popular television series of the same name.
As long ago as 1948, Bertram Forer had begun to conduct experiments that cast doubt over the validity of the concepts of learning and personality styles. The Forer effect “is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.” (Wikipedia, 2007). This is closely related to Marks’s theory of subjective validation, which “occurs when two unrelated or even random events are perceived to be related because a belief, expectancy, or hypothesis demands a relationship” (Wikipedia, 2007)

There is not even the convenience of a single ontology when it comes to discussing learning styles. Coffield et al identified no fewer than 71 models (2004), each of which identifies learning styles according to a different set of criteria. Whilst there is commonality and overlap between some models, there is no mapping the VAK model to the MBTI model, for example: a visual learner is no more likely to test as any one of the many possible Myers-Briggs combinations than any other. And again, there is no way of predicting whether an auditory learner is more likely to be an expressive, analytical, driver or amiable on the Urs Bender model.

Into this minefield, the teacher or corporate trainer (referred to collectively as teachers from here on) is often expected to venture by a management totally unaware that their own understanding of the field is not unlike that of the Indian fable about three blind men describing an elephant, each only touching one part of the animal. Teachers appointed to an organisation are presented with the functionality of the organisation’s chosen model, and are thereafter expected to comply with this model, conducting tests few are qualified to conduct and basing their teaching approaches on deductions that few are qualified to make.

In the formal education sector, learning style models have been widely adopted as a top down measure from the state. Some schools are still adhering rigorously to the tenets of the VAK model, in spite of the fact that (to my firsthand knowledge) the National Strategies have been instructed by the DCFS to withdraw all their learning materials on the subject. This was as a consequence of a report called About Learning submitted In June 2004 by the Demos think tank to Schools Standards Minister David Milliband. The report declared learning style models to be of “doubtful reliability and validity”, pointing to a lack of evidence that teaching practice was in any way improved by their use – even suggesting, in fact, that the converse was true.

They know not that they know not

The level of commitment to the model of choice in various organisations appears, in some cases, to have reached almost mindless proportions. Witness the following accounts:
  1. A recruitment advertisement listed as ‘essential’ the ability to deliver learning which engaged “all four learning styles”. When I enquired about the learning styles model being applied, it became clear that there was an underlying assumption that there was only a handful of models to choose from and that “everyone knew” that MBTI was accepted as the industry standard. It also became clear that the model being referred to as MBTI was, in fact, Honey and Mumford’s model.
  2. Holly Lodge Girls’ School in Liverpool has introduced a colour coded system which identifies learners’ according to their learning styles (DfES website August 2007).
  3. A fellow student on my MA programme indicated that tests had been conducted at his school using one of the Kolb-inspired quadrant models. Results showed that the largest proportion of children in the school belonged to one quadrant, while success within the current assessment system had been identified as being largely the province of children belonging to the diametrically opposed quadrant. The head teacher instructed teachers to find means of converting children from one learning style to the other.

Where teachers are expected to draw up lesson plans that cater to each of the styles of their organisations chosen models, they are at risk of building up expectations of which learners will engage with which activities. It is undeniably useful that teachers are encouraged to plan lessons with a wide range of activities, rather than the monomodal “chalk and talk” approach of years gone by. It is indubitably true that learners are more engaged with the learning in such instances. However, one wonders whether it is it not just as likely that the learners are able to remain interested due to the changing “scenery” in the form of media and delivery mechanisms rather than because a particular learning style is being addressed.

The subject of learning styles crops up in repeated debates in the edublogosphere. In Educause Connect in June 2008, Catherine Howell opines that “what they actually offer is less than a theory of learning than a caricature of learners”. Her contention is that “researchers can’t agree on “what” learning is (neurophysical? social? psychological?), second because they can’t even agree “where” it occurs (in the teacher-student relationship? in the classroom? in the student’s head?).”

In his “x28’s new blog”, Matthias Melcher reflects on his abortive attempts to find recent online resources about cognitive styles, and observes that online aggregator searches are conducted mainly by non-English speaking countries, where the concept still appears to have more currency (5 July 2006). Since his profile includes links to his own results from a variety of such tests, one assumes that he sets enough store by this information to regard it as meaningful to his readers. This is borne out by the opening sentence of a later post on the same blog (the emphasis is his): “C. Quinn and H. Jarche have one word on learning styles: “rubbish”. I do not agree.” (2 July 2007). Sadly, he has not provided a link to the offending posts by the two authors. In his view the fault lies in that adherents of learning style theories tend to overload the concept with the classification of personality styles in addition to cognitive styles of learning and, moreover, fail to distinguish between styles and abilities. In his view “as long as style is confused with ability, teachers and researchers won’t admit to themselves that they also belong to one or another style, or they will take it for granted that they belong to the “superior” one”. (Melcher, 2007)

I have not found any evidence of one style being put forward as superior to another in any model.

Donald Clark – admittedly a well-known iconoclast, and something of a sensationalist in the edublogosphere – describes an instance where he “presented the Coffield research on learning styles at a coaching conference” after which he “received an abusive email from Peter Honey (who was in the audience)”. Allegedly, at some point during an exchange of emails between the two parties Honey “did admit, however, that there was no scientific evidence to back up his theory – the famous Honey and Mumford model.” (Clark, 2007)

I think I could do no better than to end with an (unfortunately lengthy) extract from James Atherton’s Heterodoxy blog, in a post unequivocally called Learning Styles Don’t Matter (2007) in which he describes the members of a class:

In this class there is a serialist pragmatist kinaesthetic learner (who is also field-dependent, not to mention his MBTI) primarily a convergent thinker, high on logico-mathematical intelligence but low on linguistic intelligence, sitting next to a holist, reflector, primarily visual and field-independent... who is also chronically shy (no-one mentions that). Even assuming that such things can be assessed with some validity and reliability, which is itself far from clear — what are you going to do about it? There are after all thirty other students in the class, each of whom could be described in similar terms. And two-thirds of them are female, and one-third male (two of whom are gay). Five of the class are from ethnic minorities, two are dyslexic, one is visually impaired, and three are clinically depressed (although only one of them knows it). Six are "mature" students — at least, they are chronologically over 25.

In other words, a fairly typical class, composed of people. (One of them has his Yorkshire terrier in a holdall, but perhaps we can ignore that.) You, of course are...


Atherton, J S (2002) Heterodoxy: Learning styles don't matter [On-line] UK; Available: Accessed: 2 July 2007

Bender, Peter Urs (1997) Leadership from Within. Stoddart. ISBN 0773759034. Questionnaire originally undertaken (source unknown) 1990 – extract reviewed online at 29 September 2007.

Bishop, D. V. M. and Adams, C. (1990) A Prospective Study of the Relationship between Specific Language Impairment, Phonological Disorders and Reading Retardation Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 31 (7), 1027–1050. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1990.tb00844.x

Clark, Donald (2007) Professor pans ‘learning style’ teaching in Donald Clark Plan B 12 August 2007. Published online at Accessed 15 August 2007.

Coffield, F.; Moseley, D.; Hall, E.; Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning. Learning and Skills Research Centre.

DeBello, T.C. (1990) Comparisons of Eleven Major Learning Styles Models Journal of Reading, Writing and Learning Disabilities, 6:203-222. Accessed online at 4 July 2007.

Demos think tank (2004) About Learning. Published by Demos. June 2004. Accessed online at on 15 August 2008.

DfES (DCFS) website (2007) Case study: Holly Lodge Girls’ School accessed online at on 15 August 2007.

Dunn, R., Dunn, K., & Price, G. E. (1984). Learning style inventory. Lawrence, KS, USA: Price Systems in Wikipedia accessed 29 September 2007 and Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning (2004) Coffield et al.

Forer, Bertram R. (1949) The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 44: 118-123. In Wikipedia ( last accessed 29 September 2007

Honey, Peter and Mumford, Alan (2000) Learning Styles Questionnaire (80-Item). ISBN 1 902899 07 5.

Howell, Catherine (2005) Do learner profiles enhance learning? In Educause Connect 8 July 2005. Accessed online at 2 July 2007.

MacSweeney, Mairéad et al (2004). Dissociating Linguistic and Nonlinguistic Gestural Communication in the Brain. NueroImage 22 (2004) pp 1605-1618.

Marks, David F. (2000) The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books ISBN 1573927988. In Wikipedia ( last accessed 29 September 2007.

Martin, Isabel (date unknown) Helping Students to Learn More Effectively accessed online at 29 September 2007

Melcher, Mathias (2006) Cognitive Style Theories in x28’s new blog. Online at Accessed 2 July 2007.

Melcher, Mathias (2007) Learning Styles called Rubbish in x28’s new blog. Online at Accessed 2 July 2007.

[1]My thanks go to Professor John Geake for putting me in touch with Dr Calvert


Patrick J. Payne said...

I have to agree that the almost sacred place that "learning styles" holds in the universe of Adult Education is undeserved and unsupported by any research I have been able to find. The reasonableness of the idea is a comfortable trap but doesn't hold any more water than the old saw about "people retain 10% of what they hear....yada yada" The Emperor has no clothes.

LearningAnorak said...

My own view is that at any one moment, there are something over 6 billion 'learning styles' in operation around the world, and that these change from moment to moment as people move from one task to another.

The only 'learning style' model that stood up under scrutiny from Coffield et al was Entwistle's, and I don't really look on that as a description of learning styles - more as a description of learning approaches which may endure for only a moment at a time.

Frances Bell said...

Have you seen this review?
It's very long but worth a read by those proposing use of research into learning styles. Authors say
"This report has sought to sift the wheat from the chaff among the leading models and inventories of learning styles and among their implications for pedagogy: we have based our conclusions on the evidence, on reasoned argument and on healthy scepticism. For 16 months, we immersed ourselves in the world of learning styles and learned to respect the enthusiasm and the dedication of those theorists, test developers and ractitioners who are working to improve the quality of teaching and learning."
Table 44 (and its surrounding justification) on p139 is definitely worth a look.

LearningAnorak said...

@frances That document is listed among my references and was a significant catalyst for the paper. Kathryn Eccelston is one of my profs and she came to talk to us about the paper. I found it very hard not to stand up and cheer. I had thought I was alone in my doubts!