Learning styles theory originated in the 1970’s and is based around the idea that people have preferences about how they like to learn. Theorists believe that each individual has a particular learning style that is best suited to them and allows them to collect and process information successfully in order to learn. The principle idea is that these learning style differ from one individual to the next and theorists argue that school teachers should incorporate these learning styles into their lessons so that student is catered for and everyone can learn effectively. Many educationalists believe that differences in learning styles are responsible for some student difficulties, for example, if a student is taught in a style they do not prefer they may not learn as successfully as those students being taught in their preferred style.
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David Kolb is one of the main researchers who studied learning strategies and processes and put forward his idea of experimental learning. Kolb stated that; “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (David A Kolb, 1984) Kolb’s experimental learning model draws on the ‘Lewin Cycle of Adult learning’ and proposes that there are four stages which follow on from each other to complete the learning cycle. Kolb’s model suggests that in order for learning to be effective that an individual must include the four stages; Concrete Experience, Abstract Conceptualization, Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation, in their learning process. He believed that this would result in the individual finding that they had strengths and weaknesses in particular stages and their preferred learning style derived from this. Kolb stated that there are four instrumental learning styles which follow on from the four previous stages, these are; the diverging learning style, the assimilating, the converging and the accommodating learning styles. Kolb’s theory was generally widely accepted however recent critics have found it unreliable. Two management development specialists named Peter Honey and Alan Mumford further developed Kolb’s theory and created a questionnaire designed to find out a person’s preferred learning style. The questionnaire asks a series of questions which help the individual to identify their preferred learning habits.
The answers to these questions are scored and the person then falls into one of four categories which is the learning style best suited to them based on the answers they have given. Honey and Mumford put forward four main learning styles; Reflectors, theorists, pragmatists and activists, each with their own characteristics. Reflectors prefer to learn through activities which allow them to observe, think and review situations. They like to collect data and mind map. Theorists prefer to think problems through step by step using lectures, systems, case studies etc. Quite often they are perfectionists. Pragmatists enjoy applying new ideas and techniques to actual practise to test their use. They prefer learning through lab work, field work and observations rather than lectures or lengthy discussions. They are practical and like concepts which can be applied to their own jobs. Activists enjoy new things and like challenges. They prefer to learn through activities role-playing, problem solving and small group discussions. They are unlikely to prepare for their learning or to review it afterwards.
This was Honey and Mumford’s interpretation of learning styles theory however other theorists have different opinions. Neil Fleming’s VAK model of learning styles is one of the most popular interpretations. Fleming developed an inventory designed to help students learn more about their individual learning preferences. Fleming’s VAK model identified three learning styles; Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic. According to this theory most people have a preferred learning style however some people may prefer to learn using a mixture of all three styles. As with the previous theories each style within the VAK model has individual characteristics based on their learning preferences. Visual learners learn best through seeing. They think in pictures and have intense mental images. They like to learn using maps, charts, pictures or videos. They tend to have visual skills in activities such as reading, writing, puzzle building, interpreting charts and graphs, and painting and have a good sense of direction. Auditory learners like to learn through listening. They tend to think in words rather than pictures and learn best through lectures, discussions, talking things through and hearing other people’s opinions.
Auditory learners tend to have highly developed auditory skills and are generally good at speaking and presenting. They demonstrate these skills through speaking, listening, storytelling, explaining, understanding the syntax and meaning of words, remembering information and analysing language usage. Kinaesthetic learners learn best through moving, touching and doing. They find it hard to sit still for long periods of time although they have a good sense of balance and hand-eye co-ordination. They process and learn information through interacting with objects and materials. They demonstrate their kinaesthetic skills via physical co-ordination, athletic ability and hands on experimentation, body language, acting and building. A classroom is a good environment in which to put the learning styles theory into practise as there are a number of students in one place each with individual preferences on how they like to learn. There are various methods and activities for each learning style that can be used to help the student learn effectively in a way that is suited to their particular preference. For example, when tailoring a lesson to suit a visual learner graphics could be used to reinforce learning. Colour coding could be used to organise class note and highlight key points in the text. Encouraging the student to take notes would also help to embed the learning. Visual learners may also find it useful to illustrate ideas and use flow charts and diagrams when note taking.
To cater for an auditory learner during a lesson it would be useful to put across ideas or points by reading them aloud to the class or by getting a student to read out passages etc. to the rest of the group. The teacher may also want to read out significant information which they want to be remembered. Verbal analogies and storytelling could also be used to further emphasize issues and points. The use of tunes and rhymes as mnemonic devices would also be helpful to auditory learners. For kinaesthetic learners to learn successfully they could be encouraged to make models or role-play in relation to the lesson in order to physically experience their learning. The student could translate the information they are being taught into diagrams, flow charts etc. in order to help them learn and remember the lesson more successfully or they could count out a list of items to be recalled on their fingers. Kinaesthetic learners should also be urged to skim through material for key points before reading it in detail. As kinaesthetic learners enjoy learning through movement they could be asked to memorize information whilst performing a physical task, for example, whilst running on the spot or hopping on one foot.
All of these techniques could be used to help a student develop their visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning strengths. The same principles could also be applied to the learning styles from the other models in the learning styles theory. To put this theory into practise I have chosen a subject and a topic from within that subject to teach to a group of my fellow students. I have chosen to look at social psychology and from that I am going to teach the topic of Conformity. I will deliver the lesson using various methods and techniques to cater for the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners in the group. The topic of conformity can be broken down and taught accordingly to each of the three styles. To deliver the lesson to the visual learners in the group I plan to teach key terms such as group norms, group pressure and majority influence by writing them and their meanings on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom where they can be clearly seen. I will then ask the student to take down what I have written. I want to teach the students about different research studies that have been conducted on conformity. I will use a projector screen to show a PowerPoint presentation with numerous pictures and graphics detailing the experiments carried out by Sherif (1935) and Asch (1951). To finish my lesson to the visual learners I will show them a documentary film on conformity called ‘The Power of the Situation’. These methods of delivery should help the visual learners of the group to learn to the best of their ability according to the VAK model. To teach conformity to the auditory learners I will again adopt methods which I believe are best suited to their learning preferences.
This time instead of writing the key terms on the whiteboard I will state them verbally and then ask the students to have small group discussions on them where they can listen to each other’s opinions and views. After they have completed this I will ask each group to give me examples of majority influence, group pressure, conformity etc. aloud for all the class to hear. I then plan to move on to teach the research studies, I will give a talk on the studies conducted by Asch and Sherif and encourage the students to ask me questions throughout. To end the lesson I will talk about Kelman (1958) and his views on conformity. I am also going to give the class written notes on Kelman and ask the students to read out different sections of the text to the rest of the group. These techniques should ensure a successful learning experience to the auditory learners in the class. Again I will apply the principles of Fleming’s VAK model to teach the conformity lesson to the kinaesthetic learners of the group. I will teach the key terms by talking about them and asking the students to take notes as I speak. I will then give the students a physical task to test their knowledge of the key terms by asking them to recall the terms and their meanings whilst jumping up and down. I believe this will be effective as kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn using movements. I may also ask them to do various role-plays depicting examples of situations where conformity has occurred. To teach the research studies to this group I will ask them to repeat the studies as closely as possible and record the results they find. To end the lesson to the kinaesthetic group I will ask them to go through their notes and highlight important points and facts.
I believe teaching the topic this way will cover all three styles of the VAK model. Already we can see how the principles of the learning styles theory can be applied in the classroom but the question remains; do learning styles really exist and is it possible and realistic for teachers to teach students in this way? After some research I have found relatively little empirical evidence supporting the theory. On the other hand I have found many arguments which discredit the theory. I am now going to review some of the cases for and against the learning styles theory and try to draw a conclusion. According to the learning styles theory it has the ability to help learners identify their strengths and weaknesses and therefore enable them to develop a more efficient learning process. An extensive literally review of learning styles, cognitive styles, Howard Gardiners multiple intelligences and an information processing model from school psychology was undertaken by Dr Erica Warren and she put forward the idea that there are twelve different learning styles – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, tactile, sequential, simultaneous, reflective, interactive, direct experience, indirect experience and rhythmic melodic learning. Dr Warren claims that there is no right or wrong way to learn and that all learning styles can easily be accommodated in the classroom without having to teach in twelve different ways. She states that some teaching methods are multi-sensory and meet the preferences of all the different types of learners. Although Dr Warren’s argument seems plausible and is well researched again there is little statistical evidence to substantiate it. This is the same case for the rest of the learning styles theories such as Kolb’s and Fleming’s. This may be because results on testing these theories have been largely based upon answers to questionnaires which rely on the participant’s ability to be precise and objective often leading to doubts regarding validity.
Although the reliability of learning styles theory has been discredited to an extent in recent years it is widely acknowledged that people do gather and process information in diverse ways and that a greater understanding of these styles and preferences will help teachers employ a wider range of teaching techniques providing an effective learning experience for most students. Granted this idea may have some logic it is quite unrealistic to teach in a way that caters to all learning styles fully due to time and financial restraints within schooling systems. According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham there is no scientific evidence whatsoever in support of learning style theory. He claims they do not exist. He argues several valid points about the theory claiming that something closely related to the theory is correct but not the actual theory itself. The theory asserts that students learn via methods such as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic etc. but Willingham points out that this is incorrect. However memories are stored this way by the brain. Willingham also claims that it is not possible for an individual to learn exclusively by their preferred style.
For example, a student may prefer to learn through auditory methods but if a teacher is trying to teach shapes it cannot be done via auditory methods as the shapes must be looked to gain a proper sense of them, therefore the student must be able to adopt a variety of different learning styles depending on what is being taught. This suggests that indeed it is not a good idea for teachers to teach relying solely on the learning styles theory. Willingham also talks about a useful experiment used to test out this theory carried out by many people. Two lists of words are given to one visual learner and one auditory learner. First the list is given to the learner via a visual slideshow presentation and then the list is played aloud through a speaker. If the learning styles theory were correct one would assume that the auditory learner would learn best from hearing the words and that the visual learner would learn best from the visual presentation however when put to the test this is not the results that are found. This is because the learners only encode the visual and auditory characteristics to their visual or auditory memory stores without actually attaching meaning to it. Even though learning styles theory may seem logical and correct when studied in depth the fact is that there is very little empirical evidence to substantiate it. Overall it may be construed that although students may prefer to learn in a particular way they are fully capable of learning in other methods without their performance being adversely affected.
Kolb, D. (1984) Experimental Learning: experience as the score of learning and development Kolb, D. (1976) The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, Boston, Ma: McBer
McLeod, S.A. (2010) Kolb – Learning Styles retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/ Mumford, A. (1997) How to manage your learning environment, Peter Honey Publications The Learning Styles Questionnaire: by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, Maidenhead, 2001