Learning styles theory is based on the understanding that differences between individuals' processing capabilities lead to significantly different learning requirements. Learning style theorists argue that these capabilities are fairly fixed, and most of the proponents believe that, in order for individuals to be successful learners, instruction needs to be matched to the individuals' learning preferences. While there is intuitive appeal in the notion that designing instruction to meet individual learning styles leads to improved academic achievement, there is a dearth of evidence to indicate that this concept has any validity. In fact, rather than increasing success in the classroom, research indicates that attempts to match instruction to specific learning styles fails to lead to improvements in student learning. Further, by limiting—rather than expanding— the range of educational approaches provided to learners, the use of learning styles has the potential to increase, rather than alleviate, the difficulties students experience in their learning.
According to Vicki Snider (1990; 1992), learning styles are an outgrowth of the process approaches of the 1960s and 1970s—although the construct is meant to describe differences between learners rather than to identify disorders (e.g., visual or auditory preferences rather than a visual-processing disability). Learning styles based education is also considered to be a form of aptitude-treatment interaction. Aptitude-treatment interactions are meant to identify individuals' distinct characteristics (aptitudes) and match these with specific treatments (for example, instructional approaches) in order to produce statistically improved outcomes (in this case, significantly improved learning).
The learning styles construct also encompasses a range of models, including learning preferences (for example, global versus analytical or visual versus auditory learners), cognitive styles (e.g., field dependence versus field independence or reflective versus impulsive), and personality types (e.g., the Myers-Briggs types). This range of models makes it difficult to develop a consistent definition of learning styles. However, there are two traits that appear to be constant across most descriptions of learning styles. First, learning styles are generally seen as fixed; that is, individuals have certain aptitudes that result from their natural tendencies or predispositions. Second, by matching learners with particular attributes to complementary instructional approaches, it becomes possible to increase their ability to process information.
So, for example, in terms of natural predispositions, field dependent individuals are identified by the difficulty they experience differentiating a particular item, or figure, as distinct from a complex background, or the surrounding field. Field independent individuals, by contrast, can be identified by their ability to readily distinguish between the two. Continuing with this example, field dependent individuals are considered to be social learners who benefit from collaboration and extrinsic motivation, whereas field independent individuals are considered to be independent learners who are intrinsically motivated and work best on their own. The argument continues that, by designing learning opportunities that take into account these innate preferences, it should be possible to improve the learning of both types of students.
According to Ronald Hyman and Barbara Rosoff, in order to be a useful addition to the field of education, there are certain criteria that the learning styles construct would need to meet. First, the concept of learning styles needs to be clearly defined, both to allow ready identification of particular types of learners and to ensure effective communication regarding how best to meet these various learners needs. Next, it is important that accurate and efficient assessment measures be created to enable the easy identification of these distinct learning styles. Finally, there would need to be specific instructional approaches that lead to improved academic achievement when matched to students with a particular learning style (and, following from this, that are ineffective when matched with students who demonstrate alternative learning styles). Unfortunately, despite decades of research, the field of learning styles based education has failed to make significant progress in any of these areas.
Inconsistency of Definitions. There are numerous learning style models (71 according to a major review by Coffield and his colleagues), many of which differ in terms of the attributes their proponents identify as critical to individual differences. In fact, although there is some degree of overlap, the advocates of these various models focus on an extensive array of qualities that they believe to be central to improving academic achievement. For example, some models look at environmental (e.g., temperature and sound), emotional (e.g., motivation and persistence), sociological (e.g., working alone or with others), and physical traits (e.g., time of day and need for mobility). Others consider the dimensions of perception (concrete or abstract) and ordering (sequential or random). Yet others define learners on two independent dimensions, cognitive organization (holistic or analytic) and mental representation (verbal or imagery). Ultimately, the fact that there are so many different models with such disparate views of what constitutes learning styles makes it nearly impossible to develop a cohesive definition upon which the field can build.
Assessing Learning Styles. In terms of the effectiveness of learning styles assessments, there are two ways in which these measures are problematic. The first and more serious issue is that, without a unifying definition of learning styles, it is impossible to develop a cohesive means of evaluating the construct. In other words, given the fragmented nature of the field, it is unclear how valid any assessment measure could be. Despite this problem, assessment measures have been developed for a number of individual models. However, Steven Stahl notes that these are generally considered to have low reliabilities for standardized procedures; for example, when individuals complete a particular evaluation at two different points in time (test-retest), the results are very often inconsistent. There are two possible explanations for this difference; either individuals' learning styles change quite significantly over relatively short periods of time or the assessments themselves fail to measure what they are meant to measure. Either way, the disparity undermines confidence in these assessments.
The Usefulness of Learning Styles. Given the above critique, it is apparent that the concept of learning styles is problematic. In fact, from the late 1970s onward, a number of major literature reviews set out to evaluate the research conducted on learning styles (or its predecessor aptitude-treatment interactions). Each of these reviews independently reached the same conclusion: There is a striking lack of evidence indicating that the matching of learners with particular modes of instruction, whether based on self-reported or observed learning preferences, is an effective means of improving academic achievement.
For example, both Vicki Snider (1992) and Steven Stahl discuss numerous attempts to improve learners' reading ability by matching students who demonstrate particular types of modality preferences with the corresponding form of reading instruction. In these studies, visual or global learners have been taught using either whole word or whole language methods and auditory or analytic learners have been taught using a decoding or phonics-based approach. Results indicated that, despite the attempts to match children to the instructional approach that best complements their learning styles, there was no effect on reading achievement. One reason may be that, rather than possessing a particular learning style, students have different instructional needs at different points in their development.
According to many literacy researchers, early or emergent readers have been shown to benefit from more holistic approaches that emphasize concepts of print, language experience, and phonemic awareness. Once students have established these concepts, a focus on word recognition through phonics or decoding instruction is appropriate. As students develop comfort with the alphabetic principle, another shift occurs, and students consolidate their understanding of letter-sound correspondences and begin to develop their reading fluency. Using the most popular model for reading styles to describe what is occurring during these stages, the same student could be classified as a global or visual learner at the emergent stage, an analytic or auditory learner as the focus shifts to word recognition, and finally a global or visual learner again as the individual starts to develop reading fluency. Rather than arguing that students respond to a single type of instruction, it becomes apparent that what constitutes appropriate instruction changes as learners' needs change.
Another problem that arises with the learning styles construct involves its application to broad cultural classifications. Advocates of this argument propose that students from various ethnic and cultural groups learn in fundamentally different ways from one another and that the education gap that exists between more successful white students and their lower achieving peers from different cultures (e.g., African American, Hispanic, Native American) is the result of culturally incompatible teaching. However, Craig Frisby argues that this contention is based upon several flawed assumptions; these range from the notion discussed above that learning styles and learning styles assessments are valid and reliable to the view that the members of various cultures must be taught in unique ways in order to demonstrate academic success. For example, according to some theorists, students from certain cultures prefer one modality over another and learn best when instruction is matched to those preferences. That is, some students are said to favor a lecture format and prefer having their work laid out in a step-by-step manner (analytic or auditory learners), whereas others are said to learn better when they have the opportunity to derive information though graphics and their material is presented holistically (global or visual learners), and still others are said to need to reinforce what they are learning through physical approaches in order to be successful (kinesthetic or tactile learners).
However, it is likely that students learn best, not as the result of a dominant processing preference being matched to its corresponding instructional approach, but as a result of educators' designing instructional approaches that are appropriate for the learning requirements of a particular situation. So that even auditory learners will develop a deeper understanding of, say, certain scientific concepts when given the opportunity to see a demonstration of that concept, than when they simply hear about that concept through a lecture. Similarly, most visual learners will develop a richer appreciation of a musical score after hearing a recording of it than they would after reading a critique of it. Likewise, although only some learners are classified as kinesthetic learners, it seems unlikely that individuals with other learning styles preferences will become competent at tennis simply by watching other players play the game or by learning about the steps involved in a serve without actually practicing it. Using these examples, it seems reasonable to argue that the modality people prefer has more to do with the nature of a given task than it has to do with individuals from certain cultural backgrounds having a cluster of learning requirements that develop out of a set of predetermined learning preferences.
If learning styles are not the key to improved academic achievement, then what is? There are several educational approaches that can assist all learners, but are especially effective for those learners who are experiencing difficulties in the classroom. First, Vicki Snider (1990) suggests that teachers incorporate instruction that makes use of multiple modalities. Multimodality instruction differs from modality matching in that it incorporates visual, auditory, and tactile processing rather than just relying on one of these elements; such instruction has been shown to be effective with a range of learners, including those who are struggling with a particular curriculum. Second, when students encounter difficulty with their learning, rather than simply re-presenting the information in the same manner, teachers should consider where breakdowns may be occurring and how alternative ways of presenting the information can help students better develop their understanding of the material at hand (e.g., scaffolding, the presentation of additional examples, collaborative discussions).
Finally, instruction in cognitive strategies should be considered in concert with these other instructional methods. Barak Rosenshine defines cognitive strategies as approaches, such as question-generation and summarizing, which help students succeed with complex learning tasks, such as comprehension, problem solving, and writing. What is important about cognitive strategies is that, unlike learning styles, there is a substantial body of research to demonstrate that these approaches lead to greater academic achievement and that this achievement occurs with a range of learners across ages, gender, culture, and socioeconomic background. Perhaps more importantly, each of these three principles can be integrated into any learning environment without relying on the limitations of learning styles or learning styles based education.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.lsda.org.uk/files/PDF/1543.pdf.
Curry, L. (1990). A critique of the research on learning styles. Educational Leadership 48(2), 50–52, 54–56.
Frisby, C. L. (1993). One giant step backward: Myths of black cultural learning styles. School Psychology Review, 22(3), 535–557.
Hyman, R., & Rosoff, B. (1984). Matching learning and teaching styles: The jug and what's in it. Theory into Practice 23(1), 35–43.
Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children 54(3), 228–239.
Rosenshine, B. Advances in research on instruction. (1997). In J.W. Lloyd, E. J. Kameanui, & D. Chard (Eds.), Issues in educating students with disabilities (pp. 197–221). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Stahl, S. A. (1999). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/fall99/ DiffStrokes.pdf.
Snider, V. E. (1990). What we know about learning styles from research in special education. Educational Leadership 48(2), 53.
Snider, V. E. (1992). Learning styles and learning to read: A critique. Remedial and Special Education 13(1), 6–18.
- Coats and Car Seats: A Lethal Combination?
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- Child Development Theories
- GED Math Practice Test 1
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Social Cognitive Theory
- Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development
- The Homework Debate
- Problems With Standardized Testing