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The critics of learning styles research

-Lynn Vos (2017) (Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

A review of Coffield, F., Mosely, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic review, London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Learning styles research continues to be popular in marketing pedagogical studies. In a review of one well-known educational journal (The Journal of Marketing Education), over 60 articles published in the past 8 years have investigated learning styles models and their role in marketing teaching and learning.

While not all of the articles have been supportive of learning styles research (eg: Karn, 2006), many have been. Perhaps if some of these researchers had read the 2004, 182 page review of the learning styles literature by Coffield, Mosely, Hall and Ecclestone, they may have paused for thought.

The authors of “Learning styles and Pedagogy in post-16 learning” investigated 71 learning models before undertaking a comprehensive critical review of 13 of the most influential, including Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, the Dunn and Dunn model, and Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire in order to assess authors’ claims for reliability and validity, and the claims made for their pedagogical implications. They conclude that “there are real dangers in commending detailed strategies to practitioners, because the theories and instruments are not equally useful and because there is no consensus about the recommendations for practice. There is a need to be highly selective” (pg. 127)

After providing a detailed description of each of the 13 learning style approaches or models, the study investigates both the creator’s claims about the value of their approach and studies of reliability and validity undertaken by others. Their purpose is to point out any claims that cannot be supported about the potential for many approaches to improve the learning outcomes for students or to enhance their engagement with learning.

The authors of this study are not immune from a measure of acerbity in their analysis. In describing the conclusion that one learning styles creator made about his own field of research, the authors point out an incongruity:

Sternberg concluded (2001, 250) as follows: ‘The result is a kind of balkanisation of research groups, and balkanisation has always led to division and, arguably, death by a thousand cuts’. It is also arguable that Sternberg has himself contributed to such balkanisation and that the answer to his own question – do we need another theory of learning styles? – is probably best answered in the negative.” (pg.116)

In addition to pointing out the weaknesses and, in some cases the value of different learning styles approaches, Coffield et al. (2004) provide readers with a better understanding of the wide spectrum of theoretical and practical

positions that makes up this field of research. They identify five main ‘families’ or schools of thought within the research, ranging from those that claim that learning styles are quite fixed in the individual (e.g.Dunn & Dunn), to those that can better be described as learning approaches, strategies, orientations or conceptions of learning (e.g. Biggs) (see Figure 4, page 10). Great variation exists amongst these schools of thought not only in terms of their purpose (some are mainly theoretical and others purely commercial) but also in terms of their views on how students learn and how the research should be applied in the classroom.

The idea that students have different learning styles or different approaches to learning is compelling to teachers and researchers. We are all seeking to understand the clearly multi-faceted nature of learning and learning styles research does offer a window into this complex and often inscrutable process. What more recent studies from cognitive psychology have shown is that people do indeed have a preference for learning in a particular way (e.g. more visual vs. more auditory) but that they actually learn better when they move beyond their preferences and are exposed to multimodal approaches (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008)*. It is likely, therefore, that as the emerging sub-disciplines of psychology and neuroscience offer new clues and understandings of cognition and how people learn, we may look back on learning styles research as having provided useful, if often flawed, theoretical and conceptual foundations.

In the meantime we may proceed with caution in the minefield of learning styles research and its applicability to our teaching. In this scholarly and prodigious critical study, the authors ask us to at least be aware of the critiques and criticisms of the various learning styles instruments and to use them selectively. Rather than use them to categorise learners and to tailor our teaching, they suggest we use them

as a tool to encourage self-development [in students], not only by diagnosing how people [may] learn, but by showing them how to enhance their learning. As Garner (2000) has argued, self-development is more likely to result from increasing learners’ knowledge of the relative advantages and weaknesses of different models, than from learners being assigned a particular learning style.” (pg. 132)

* Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008) “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 106–119.

-Lynn Vos

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