Learning Styles Theories

Focus

Differences among how learners learn

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … retention of information
  • Learner is … an information processor (individual-in-context)
  • Learning is … taking in information
  • Teaching is … formatting information (to facilitate inputting)

Originated

1950s

Synopsis

Learning Styles Theories comprise several discourses that cluster around efforts to identify different ways that individuals take in information. The most popular versions focus on diverse perceptual preferences (e.g., hearing versus seeing), modes of engagement (e.g., active doing versus passive watching), and format of information (e.g., concrete versus abstract), but the spectra vary across such concerns as social structures, affective settings, and time of day. Learning Styles Theories also overlap with Cognitive Styles Theories and Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories on matters such as personal preferences and dispositions. The list goes on. Some of the more prominent foci, tools, and theories (sequenced chronologically by decade) include:
  • Leveller–Sharpener Styles (P.S. Holzman & G.S. Klein, 1950s) – two styles: leveller, sharpener
  • Approaches to Study Inventory (N.J. Entwistle, 1970s) – four modes of orientation: meaning, reproduction, achieving, holistic
  • Dual Coding Theory (A. Paivio, 1970s) – two styles: verbalizer, visualizer, associated with “Dual Processes” of verbal and non-verbal
  • Edmunds Learning Style Identification Exercise (A.L. Edmunds, 1970s) – four perceptual modalities: imagery, verbalization, sound, affect
  • Field Dependence/Independence (H.A. Witkin, 1970s) – two styles: field-independence, field-dependence
  • Grasha-Reichmann Learning Style Scale (A. Grasha & S. Riechmann, 1970s) – scale to assess learner attitudes and approaches distinguishing between adaptive styles (participative, collaborative, independent) and nonadaptive styles (avoidant, competitive, dependent).
  • Gregorc Styles Delineator (Mind Styles; A.R. Gregorc, 1970s) – four behaviors: abstract concrete, random, sequential
  • Inventory of Learning Processes (R.R. Schmeck, 1970s) – four styles: synthesis–analysis, elaborative processing, fact retention, study methods
  • Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory (Experience Learning Model; D.A. Kolb, 1970s) – four styles: accommodating, diverging, converging, assimilating
  • Modes of Learning (D. Rumelhart & D. Norman, 1970s) – three modes of learning: accretion (adding new knowledge), structuring (forming new conceptual structures), tuning (adapting established knowledge to a specific task)
  • Styles and Strategies of Learning (G. Pask, 1970s) – three styles: holist, serialist, and (optimally) versatile
  • Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (R. Mayer, 1990s) – a perspective on multimedia learning based on two channels for inputting information (auditory, visual) and multiple processing strategies (inc. filtering, selecting, organizing, integrating)
  • Learning Style Profile (J.W. Keefe & J.S. Monk, 1980s) – three areas that define style: cognitive skills, perceptual responses, study and instructional preferences
  • Learning Styles Inventory (R. Dunn, K. Dunn, & G.E. Price, 1980s) – five clusters of factors: environmental (light, sound, temperature, design), emotional (structure, persistence, motivation, responsibility), sociological (pairs, peers, adults, self, group), physical (auditory, visual, tactile, kinaesthetic, mobility, intake, time of day), psychological (global-analytic, impulsive-reflective, cerebral)
  • Intuition–Analysis Style (J. Allinson & C. Haynes, 1990s) – two styles: intuition, analysis
  • VARK Modalities (N. Fleming & C. Mills, 1990s) – four sensory modalities: visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic
  • Vermunt’s Inventory of Learning Styles (J.D.H.M. Vermunt, 1990s) – four styles: undirected, reproduction, application directed, meaning directed
  • Honey and Mumford’s Learning Style Questionnaire (Peter Honey, Alan Mumford, 2000s) – adaptation of Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, aligned with four learning styles: activist, reflector, theorist, pragmatist

Commentary

Learning Styles Theories are among the best illustrations of how difficult it can be to be mindful of one’s own beliefs about knowledge, learning, and teaching. Popularly regarded as theories of learning, they in fact do not interrogate their own naïve assumptions on these phenomena; rather, they ride atop Folk Theories in which learning in almost every case uncritically characterized as either something from the outside that needs to work its way inward (i.e., Acquisition Metaphor) or in terms of information processing (i.e., Brain-as-Computer Discourses). And so, Learning Styles Theories do the opposite of challenging beliefs or offering new insights, instead fragmenting humans’ complexly integrated perceptual systems into discrete entry portals for information. Small wonder that decades of research have generated limited support. Quite the opposite, in fact, embracing categories and labels may be have negative consequences as learners are prompted to take on limiting self-descriptions and teachers are triggered to assume constrained abilities.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

David Kolb

Status as a Theory of Learning

Learning Styles Theories are focused on delineating differences among individuals, rather than being concerned with better understanding the phenomenon of learning – and thus, for the most part, varied perspectives maintain uninterrogated and unscientific assumptions about the complex dynamics of learning. That is, while most Learning Styles Theories might be self-labeled as theories of learning, they fall into the category of Folk Theories.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

In the formal-education community, Learning Styles Theories and Cognitive Styles Theories have been most broadly and enthusiastically embraced among those directly responsible for providing in-service experiences for teachers. Thus, while it is rare to encounter a session on Learning Styles Theories or Cognitive Styles Theories in an educational research conference, such sessions are commonplace at teachers’ conventions. From that observation, combined with the recognition that these theories rarely interrogate the actual dynamics of learning, it seems reasonable to assume that they are for the most part better categorized as theories of teaching – and unsubstantiated ones at that.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Learning Styles Theories do not meet the requirements of scientific theories. While many claim rigorous methodological approaches and substantial evidence bases, decades of effort to generate empirical evidence to show their utility for improving learning have come up short.

Subdiscourses:

  • Approaches to Study Inventory
  • Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
  • Dual Coding Theory
  • Edmunds Learning Style Identification
  • Field Dependence/Independence
  • Grasha-Reichmann Learning Styles Scale
  • Gregorc Styles Delineator
  • Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles
  • Intuition–Analysis Style
  • Inventory of Learning Processes
  • Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory
  • Learning Style Profile
  • Learning Styles Inventory
  • Leveller–Sharpener Styles
  • Modes of Learning
  • Styles and Strategies of Learning
  • VARK Modalities
  • Vermunt’s Inventory of Learning Styles

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Learning Styles Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.


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