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. To appreciate Learning Styles Theories are related to Cognitive Styles Theories, it is useful to be aware of how “learning processes” are understood within Brain-as-Computer Discourses:
  • Learning Processes – founded on a brain-as-computer metaphor, actions of inputting and storing of information. Within this frame, such events are distinguished from Cognitive Processes – that is, mind-based actions and events that are associated with the manipulation of information, such as combining ideas or extrapolating from data.
Learning Styles Theories also overlap with Cognitive Styles Theories and the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability on matters such as personal preferences and dispositions. The list goes on, but by far the most commonly invoked types are:
  • Auditory Learner – someone who’s imagined to take in information most effectively through the ears
  • Perceptual Style – one’s typical habits of selecting and interpreting sensory stimuli from the sea of perceptual possibilities
  • Tactile Learner (Kinaesthetic Learner; Hands-On Learner) – someone who’s imagined to take in information most effectively by touching and doing
  • Visual Learner – someone who’s imagined to take in information most effectively through the eyes
Looking more broadly, 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
  • Edmunds Learning Style Identification Exercise (A.L. Edmunds, 1970s) – four perceptual modalities: imagery, verbalization, sound, affect
  • Field Dependence/Independence (Global/Analytical Functioning) (H.A. Witkin, 1970s) – two styles – field-independence, field-dependence – describing extent to which one is dependent on and/or distracted by one's situation
  • 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
  • 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)
  • Sensory Theory (Sensory Stimulation Theory) (Dugan Laird, 1980s) – a perspective that equates learning to taking in information through the senses, positing that (for adults) 75% of learning is vision-based, 13% is hearing-based, and the 12% is distributed across the other senses
  • Intuition–Analysis Style (J. Allinson & C. Haynes, 1990s) – two styles: intuition, analysis
  • VARK Modalities (N. Fleming & C. Mills, 1990s) – four types: Visual Learner, Aural/Auditory Learner, Reading/Writing Learner, Kinaesthetic/Tactile Learner. Description of  Visual, Aural, and Kinaesthetic Learners are in keeping with the descriptions above. As for the Reading/Writing Learner:
    • Reading/Writing Learner – one who prefers to learn through written words – drawn to, for example, reading articles and books, maintaining a journal, using reference materials such as a dictionary or a thesaurus, and doing extensive internet searches
  • 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
  • Nine Types of Learners (origin unknown, 2010s) – as the title suggests, a list of nine types of learners. Some types appear to be unique to this popular typology, and others are more familiar. The list appears to have no coherent theoretical or sound empirical basis. It comprises:
    • Auditory Learner– someone who learns effectively from what they hear
    • Copy Learner – variously defined: either someone who learns effectively by mimicking another, or variously defined: either someone who learns effectively by rote practice
    • Ease Learner – variously defined: either someone who learns effectively from what puts them at ease, or someone who learns effectively when relaxed
    • Kinaesthetic Learner– someone who learns effectively from what they do
    • Scribble Learner – someone who learns effectively by writing, drawing, and doodling about what they wish to learn
    • Stress Learner – variously defined: either someone who learns effectively from what stresses them, or someone who learns effectively when under stress
    • Teach Learner – someone who learns effectively by teaching others
    • Trust Learner – someone who learns effectively by being told by a trusted authority
    • Visual Learner– someone who learns effectively from what they see

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
  • Auditory Learner
  • Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
  • Copy Learner
  • Ease Learner
  • Edmunds Learning Style Identification
  • Field Dependence/Independence (Global/Analytical Functioning)
  • Grasha-Reichmann Learning Styles Scale
  • Gregorc Styles Delineator
  • Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles
  • Intuition–Analysis Style
  • Inventory of Learning Processes
  • Kinaesthetic Learner
  • Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory
  • Learning Processes
  • Learning Style Profile
  • Learning Styles Inventory
  • Leveller–Sharpener Styles
  • Nine Types of Learners
  • Perceptual Style
  • Reading/Writing Learner
  • Scribble Learner
  • Sensory Theory (Sensory Stimulation Theory)
  • Stress Learner
  • Styles and Strategies of Learning
  • Tactile Learner (Kinaesthetic Learner; Hands-On Learner)
  • Teach Learner
  • Trust Learner
  • VARK Modalities
  • Vermunt’s Inventory of Learning Styles
  • Visual Learner

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Learning Styles Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.


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